Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Sustainability and some final thoughts

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

In the end, politics, economics and perhaps even environmentalism are practical matters dressed up as intellectual theory, following on from my previous blog on the theory behind sustainability.

Economics is good at analysing what happens at the point when things of value are exchanged, but is not much good at anything else.  Real economics cannot tell you how to sustain you or your family.  For example, were you have a budget of £100 to spend on your weekly shop, it cannot tell you what is the best way to spend that money on in terms of your health, or taste or what you have in your cupboards or what takes your fancy as you walk around the store.  It cannot tell you why you prefer one brand over another or why we buy olive oil from one country of origin over another, because none of us really make rational decisions based on utility, however neat a theory.  In fact, many of our decisions are decidedly irrational – for example, it is cheaper and quite easy to cook meals from scratch yet we buy, for example, fish pie or pancakes ready-made rather than make them ourselves.  A rational economist might say that we do this because we can use our labour or time more effectively elsewhere, but how many actually do redeploy that small amount of money or time rationally to optimise their wage earning potential – very few, methinks.

For me, I think the best way to think about sustainability is to think of families rather than economics, or at least money economics.  To keep a family going into the future, you first need to have children, which is rarely an economic decision, because under most cost-benefit analyses there is no rational economic justification in having children, but our desire to continue and sustain our genes into the future simply overrides and ignores any financial considerations.  Then you need to consider how you equip your children to sustain themselves in the future and the key things are to give them the capabilities to navigate their way through their own futures, with all its ups and downs, twists and turns.  So we educate them formally to enable them to open up their minds and get employment, and informally we teach them a moral code of what is good and bad and that hard work, honesty, fairness and good manners will get them pretty much anything they desire in time, or at least laziness, dishonesty, unfairness and bad manners will not get you far in life.  We might try and give them some seed capital to buy a home, but they may not get much financial support until they themselves have had a family and we can bequeath them something after death.  Finally, throughout all of this we nurture and love them as best we can.  And so it is in real life with economic sustainability, we must focus on the means of giving people the capabilities to navigate future generations through future uncertainties rather than get bogged down with numbers, which are but meaningless figures on a page or spreadsheet – one can create almost any set of numbers or scenarios that you desire to justify any position you want but to what useful end.

But while Governments, quangoes and international bodies like the World Bank or the United Nations can help with this in certain areas, they are not the best placed to act as custodians of economic sustainability.  Firstly, they have no long term perspective as their terms of office are short and their times of influence are probably even shorter.  Secondly, Governments are remarkably bad custodians of peoples’ money, even as they need that money as it is their lifeblood.  They tax and spend with impunity because they are dealing with other peoples’ money rather than their own.  Milton Friedman perhaps explained this best as he wrote in his book “Free To Choose” – “There are four ways in which you can spend money.  You can spend your own money on yourself.  When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.  Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone.  Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.  Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself.  And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch!  Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.   And that’s government.  And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”

These capacities of Government to tax and spend are the root of their power and without this ability to take and then distribute with seeming largesse, Governments are nothing.  Hence, sustainability becomes another self-justification for why Governments must tax and spend, even though individuals and private collectives may be better at optimising humankind’s response to sustainability.  This takes the environment out of sustainability and it simply becomes a matter of power and control over capital.  For me, economics and environmentalism are different ways of looking at resource allocation, where money has been hugely successful at getting people to organise themselves to do things they do not want to do for a cash reward and also to exploit the natural capital resources (but note per my previous blog that money does not buy happinness or well-being beyond $10,000, while people will do charity and community projects for little or no finacial reward).  Conversely, environmentalism explains that there are limits to the natural capital available and we must all be mindful of this.  They are different, but overlap where the externalities from the economy degrade nature and where natural capital is available for exploitation.  However, they are not the same thing and do not overlap at all times.  Hence, they are different ways of looking at the world we live in, and we must be careful in merging them together.

So we must keep sustainability away from economists, Governments and politicians and per Ostrom focus on personal and community selflessness over selfishness, and look to our children and future generations rather than just the here and now.  Similarly, I would argue money is economics, and that money and sustainability do not mix.  However, I expect politicians, economists and everyone to argue that they all mix perfectly happily together, so the future will be a great and wonderful place.

The Positive Side To The Destruction Of Steenbergs’ Office

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Our initial feelings on the flood in Steenbergs office were of despair, as we received another body blow at the end of this tough year.  Strangely, it has not been trading that has been the issue with sales going up, but rather just things, operational stuff that has not worked and gone plain wrong.  However, as the office has now been gutted and the ruined kit skipped and while the insurable stuff has been put into temporary storage as we wait on a loss adjuster, I have started to become positive.

Floods are devastating.  Floods destroy crops, property, coastlines and change landscapes and lives.  Floods can kill, injure and mess with your head.  Floods cause havoc and chaos, and spread disease.  Floods seem to be a constant theme in my Open University studies, especially linked in with environmental change and global warming.

However, our flood is trivial compared to those in Pakistan this year.  So for us, this flood has a positive side.  Now, that the initial tidying up has been done, we can see the opportunities that this might bring.  We have thrown loads of stuff out that was just accumulating in the office, and now I am clearing through other kit that was just loitering with intent to do absolutely nothing.  It is like an enforced life laundry, or in this case business laundry.  We can see how we might rearrange the rebuilt office to be more efficient and comfortable.  Yes, it has been a tiring week; yes, it has been devastating; however, it also is forcing some changes.

And in the environment, floods clear the land, but they can bring fertile soil with it to feed next year’s crops.  Floods underpinned agriculture in Ancient Egypt and along the Yellow River.  The story of an ancient flood is found in many religions and myths, ranging from the Biblical story of Noah to the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh.  Flood myths are basically the story of how floods remove evil, cleanse the earth and bring back fertility.

So out of despair, we can look at throwing out the rubbish, starting over and having a better, more productive time at Steenbergs in the future.

Two Books For All Environmentalists

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

I have just finished the second of two books that are must-reads for those interested in our planet.  They are Nigel Lawson‘s “An appeal to reason – a cool look at global warming” and Bjørn Lomborg’s “Cool it – the skeptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming”, both of which are very much in the skeptical to anti-climate change camp.  It is important that you read all sides of an argument to be sure that there is nothing that you have missed out nor that you simply are self-justifying your position by selective reading of information and data, so there’s something healthy about reading such diatribes. 

If you don’t have the fibre to read both, then Nigel Lawson’s book is shorter, tauter and much better written.  Bjørn Lomborg’s book does not match the hype, blurbs and comments on the book; it was a really slow and boring read and I almost gave up as it had no real forward motion to its argumentation, ranking as one of those smarmy, smartass sort of books that are basically dull – a bit like your classic Booker Prize winning book that you can really do without reading, as it makes you feel intellectually inadequate as you just don’t get why it is meant to be a good book in the first place.

Both books are unconvincing, and wrong, in their attempts to refute the science of climate change or global warming; both basically misinterpret weather for climate, using the short term vagaries of weather to try and undermine the longer term patterns of climate.  Then, they simply state a truism for the rest of their books, being that people must make a socio-political and economic decision on how to address the issues that may arise from global warming and climate change.  Well, that’s clever, but not worth the fancy intellectual credibility that they have been afforded.

For me, there does need to be a greater collaboration between scientists and people on these issues and a deeper explanation of the science and potential issues arising from climate change, together certainly with a whole lot more openness.  The two camps slugging out each side of the global warming debate need to be ignored and the conservatively-minded, prudent and slightly humdrum people like me, who occupy that big bulge in the middle ground of socio-economic thinking, should be allowed to come to their own conclusions on the priorities of each country’s socio-economic development over the short-, medium- and longer terms.  Leaving it to the intellectuals on both sides will simply result in a huge muddle like everything our lords and masters ever touch – money wasted on grand schemes that spend our money on their individual desires to be written into the history books.  A nervous shiver runs down my spine every time I hear politicians dreaming of how much money they can spend and commit for climate change projects, potentially one of the biggest attempts to transfer current and future wealth from the pockets of ordinary people in the developed world to infrastructure projects and to provide aide to other countries.

Let an honest debate begin, with honest science and sensible criteria rather than the garbage that has been, and continues to be, spouted by the media and the political oligarchy.  We do have a little time, so let’s have some quiet, calm thinking time as the sums and impacts of addressing climate change are life changing for the economies of the world, so must not be imposed by ukase.

And please stop damning all people all the time, as an ennui has set in about environmentalism, especially climate change, as we – the people – are sick of being stigmatised and blamed for leading lives that are better for us, yet are told that we are simultaneously destroying the planet; it’s become like a collective guilt complex that ignores the great heap of good and goodness that ordinary people do every day for the planet, for themselves and for others.

[By the way, I find it highly ironic that I sound like the smartass fool in this blog post, having accused Bjørn Lomborg of the same about his book “Cool It…”]

Other Climate Change Indicators

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Other than temperature, there are a few more indicators of climate change that are studied, which I will cover in overview here as promised in one of my earlier blogs.

Firstly, there is sea level rise.  The first thing to say about sea level rise is that the melting of the Arctic Ice Sheet does not increase the sea levels as you are simply replacing the volume of ice with the same of water.  Sea level rise comes mainly from the expansion of the water volume as the temperature of the oceans rises, plus just under half from the melting of land based ice such as on Antarctica or Greenland’s glaciers or over North America.  However, while there is definitely sea level rise, it is not that scary being of the order of centimetres rather than metres.  So we have historic sea level rises of 1.7mm to 3mm (after 1993) per annum  during the 20th century, or 20cm over 1900 to 2000, with forecast sea level rises of about 4mm every year reaching a total rise of 22cm to 44cm by 2090 from a base date of 1990. 

There is the remote possibility of a massive ice sheet melt from the Antarctic but this is viewed by the IPCC as a millenium scale event, i.e. really, really unlikely; in fact, increased precipitation is expected to continue with extra snowfall falling onto the Antarctic and so thickening the ice cap on the South Pole!  For a more detailed and easy to understand slide show go to this one on Slideshare.

Next, there is the increasing acidity of the oceans.  As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, so more of this in dissolved in the oceans and waters of the world; other gases like nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide also dissolve in water creating further acids, but here I am focussing on carbon dioxide.  The oceans act as an important sink or buffer for human activity, having absorbed over 80% of the heat added to the climate system and 30% of the human-derived carbon emissions over the last 200 years.  This point which has passed me by probably goes some way to explaining my earlier query as to why the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is not so direct, i.e. because the water in the oceans, rivers and lakes dampens the impact [pun unitended but I like it] and takes up much of the initial heat and some of the increase in carbon dioxide and other gases. 

The ocean pH is about 0.1 pH units below the pre-industrial averages at around 8.1 and is forecast to fall another 0.4 to 0.4 pH units by 2100.  The impact directly on humans is minimal, however there is concern as to the impact on calcifying organisms that require carbonates to build their shells; a falling pH reduces the availability of carbonate in the water for corals, bivalves, crustaceans and plankton, which would then have implications on marine food webs and ecosystems.  These are simply explained at the following link and then there’s more detail on the oceans and coral reefs at the great web site Climate Shifts and on the BBC.

So we have further climate indicators that are showing that man is shaping the earth’s climate through his/her agricultural and industrial activity.

How Do Global Warming, Greenhouse Gases And The Earth’s Orbit All Link Together?

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I’ve written a number of blogs now where I try to get to grips with some of the numbers underlying global warming.  So far, I agree that the historic figures do demonstrate global warming over the last 100+ years within a relatively wide band of possible growth rates, and that the evidence shows that the levels of carbon dioxide have increased since about 1950.  Furthermore, the science behind the link between carbon dioxide, methane and the greenhouse effect (and so global warming) is simple science that has been known for many years; in fact, global warming/the greenhouse effect is science that enables life on earth as without it our planet would have an inhospitable temperature closer to -18oC, i.e. it heats up the earth by about 33oC already to 15oC.

What interests me next is how have temperatures and greenhouse gases moved in the past? I will try and analyse this by looking at some neat science that analyses climate data over a longer period.  This will get to the nub of the issue, i.e. what is driving global warming, plus may answer my two current quandaries: (i) why isn’t global warming being driven exponentially by the very obvious and definite growth in CO2 per the Mauna Loa graphs? (ii) why do the predictive models of climate scientists suggest that we should be preparing for increases of 2 – 4oC for the next 100 years, while history shows global warming is more like 1oC over the last 100 or so years?

To work this out, some scientists look at what happened at the end of earlier ice ages as this hints at the mechanics of atmospheric and other climatic changes.  There are several pieces of research that suggest how temperature and greenhouse gases interact – one strand looks at climate data in stalagmites in caves in China and the other is a series of classic pieces of climate change science around ice core data from the Antarctic.  I’ll deal with the Antarctic first.

The first one is pretty neat.  It is based on the fact that when snow falls it traps air in small bubbles within its structure.  Then as more snow falls the next year, this new layer not only brings its own store of information about air quality, snowfall, temperature and levels of greenhouse gases, but it permanently seals off the information stored in the previous year’s snowfall.  Over time, we get left with an annual layering of data that goes back for ages and ages in the Antarctic, as well as in the Arctic especially on Greenland.  Scientists have now dug vertical small circular shafts into the ice and then, after chopping up these ice cores, have analysed the information from them – there’s a video on Youtube that shows you what the scientists do.  Data collated from other similar projects basically corroborates information found in this much earlier paper, which was published back in 1999 by Petit et al (detailed reference at end).

In essence, Petit et al were able to drill down 3,130m, covering 420,000 years and providing a climate record through four climate cycles.  They found that temperatures are constantly changing, but always within given maximum and minimum levels.  They found that when concentrations of greenhouse gases (specifically CO2 and CH4) in the atmosphere went up, global temperatures, also, went up and vice versa.  They concluded “[f]inally, CO2 and CH4 concentrations are strongly correlated with Antarctic temperatures; this is because, overall, our results support the idea that greenhouse gases have contributed significantly to glacial-interglacial change.  This correlation, together with the uniquely elevated concentrations of these gases today, is of relevance with respect to the continuing debate on the future of earth’s climate.” (Petit et al, 1999).

However, they also stated earlier that “[t]hese results suggest that the same sequence of climate forcing operated during each termination [of a glacial period]: orbital forcing (with a possible contribution of local insolation changes) followed by two strong amplifiers, greenhouse gases acting first, then deglaciation and ice-albedo feedback.” (Petit et al, 1999).  This suggests to me that greenhouse gases, the melting of the ice caps and the positive feedback caused by white ice turning to dark seas usually act as amplifiers of changes in temperatures caused by other factors such as changes in solar energy caused by changes to the earth’s orbit, which gets me back to one of my original quandaries – what is driving climate change and so what happens when you have the amplifiers without necessarily the increased temperatures resulting from either a more active sun or a change in the earth’s orbit?

The next paper I read was in New Scientist only a couple of weeks ago and is also pretty cool.  This work is trying to understand the end of glacial periods by analysing stalagmites in caves in China and interlink this with known changes in the shape of the earth’s orbit – now how amazing is that?  Since then, I have been reading the original scientific papers, hence the time delay in writing this blog.

Firstly, we need to start with the concept of Milankovitch’s theories on the earth’s orbits.  Milutin Milankovitch undertook detailed calculations on the earth’s three main orbital cycles.  So, for example, every 41,000 years the tilt of the earth’s axis increases and decreases, making summers hotter and colder respectively.  It’s summer temperatures that are important as this is what drives the potential for ice packs to melt over time, rather than winter temperatures which just create more ice.  So from 2.5 million years ago to about 1 million years ago the ice ages occurred based on these cycles.  However, around 1 million years ago to the end of the last ice age, glacial periods started occurring every 100,000ish years.  This links in potentially with another orbital cycle of 95,000 – 125,000 years, but here the science is less strong and debate still rages as to what is actually happenning. 

Liu et al have measured oxygen-18 in stalagmites in several caves in China.  Water containing oxygen-18 is heavier than normal oxygen-16 and so condenses more easily, so heavy monsoonal air loses much of its oxygen-18 as it moves inland and each year a record is left on the stalagmites.  As each glacial period ends, the summer monsoons became much weaker than normally and so the oxygen-18 levels in stalagmites increased.  Their evidence showed that monsoons failed in the last four glacial terminations, or as they write “[t]his climate pattern, broadly resembling other cave records from China, appears to correlate with multi-decadal to millennial changes in Greenland temperature and the general pattern of the wind-borne calcium ion record in the ice.”  In fact, work on a stalagmite from the Dongge Cave in China agrees exactly (within error) with the Vostok ice core records of Petit et al, showing methane rise in the atmosphere at 129,000BP.

Further work has shown that CO2 and CH4 levels increase at the same time as the ice packs at the poles decrease, suggesting that the reduction in ice is actually causing the rise in CO2 and CH4.  It is suggested that as the tilt of the earth’s axis changes this increases the temperature of the earth and the ice sheet over North America flows into the Antarctic, which interferes with and then stops the circulation of water around the oceans, which normally keeps the southern hemisphere warmer and the northern cooler (the so-called Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation).  As the southern seas warm up, CO2 is released into the atmosphere as CO2 is less soluble in warm water than cold and so further increasing the impact of the higher temperatures from the sun.  In effect, over the last 400,000 years, whenever the tilt of the earth’s axis reached a maximum, the intensity of sunshine increased (based on insolation in July at 60o north), CO2 levels increased to a maximum, relative sea levels also increased to maxima, all correlating with the strength of the Asian monsoon.

All of this comes from ice core data, analysis of stalagmites and other stores of climate data like coral reefs.  That in itself is amazing.  Then there is agreement in climate records going back many hundreds of thousands of years that correlate with each other across the world and using different techniques and types of ancient, geological record.

Finally, I would like briefly mention another set of amazing work by Zachos et al in the US which tries to get to grips with temperature and atmospheric gases in deeper time in the order of millions of years ago.  They have analysed various types of proxy data in deep sea cores of rocks to determine temperature and carbon in earth’s history and have tried to relate this to events in the geology of the earth and evolution, so developing a framework for the development of the earth’s climate over a much longer timescale.  What I like about these pieces of research is not just how clever they are, but also because Bjørn Lomborg uses them in a section trying to refute the science within climate change work in his book “Cool it – the skeptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming” – he has a tendency to misquote, or at least to quote out of context, as well as jumble up numbers and data to make his own points, which are often at odds with what the original scientists actually have stated.  Just like Nigel Lawson, Bjørn Lomborg has authority when it comes to economic and political discussions around climate change, but they sometimes get it wrong when they try and refute the science; most of their errors stem from two simple problems: (i) they don’t understand the scientific process; and (ii) they mistake/confuse weather for climate.  I will try and get back to Lomborg’s book “Cool It” some time and show how he shoots himself in the foot at times by blatantly altering the available research to suit his arguments.

The research by Zachos et al shows that carbon and temperature are correlated at least to about 34 million years ago at the edge of the Eocene and Oligocene Ages, which is when the Antarctic Ice-sheets became fairly permanent, and that there is correlation with the orbit of the earth around the sun even if the impact is sometimes relatively weak over millions of years.  Prior to then, getting clarity in the temperature and carbon dioxide levels gets ever harder and we find that the linkage between carbon levels and temperature is much less clear and even perhaps non-existent, however later research by Zachos et al indicates that this lack of correlation may not be as extreme as some researchers have indicated and is perhaps simply a result of lack of experimental data.  The other interesting occurrence is that whenever there has been a sudden change in temperature this has also been accompanied by a similarly sudden change in carbon; these occurred at 23, 34 and 55 million years ago.  Later research at the 34 million years ago tipping point suggests that carbon dioxide is a key factor in climate transition; Pagani et al (2005) showed that “[i]n detail, a trend toward lower CO2 concentrations during the middle to late Eocene, reaching levels at the E[ocene]/O[ligocene] boundary that could have triggered the rapid expansion of ice on east Antarctica; and work by Pearson et al (2009) indicates that there was a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide at 34 million years ago that triggered climate transition to an ice-house world and “[t]his study reaffirms the links between cryosphere development and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at the largest and most important climatic tipping point of the last 65 million years.”

However, when you look at research into climate over such a long time period, you realise pretty quickly that long term climate progression is the sum of many different processes and that it is far more complex than any of the commentators and scientists would have everyone believe, plus that correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

In overview, we know that the earth’s general temperature, hence climate, has gone up and down over time dependent on the earth’s tilt and orbital shape, i.e. effectively how close the earth gets to the sun during its orbit and so how much solar energy gets to the earth.  These changes in temperatures are then further affected by the earth’s environment, especially the levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, the ice sheets and the ice-albedo effect.  In addition, climate gets impacted by a whole raft of other factors ranging from geological through to biological, which is a point that I will get back to in a later blog.

The science, therefore, does show that the basic greenhouse effect has impacted climate in the earth’s past and present and so will affect it in the future, but that it is not the only factor that impacts climate nor perhaps the most important climate factor over longer time periods.  Furthermore, while the research does indicate that sudden changes in carbon dioxide often occur with quick moves in climate, it doesn’t explain the consequences of these amplification or forcing impacts on our future climate, so that’s my next journey and is where I will need to start investigating the computer models devised by climate scientists to predict the climate in the future.

Before I go there, however, I would like to round off this section of my journey around global warming /climate change with a look at some of the other indicators of current global warming, such as sea levels and sea acidity just to round off the historical and current status of climate indicators.


Battersby, S. (2010) Meltdown: Why ice ages don’t last forever, New Scientist, issue 2761, 24 May 2010, Available on the Internet at (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Kelly, M. J., Edwards, R.L., Cheng, H., Yuan, D., Cai, Y., Zhang, M., Lin, Y., An, Z. (2005) High resolution characterization of the Asian Monsoon between 146,000 and 99,000 B.P. from Dongge Cave, China and global correlation of events surrounding Termination II, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 236 (2006), 20 -38, Available from the Internet at (Accessed 2 June 2010)

Liu, D., Wang, Y., Cheng, H., Edwards, R.L., Kong, X., Wang, X., Hardt, B., Wu, J., Chen, S., Jiang, X., He, Y., Dong, J., Zhao, K. (2010) Sun-millennial variability of Asian monsoon intensity during the early MIS 3 and its analogue to the ice age terminations, Quaternary Science Reviews 29 2010, 1107 – 1115, Available on the Internet at (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Pagani, M., Zachos, J.C., Freeman, K.H., Tipple, B., Boahty, S. (2005) Marked Decline in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentrations During the Paleogene, Science 309, 600,  22 July 2005, Available on the Internet from (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Pearson, P.N., Foster, G.L., Wade, B.S. (2009) Atmospheric carbon dioxide through the Eocene-Ologocene climate transition, Nature 461, 1110- 1114, 22 October 2009 Available on the Internet from (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Petit, J.R., Jouzel, J., Raynaud, D., Barkov, N.I., Barnola, J-M., Basile, I., Bender, M., Chappellaz, J., Davis, M., Delaygue, G., Delmotte, M., Kotlyakov, V.M., Legrand, M., Lipenkov, V.Y., Lorius, C., Pepin, L., Ritz, C., Saltzman, E., Stievenard, M. (1999) Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica, Nature, Vol 399, 3 June 1999, Available on the Internet from (Accessed 25 May 2010)

Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E., Billups, K. (2001) Trends, Rhythms, and Aberrations in Global Climate 65 Ma to Present, Science 292, 686, 27 April 2001, Available on the Internet from (Accessed 7 June 2010)

Can We Save Ourselves From Global Warming?

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

I went to a public lecture by Professor John Beddington who is currently Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.  He was lecturing on Climate Change as a University of York Biology lecture.  And yesterday he was back in London attacking climate sceptics who mistake weather for climate change and so on.

I am slowly trying to understand the science in more detail, having understood the basics since I did science way back when, plus I have even set myself out on doing an Open University degree on Environmental Science/Studies to improve my understanding of these issues.  So I guess I am now an advanced layman rather than much further on than that.

So what came out for me in his lecture was not whether or not climate change or global warming exists – it does and the science is clear, even if there are gaps in getting to a total understanding on the subject.  We know that quantum physics works even though there are gaps, while we know that evolution occurs and that alternative routes co-exist with it, such as horizontal gene transfer.  Gaps and alternatives do not necessarily negate the core scientific theory.

What struck me were 2 slides:

  1. One slide on annual deployment rates for alternatives, lower carbon emission energy sources.  I didn’t have time to take down all the data but it did include 32 new nuclear plants per annum, 215 million m2 of solar panels annually, 3750 offshore wind turbines every year etc etc.  That’s just an awesome task.  It chimed with some thoughts in Stewart Brand’s recent book “Whole Earth Discipline”.
  2. His final slide – which Professor Beddington called The Perfect Storm, where he stated that we must not forget that there are more scientific issues impacting environmental issues than just climate change.  He said that we have the interaction of the following – population growth and a population that will peak at 8-9 billion people, increased urbanisation and the fact that most people live in cities now and this will continue to increase, a lower relative number of poor in the world which will increase levels of consumption and (finally) climate change.  Once again that’s a tough set of environmental drivers to deal with.

For me, this begs the question whether you can marry up the economics that building all this new energy infrastructure requires with the fact that increases in population, urban living and consumption (as a by-product of reduced relative levels of poor) will demand ever greater levels of electricity and they want it now.  Also, if we need these levels of deployment, we better get a shift on and start sorting it out really, really fast.

Which brings me on to nimbyism (the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome) – how will all these new alternative power sources be put into place within the UK’s current planning regime.  Nuclear power – which must be in the energy mix – is hated by people near proposed plants while even near us in Melmerby in North Yorkshire, people are already campaigning against a putative wind farm nearby (it’s not even got further than a bit of scoping by a possible wind energy business).  If we all go around saying, we need to sort out climate change but we ain’t going to let you put your wind farm or nuclear plant next to us, we will never get off first base.  To get this scale of change in the energy supply for the UK, and other countries, politicians will need to become heavy-handed and force through building, while also making the financial returns more pallatable for businesses as these new forms of energy do not have acceptable short term returns, rather a very long and dull economic return.  This all chimes against my own views on liberalism – personal and economic freedom.

Good luck to you all – politicians and scientists.  You have my full support, but it’s going to be really hard to get this all done, especially when you have so many other shorter term demands on your empty pot of money.

That’s No McGuffin!

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Is global warming the perfect McGuffin?  I have never really understood what Alfred Hitchcock meant by a McGuffin; for me it always seemed like the cinematic equivalent of the Zen concept of “the sound of one hand clapping”, i.e. there is no sound and the question is stupid, irrelevant, pointless and a red herring or a McGuffin.  But perhaps global warming is really the perfect McGuffin.

What is a McGuffin, then?  Well the best and worst explanation comes from Alfred Hitchcock himself in an interview with Francois Truffaut:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.  One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers “Oh that’s a McGuffin”.  The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?”. “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”.  The first man says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!”.  So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

So I am racked by doubts – is all this noise and technology and science about climate change and global warming merely an apparatus to trap lions in the Scottish Highlands?  But then there are actually rumours of – while not lions – big wild cats in Scotland like the Galloway puma or the Coulport cougar, so maybe a machine to catch lions would be useful.

But I am still not sure and worry that the joke’s on me and everyone is laughing at me for thinking about it too much, or as R.E.M. sang in Losing My Religion:

“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight, I’m
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing…”

So why “Losing My Religion” – well that’s obvious as I come from the viewpoint of believing in global warming, but now I don’t think it’s such a big deal nor am I so convinced that we’ve got the answer quite sharp enough yet.  Yes, temperature has gone up; yes, greenhouse gases have gone up; but all-in-all it’s perhaps by not that much, and why should we change everything on a leap of faith – a computer simulation of what might happen in 100 or 200 years time and something that might be good for loads of people, incuding Britain!

Imagine this.  We are all now living 5000 years ago in Britain.  No cars, no mobile phones, no roads, no Internet, no watches, no telescopes, no science and so on and so on.  We know that every day a bright light goes into the sky and warms the earth but it comes up in different places at different stages and seems to warm at different rates.  We know that a bright white light comes up into the sky and cycles over a shorter period but it doesn’t warm the world, but mysteriously it seems the same period as the oceans move at and women’s menstrual cycles.  But how do we work out what to do and what these cycles are or when to plant crops and harvest them.  There is no time, there are no diaries.

So we construct a whole mythology and superstitions that seem to help us work these cycles all out.  But it doesn’t always work out, as the weather gets warmer and colder dependent on, maybe a volcano in Iceland or El Nino or some other unknown like sun spots.  So we make our mythology even more complex and after these unknowns we make new sacrifices to appease an unknown, slightly random god.  This goes on and on as we create more and more complexity on a construct with weak foundations.

But them someone works out the clock and then come telescopes and diaries and we develop to now.  What was a key and clear set of rules and prediction mechanisms 5000 years ago is now encapsulated in clocks and time and thermometers and weather satellites and diaries etc, and the mystery has gone, the religion gone, even if the randomness and unpredictability is still there.

I feel that we are in 5000BP and cannot see it all clearly just quite yet, and while everyone creates more and more complex computer simulations – just like those people back then built Stonehenge and created their climate mythology – we’re doing the same without the living sacrifices, but certainly with the cash impacts.  I just cannot make that leap of faith yet from a 1oC change in last 100 years to a 2oC or 4oC or 5oC rise in the next 100 or 200 years (but I am still working on getting there), while in the-here-and-now I need to work out how my family can be fed, educated and kept happy and Steenbergs can be developed, and how you can relieve poverty and crime in the UK and help the poor vanilla growers in Madagascar.

We should be frugal and we should try and look after the world, but not this vast cost for a minor god whose decision will be made in the really distant future.  We must change where we look and focus on bigger gods with a firmer reality and then do today’s things and tomorrow’s things as responsibly as possible in terms of our families, our communities and the world.

Main UK Political Parties On Climate Change And Global Warming

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

There is a general political consensus that climate change is the number one environmental issue and there seems to be general agreement on how to address the problem, now that arch global warming skeptics like Boris Johnson and Nigel Lawson in the Conservative Party have been whipped into line for the election.  However there are definitely differences in emphasis and a big difference in whether nuclear power should be in the mix or not.  Here’s my overview as extracted from each party’s 2010 General Election manifesto.


CO2 targets: presumably will keep to national targets of reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 on 1990 levels, including 10% in central government carbon costs in 12 months (why not do it for whole of public sector, which would really be something)
Energy mix: 15% by renewables by 2020, but do state that nuclear is key to this as is clean coal, and Feed-in Tariffs for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage with 4 already approved to be built; “smart meters” and “smart grid” to help households reduce energy use; allow local authorities to build local heating networks to use waste energy from electricity generation (Combined Heat & Power)
Transport: investment in public transport and looking at building national charging network for electric vehicles
Buildings: £6,500 per household to get home energy improvements paid out of energy bill savings (i.e. consumer pays I think)
Carbon economy: offshore wind farms and Green Investment Bank, but very vague in this area

Green Party

CO2 targets: reduction of 65% by 2020 and 95% by 2030 on 1990 levels, including setting annual carbon budget and allowing trading in carbon units where half of all carbon units are given to adults and rest to industry and public sector
Energy mix: 50% from renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2030; phase out nuclear power and no new nuclear power stations; £20 billion in one Parliament (ie 5ish years) on renewables and create 80,000 jobs; attractive Feed-in Tariffs higher than offered by Labour government for those doing home electricity generation; do not permit new coal-fired power stations; “smart grid, smart meters and smart appliances” to help households reduce energy use; encourage Combined Heat & Power projects
Transport: reduce speed limits everywhere in UK; stop road investment of £30 billion and invest in public transport; renationalise and re-regulate all public transport; congestion type schemes in more places and road user tolls for heavy vehicles; make more food bought locally and so reduce need to shift food around by road;  stop airport expansion to reduce pollution levels; oppose large scale growing of biofuels
Buildings: free insulation for all houses that need it creating 80,000 new jobs and costing £2 – 4 billion a year; introduce incentives for 1,000,000 solar panels on homes
Carbon economy: government intervention to invest in green programmes, some of which mentioned above; green investment bank like other main parties; £5 billion to create 350,000 new trainee positions offering places to 700,000 unemployed people to get people into green energy sector (not sure if these figures are additive or overlapping somehow)


CO2 targets: reduction of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 on 1990 levels
Energy mix: 15% of energy from renewables by 2020 and keeping nuclear in the mix (they talk about 40% from low carbon sources by 2020 but 25% will come from nuclear and clean coal), and Feed-in Tariffs for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage with 4 already approved to be built; “smart meters” to help households reduce energy use
Transport: investment in public transport and looking at electric vehicles
Buildings: through regulating electricity companies, 6 million homes will get insulation by 2012 with every suitable loft and cavity wall insulated by 2015
Carbon economy: creating 400,000 new jobs including development of carbon economy with 70,000 jobs in offshore wind farms by 2020 and £120 million in a Carbon Investment Fund to support wind farms

Liberal Democrats

CO2 targets: reduction of 40% by 2020 and carbon neutral by 2050 on 1990 levels, including push for unilateral move to EU reduction target of 30% by 2020
Energy mix: 40% from renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2050 and no new nuclear power; community owned wind farms encouraged; attractive Feed-in Tariffs higher than offered by Labour government for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage; “smart grid” to help households reduce energy use
Transport: investment in public transport, £140 million bus scrappage scheme to replace old buses with new ones; stop 3rd runway at Heathrow and further airport expansion in South to reduce pollution levels; through EU make cars zero emissions by 2040
Buildings: Eco Cash-back Scheme giving £400 back when you install new boiler, double glazing or put in micro-generation kit; £10,000 worth of green home improvements paid for by lower energy bills
Carbon economy: use central government pourchasing power to go for green technologies and products; cut energy and carbon emissions from central government by 30% by 2020
Globally: push for zero net deforestation by 2020, including ban on import of illegal wood into UK for any purpose

Reading the manifestos shows me something interesting – I reckon that New Labour has morphed into the Conservative Party and they are nearly the same thing, however much they argue about the splitting of policy hairs, while the Liberal Democrats have taken up Labour’s place, while the Greens have become the wackier Liberals of the 1970s and 1980s.  It will be interesting what actually happens when people get to vote and whether (because of the expenses scandal) we – the electorate – have the courage to shift from our historic group voting patterns, where we vote by “class” and “background”, ie rural tends to be Conservative and urban is Labour.

My own take on climate change is that the Liberal Democrats have the most practicable and ambitious set of targets, BUT (and it’s a big but), I believe their targets cannot be achieved without the inclusion of nuclear power in the energy mix. 

In some ways, the green movement is to blame for the rise in greenhouse gases because they stopped the growth – and research – in the nuclear power sector, while removal of acid rain gases has bizarrely increased short term potential for global warming, as these molecules have acted as a shield from solar energy – clean fuel will be soon used in global shipping which may result in global warming as their shielding impact is removed, so cleaner air more global warming (there’s always something else, isn’t there). 

So my ideal (from a green perspective) is a parliament that includes the Liberal Democrats with either Labour or the Conservatives, where the Liberal Democrats are given the Environment and Climate Change Portfolio but not the Energy side of things.

Global Warming And Greenhouse Gases

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

We’ve looked at whether there is global warming and there does appear to be global warming albeit not at such a dramatic level as we read about in the press – perhaps more like 1oC rather than 4oC or 5oC. 

I will need to understand how the UK Met Office gets from these historic numbers to a future rise that’s much higher as I worry that it’s because of the computer model, which is a human-based interpretation of long-term weather patterns; as humans, we cannot predict economic performance and have been trying for many years so I remain to be convinced that we will be able to get it right for the weather – UK weather forecasters cannot get it right over a 24 hour period!

The first stage of this is to assess the drivers for global warming.  The key culprit is stated as man and particularly industrial and agricultural pollution.  Of these, the finger is pointed at greenhouse gases where carbon dioxide – or CO2 – is used as the proxy for all the other pollutive gases like methane and nitrous oxide etc.

It is clear that these gases especially carbon dioxide and methane have increased and much of this is due to energy generation from fossil fuels like coal and petrol and diesel and gasoline – but not nuclear or wind or water driven power.  It is also driven by the burning of the rainforests and other natural features like heather and grasslands, while chopping down trees takes away the trees that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and fix this into carbohydrates and other natural substances.

Great work has been done on this by the Keeling family at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii and graphs from their website clearly show how carbon dioxide has grown and links this back to fossil fuels.  I’ll let their pictures tell the story below.

The Classic Mauna Loa Graph

The Classic Mauna Loa Graph

More Globalised Look At Carbon Dioxide

Carbon Dioxide Over Hawaii and South Pole

Carbon Dioxide Growth Over Time And Fossil Fuel Trend

Carbon Dioxide Growth Over Time And Fossil Fuel Trend

Impact Of Fossil Fuel Growth And Carbon Time Over Long Time

Impact Of Fossil Fuel Growth And Carbon Time Over Long Time

Now how greenhouse gases work is simple.  Solar energy enters the earth’s atmosphere and is either absorbed by plants or objects on the earth or bounces off the earth back into the atmosphere.  Some of this goes out into space but a proportion is reflected back onto earth by water vapour – ie clouds – or greenhouse gases, so the more greenhouse gases and water vapour the more solar energy stays in the atmosphere and the warmer the earth gets (all things being equal).  This can be understood much better in a picture so here’s one I got from Google:

The Greenhouse Effect

The Greenhouse Effect

I don’t doubt that mankind has driven up the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that these will have had an impact on the temperature.  But the big question is how much warmer the earth gets and are all things equal and (I suppose) does everything need to stay the same and why cannot man adapt or change…

Sanity Check On Global Warming Numbers

Friday, April 16th, 2010

As I have explained in several of my last few blogs, I have been looking more closely at the detail of the case for global warming.  I have analysed global average temperatures as provided by NASA that uses information from the Hadley Centre in the UK and several other sources, as well as looking at fact sheets from the IPCC.  My initial take on the numbers is that the media and the politicians may be overstating the historical case and that global temperature rises exist but may be lower than the PR spin.

Before I decided that that was my final conclusion, I wanted to do a sanity check of the global mean figures against some raw data for different regions around the world.  These are not intended to be definitive but rather to see whether the trend from the global mean data was matched by a variety of on-the-ground raw data from temperature stations.

The raw temperature data that I have chosen is for England, the Antarctic and Australia.  I thought that would give a pretty good cross-section of temperature profiles.  The quality of data varies for each of these, from very detailed as in England which goes back many hundreds of years and uses 3 data points across England, while for Australia and the Antarctic I had to chose a few places that I felt covered sufficient area but also had data that went back at least 100 years, which was supplemented with a few that went back 50 years.

The raw data is available from the following sources, should you wish to do it yourself.  Now it is important to state here that the answer is not intended to be complete or definitive, which they are clearly not, but rather they are utilised to show trends and whether those trends fall within the ranges anticipated from the IPCC work and the dataset that I analysed from NASA.

The data analysed from the above gave the following results:

  1. England temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +0.9oC, with minimum rise of +0.6oC and maximum rise of +1.8oC; the UK Metereologic data series can be seen in full detail at;
  2. Antarctic temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +1.1oC, with minimum rise of +0.4oC and maximum rise of +5.3oC;
  3. Australian temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +1.0oC, with minimum rise of +0.3oC and maximum rise of +2.4oC.  If you look at the Australian Detailed Meteorological Office set of detailed anomalies graph it comes with the same answer of +1.06oC and can be found at

These results indicate that across a wide range of the world the global warming temperature rises are in line with the averages I previously calculated based on the global mean temperatures.

It is interesting also to note that the figures seem higher than the averages calculated by climate scientists for their global mean averages which suggests that as I would have added extra data points and more accuracy, the mean averages would tend towards a tighter fit line about 0.5oC lower.  Also, Antarctic figures were higher than for England, which is in line with what the climate scientists say, ie that the poles will experience the changes more greatly.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The base sources I used can be found as follows:

  1. England temperatures –
  2. Antarctic temperatures –
  3. Australian temperatures –

My graphs are as below:

Temperature Anomalies for Central England

Temperature Anomalies for Central England

Temperature Differences for Australia

Temperature Differences for Australia

Temperature differences in Antarctic

Temperature differences in Antarctic