Posts Tagged ‘Global warming’

Personal experience of climate change

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Blog Action Day 2009Today is Blog Action Day 2009, and the subject for this year is climate change.

I’ve learned a lot about climate change in recent years, but nothing brings home an academic lesson like a little personal experience. I got that when I visited Chamonix at the beginning of August. I particularly enjoy the view from Brevent, on the opposite side of the valley to Mont Blanc itself. From there, on a clear day, you can enjoy an unsurpassed view of Mont Blanc and its surroundings. The panoramic restaurant at Planpraz does some very good desserts. While you sit there soaking up sunshine and calories, you get the best view possible of the Glacier des Bossons, straight across the valley from you.

I have been to Chamonix many times, summer and winter, since about 20 years ago. That’s not a long time really, I’m not exactly old! Nonetheless, as I looked across the valley in August, I realised I could see for myself that the glacier des Bossons has retreated a lot in that time.

Glaciers around the world have been retreating for a long time, I know, and have even caused the border between Switzerland and Italy to change. I don’t know why I was so surprised to realise that I could see it for myself. Here are two photos to prove it, both taken by me, from Brevent. On the left is a view from July 1993, on the right, August 2009. The views aren’t taken from exactly the same place, but you can see common features in them.

In the 2009 photo, you can see the bottom half of the glacier is almost separated from the top part by a clearly visible band of rock, running across the top of the picture. You can see that there is a thick shelf of ice, above the rock, that breaks away as it crosses the line of rock. In the 1993 photo, that band of rock is nowhere visible. Then, the ice was thick enough to cover the rock completely. That gives a fair idea of how much the glacier has melted since I have been visiting Chamonix. I can only imagine how Fernand Pareau feels about it, he’s been watching the glaciers retreat for much longer than I have. In Fernands own words:

Même les glaciers ne veulent plus nous voir, ils reculent!

Even the glaciers don’t want to know us, they back away!

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009


Glaciers are important for many people. Switzerland depends on its glaciers for drinking water and hydro-electric power (which supplies half of their electricity). With predictions that these glaciers may be gone by 2050, if not sooner, that’s not a good situation to be in. Elsewhere in the world, the story is very similar. The glaciers of the Himalayas may well disappear on the same timescale, which could seriously affect the lives of up to 750 million people who depend on them.

Nor do you have to appeal to something as dramatic as running out of water to suffer the effects of climate change. Insurance companies now factor climate change into their calulations, and you can guess who ends up paying the bill for that! Climate change could melt a hole in your pocket just as easily as it melts the glaciers.

With climate change having the potential to harm so many people, in rich and poor countries alike, it’s not surprising that more and more people want something done about it. From individuals doing what they can to big businesses calling for strong policies from world leaders, people are calling for action at all levels of society. Even most world governments realise change is needed, but without a concerted effort from all of them, tackling climate change will be that much harder.

The UNFCC conference in Copenhagen, in December, is our chance to get some common sense from our politicians. World leaders will have the opportunity there to negotiate a truly historic treaty to tackle climate change. There is no excuse for them to fail. From the viewpoints of economy, national security, food security, and health, as well as for reasons like saving polar bears and rainforests, it makes sense to stop the damage we are doing to our climate.

And yes, it is possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but the longer we delay, the harder it will be. Personally, I’ve seen enough of climate change, and would like not to see any more. The 350 organisation has called for people to take part in public activities on October 24th to demonstrate their support for a strong climate treaty. Why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to, add yourself to the numbers, and see if we can’t encourage our leaders to stay cool-headed in Copenhagen. Otherwise, we’ll all be in hot water eventually.

Why is Copenhagen important?

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is hosting a conference in Copenhagen in December (United Nations Climate Change Conference, Dec 7-18, 2009). It’s supposed to negotiate a successor for the Kyoto protocol, to map the road for reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses worldwide. As such, it’s an extremely important event, but how important is it really? Well, in the words of President Nasheed of the Maldives:

Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.

Until now, politicians everywhere seem to be claiming to be leaders in cutting emissions, while refusing to do anything until someone else does more. Everyone manages to find someone else to point the finger at. With all that hot air from the politicians it’s no surprise the globe is getting hotter!

There are few now who doubt that the global climate is being changed by mankind. Those who do are regularly debunked in the media as having not read or understood the scientific information they refer to, or they simply make up their own ‘facts’ to suit themselves. Some will tell you the climate is not changing. Some will tell you it is getting cooler. Some will say it’s getting warmer, but that it’s not our fault, or that it is our fault but it’s good for us, and so on. Like a child who hasn’t done his homework, they keep hunting for credible reasons.

On the other hand, scientists are agreed that the climate is changing, and that it’s our fault. Organisations as diverse as the World Bank and leading medical organisations around the world are calling for action to tackle climate change. Even religous leaders agree that the climate-change must be addressed.

If you personally have any doubts about the reality of global warming, one easy way to get some good information is to watch the Climate Denial Crock of the Week videos, by Peter Sinclair. These are a series of short videos that address some of the major claims by climate-deniers, showing where they are wrong in a very clear and entertaining manner. The facts are laid out very clearly, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Take a look, for example, at Denial was a River in Africa, and ask yourself if professor Hugh Montgomery might be correct in his claim that India is building a fence to keep Bangladeshi climate refugees out.

Other good starting places for more information on global warming are and the New Scientist Guide for the Perplexed.

You do not have to look far to see evidence of climate change. The small island nation of Tuvala is already feeling the effects of rising sea-levels, while on the other hand, California is running out of water. Even the British government knows it must plan for a changing climate. Changing the climate in Britain might sound like a good idea, but it’s not. Decreases in rainfall will harm agriculture, while increased flooding will also occur. Even so, Britain will have it easy compared to other countries. August in Australia has been exceptionally warm this year, and the predictions are that it will only get worse there. These are only a few examples, there are many others, from all over the world. Just keep your eyes on the news, you’ll see more.

Back in July, a meeting of the G8 countries accepted that global warming should be limited to no more than 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees farenheit). The Alliance of Small Islands States has called for a limit of 1.5 degrees celsius, arguing that 2 degrees is too much. They’re right, even 2 degrees will be enough to drastically alter the climate of the earth. Our grandchildren will grow up in a world unlike the one we see today. 2 degrees is enough to ensure that, for example every summer in Europe is as hot as the summer of 2003, and that one killed tens of thousands of people.

So how do we limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees? To translate that number into action, you have to consider the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we can allow in the atmosphere. 2 degrees corresponds to about 400 ppm of CO2 (according to the IPCC). So far, so good, we’re below that according to the little counter on the left of this page. However, that’s not the whole story. Barry Brook points out that lower emissions-targets are even better, in order to slow down the damage from the warming that has already begun. It’s like turning down the heat before the milk boils, so it won’t boil over. 350 ppm is now the widely accepted target, enshrined in the campaign by Bill McKibben at As you can see, we’re way above that target already!

Whichever number you pick, the important point is that we are already in a dangerous situation. The world’s climate is changing fast, and in ways that are not good. There will continue to be big changes in climate whatever we do, but it is not too late to do something about it, not too late at all. The faster we reduce emissions, the sooner we reduce the damage to the environment, and the less sufferring there will be for man and beast alike. That is why Copenhagen is so very important.

Reducing emissions fast is possible, we know enough to be able to do it. Cleaner energy, higher efficiency cars and electrical appliances, recycling, reducing waste, and all the other things we keep hearing so much about, these all add up. Sometimes it costs money, for large-scale infrastructure like replacing coal-fired power stations, sometimes it saves money instead. Many big companies are going green, despite the economic recession, so cost can’t really be a big issue.

For individuals, too, reducing your carbon footprint can be as easy as small changes in lifestyle, neither expensive nor difficult. It’s quite possible to reduce your electricity use by half, for example. Solving global warming is more a political problem than a technical one, persuading people at all levels (families through to governments) that it must really be done.

Individual action is very important, of course, but the Copenhagen meeting must succeed if we are to reduce emissions globally and really begin to tackle climate change. That is why we have to make sure that our leaders do the right thing, instead of getting wrapped up in petty arguments and worrying that they will lose the next election. People power is crucial to making Copenhagen a success, and one way in which you can express your personal-power is to get involved in some of the demonstrations that are being coordinated around the world in advance of the meeting. is organising an International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to? You might be glad you did, one day!

Climate Change in the American Mind

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Climate Change in the American Mind was published in March 2009. It contains the results of a survey of Americans conducted during September and October 2008. The report is 56 pages long, and is packed with information. Not surprisingly, it has been talked about on the web. Unfortunately, some of the information from it has been summarised in a very misleading manner.

One particular question asked Americans how much they thought global warming would harm different groups. They were asked to decide which option (not at all, only a little, a moderate amount, a great deal, or don’t know) applied to a number of different groups:

  • you personally
  • your family
  • your community
  • people in the United States
  • people in other modern industrialised countries
  • people in developing contries
  • future generations of people
  • plant and animal species

The results are presented on page 30 of the report, figure 22. Nate Silver summarised the answers to this question on his blog, in “The Environmental Inverted Pyramid“, but the picture he presents there (reproduced here) is misleading.

A misleading representation

A misleading representation

There are several things wrong with this picture. I won’t be the first to point out that the size of each segment is not in proportion, others have already done that (e.g. “The environmental inverted pyramid, corrected“). Even so, it’s worth looking at some of the other ways that this picture is misleading.

First, let’s make the bars to scale. There, that’s better. Now you can see quite clearly that the narrowest bar (‘you’) is genuinely half as big as the largest. Not that steep a pyramid at all.

redrawn with bars to scale

redrawn with bars to scale

There’s also an issue with the size of the text. Putting ‘you’ in tiny letters makes it seem unimportant compared to the large text for ‘plant and animal species’. So let’s make all the letters the same size.

all text the same size

all text the same size

There. I don’t know about you, but that looks a lot fairer to me! So it looks like only 1 American in 3 thinks global warming will affect them, and 2 out of 3 don’t think it will.

Ah, but we’re not done yet. New Scientist points out that we’re actually using the wrong data! These numbers represent only the ‘moderate amount’ and ‘great deal’ categories. If we want to see how many people do or do not think they will be affected by global warming, we should not forget that some of those people think global warming will affect things ‘only a little’.

‘only a little’ is not very well defined. It could mean they don’t think they will be able to go on holiday because of more hurricanes in their favourite resort, or that they think they will have to pay more for food or water. I have no idea what those people who said ‘only a little’ thought, but I do know that we can’t simply ignore them. That would effectively put them in the ‘not at all’ category, which is wrong.

So let’s add those people to the chart, and see what it looks like.

with the correct data

with the correct data

Now it hardly looks like a pyramid at all! In fact, the categories ‘you’, ‘your family’, and ‘your community’ are very closely grouped, as are the categories of ‘people in the United States’, ‘people in other modern industrialised countries’, and ‘people in developing countries’. The question might as well have been simplified to ‘people near you’ and ‘everyone else’.

So we can safely say that over half of Americans believe that someone near them will be harmed by global warming, and almost 2 out of 3 believe that someone, somewhere, will be harmed, even if only a little. If you’re among the remaining third, you could do worse than to read “Bracing For Sea Change“, to see how easily climate change could affect the world around you.

The full report contains 39 charts, and looks to have a great deal of interesting information in it. I haven’t read it all yet, but I will do so soon. Even on a quick scan through, there are some interesting nuggets that are easy to find. For example, 82% of Americans think they need more information about global warming (figure 33), 82% of Americans would trust scientists for information about global warming, and 77% would trust their family and friends (figure 39). That tells me that the scientists and other people among you who are concerned about global warming need to speak up more, 4 people out of every 5 out there would listen to you. Go to it, people!

Finally, let me just quote a few of the highlights from the executive summary:

  • 92 percent supported more funding for research on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power;
  • 85 percent supported tax rebates for people buying energy efficient vehicles or solar panels;
  • 80 percent said the government should regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant;
  • 69 percent of Americans said the United States should sign an international treaty that requires the U.S. to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90% by the year 2050.

All that seems to me to be a long way from the tiny triangle at the bottom of the inverted pyramid.

Earth Hour: It’s not about the money

Friday, March 27th, 2009
Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower

Earth Hour 2009 is fast approaching. On Saturday March 28th (yes, tomorrow), many people around the world will turn out their lights for one hour, from 8:30 to 9:30 in the evening (local time, wherever you are on the globe). Despite all the gossip about Earth Hour on the web, there seems to be some confusion about what it is actually about in some places.

Earth Hour is not about saving electricity. If you switch off your lights for one hour, you’re not going to save much. One hour every year is about one hundredth of a percent, so in the grand scheme of things that’s a drop in the ocean. No, that’s not what Earth Hour is about at all.

Earth Hour is about raising awareness across the world that people want action on climate change. A global, co-ordinated action to make it clear how strongly people feel that climate change needs to be tackled now.

The organisers of Earth Hour are hoping that 1 billion people will participate this year, which corresponds to about one out of every seven people in the world. That’s a huge number, and would make it one of the largest events in human history. Considering that the first Earth Hour was held only two years ago, in one city, that’s an impressive growth, and a strong statement about how people feel about saving our planet.

Earth Hour - Mississauga downtown
Image by Smaku via Flickr

So who is that statement for? Well, I guess it’s for everyone, there are still a lot of people with their heads in the sand. With one billion people involved, Earth Hour must surely be difficult to ignore. Even the politicians will have a hard time claiming that nobody cares about climate change. More importantly, world leaders will be shown that it is not just people in rich or poor nations, large or small, developed or not, that care about climate change. Countries like China and India are participating, along with many other developing nations. Hopefully this will encourage leaders of nations everywhere to be more responsible about tackling the problem than they have been in the past.

One thing that intrigues me is, how exactly will the organisers figure out how many people participated, after it’s all over? It’s not like they’re going to have time to go round counting, they’ll only have an hour to check each timezone and I don’t suppose Father Christmas is on the team.

Earth Hour 2008 - Sydney, Australia cc-by- Eri...
Earth Hour 2008 – Sydney
Image via Wikipedia

One way is to measure it indirectly from the utility companies. Providers of electricity have become masters of estimating demand to within one or two percent minute by minute, and if one person in 7 turns out the lights for an hour, they should be able to spot that rather easily (Toronto showed nearly a 9% drop last year). That’s still a lot of information to analyse, there are over 80 countries involved. If anyone out there has a clearer idea of how the Earth Hour organisers will make their estimate, please let me know!

However it’s done, the important thing is that people should participate. It’s not just about telling the politicians, it’s also about telling the other 6 out of 7 people, and encouraging them to add their voices too. Maybe there’s something special happening near you. If not, there’s a list of suggestions for things to do during Earth Hour on the Earth Hour site, some of which can definitely be more fun in the dark than with the lights on!