It’s Like An Ice Age Out There ?

168 - Polar BearsYou might not have come across the word Apologetics before.

It refers to the practice of defending a position or point of view against critics or opponents. It’s often used in a religious, or occasionally philosophical or political context . . . but I’m using it here in a scientific sense.

A climate change sense, to be specific.

As I’ve written before, I share the view that man-made climate change is real and occurring as a consequence of our use of fossil fuels, and also share the concerns of numerous organisations and individuals that this will have a potentially devastating effect on people everywhere, especially the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Responding to rising sea levels, repairing after more extreme weather events, ensuring sufficient water and food supplies and managing the resulting mass migrations that are likely to occur all look set to become incredible challenges for our warming world.

What we should do about this,  is a legitimate subject for debate. Less fossil fuels ? More renewables ? More nuclear ? More tree planting ? Less deforestation ? Lower energy agriculture ? More efficient agriculture ? Less meat ? GM crops ? Geo-engineering ? Adaptation ? Tax ? Subsidies ?

It makes sense to me to do what we reasonably can to quickly decarbonise our economies, and that in the interests of fairness, most of the cost of this should be borne by the richest economies and people in the world (ie: us). This approach is broadly known as contraction and convergence. This is my opinion – everyone else will have their own.

We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but there is seemingly ever more disagreement about the facts presented in the media.

We now have a debate between climate proponents and sceptics. Hawks and doves. Doom-mongers and denialists !

You might be familiar with some of the various sceptical arguments which frequently get cited:

CO2 is not a pollutant – only a harmless plant food

‘There is no evidence the climate is warming – it may even be cooling

‘The Earth’s climate changes naturally, and it’s nothing to do with us

The first one really just comes down to the definition of pollutant and harmless – though CO2 is clearly not totally harmless (that our bodies exhale it is a clue), but it’s toxicity isn’t really the issue here.

The second is just a misrepresentation of the facts. There is ample evidence that the world has a strong warming trend – regardless of weather it’s snowing outside Boris Johnson’s window.

The third is more interesting, because, of course it’s  half true.

The planet’s climate has indeed always changed, long before we had anything to do with it, and the extent of this change has been quite remarkable.

While most of us talk about ice ages, Geologists talk about glacials – periods when there is year round ice cover at one or both poles (such as now), and inter-glacials – periods when the world is totally ice free year round. We are currently coming out of an ice age, which peaked around 22,000 years ago, with widespread ice cover across much of Europe and North America, as far south as Germany, the UK and Ireland.

Going further back there have been numerous warm and cold periods in the Earth’s history, including a period around 400-600 million years ago, when the entire planet is thought to have frozen !

These glacial periods come and go, partly driven by the presence of large land masses at one or both of the planetary poles (via plate tectonics), partly by orbital variation around the sun, and partly (most scientists believe mostly) by variation in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

So given all this natural variation – do the sceptics have a point ?

It’s a question of timescale.

What’s different now is that  carbon dioxide levels have been increasing at incredibly rapid rate in recent years. Measurements of ice cores from Antarctica show that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels varied between 180 and 210 ppm during recent glacials, and 280-300 ppm during recent interglacials.

But, the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 391 ppm (2012), and is still rising.

We are quickly moving into atmospheric chemistry territory outside the normal range of the recent historical past – at least the last 800,000 years, and possibly much much longer. With global emissions continuing to increase year on year, ever higher levels are now effectively ‘locked-in’, no doubt triggering various tipping points and feedback mechanisms on the way.

Climate change is part of the natural state of the earth – but there seems little doubt our global use of fossil fuels is moving us quickly to somewhere new, outside the variation of the recent past, and that coming to terms with a much warmer world is going to be a significant challenge for us.

What we should do about it is going to have to be another post entirely . . . in the meantime think carefully before buying a house near sea level.

Photo by  Alastair Rae, via Wikicommons

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Save the World – Wear a Onesie

167 - OnesieHave you ever lost anything through a hole in your pocket ?

Imagine you knew you’d loose a quarter of any money you put in your pocket, it would get pretty annoying pretty quickly wouldn’t it? You’d have a couple of obvious options – put an extra 25% into your pocket every morning, so when you needed money you’d still have enough left, or alternatively, (drum roll) you could fix the hole.

What if you had a computer that that crashed 25% of the time, taking your recent work and files down with it . . . you could either spend more time redoing the work, or fix the computer.

Or what if you had a dishwasher that broke 25% of your plates . . . you could either keep buying replacement plates, or fix the dishwasher.

You get the idea.

What if you lived in a badly insulated home, so that 25% of the energy used to heat it almost instantly disappeared via draughts, or through the walls and roof, as waste heat ?

Sometimes I think that if heat was perhaps a luminous red colour, rather than being invisible, and we could see it wastefully escaping from our homes and workplaces, we’d probably be much better at conserving it (of course if you go draught hunting around your house with a thermal camera, that’s exactly how it’ll look).

We read almost constantly about the energy crisis the country, and indeed the whole world, is facing. There’s plenty of disagreement about where the extra energy we need should come from, but whether we import more gas, decide to build nuclear power stations, turn to fracking, or try our very best to expand renewables, there’s one thing no one seems to be disagreeing about – whatever we do, we’re very likely to be paying a lot more for our energy in the future. This isn’t news. We’ve all noticed our bills rising for some time, along with the rising cost of fuel and the knock on effects on the cost of all transported goods.

It’s not all about economics of course – there are also climate consequences, safety and pollution concerns, visual impacts and land and water resource implications. Clearly some possible sources of energy are worse than others, but they all have some downside.

But there is another alternative open to us.

We could use less !

It’s almost always easier to use less energy than produce more, and pound for pound it’s far more cost effective – even over quite short time frames. Buying another £1,000 of energy heats your house for a year or so. Spending £1,000 on energy efficiency measures, will mean your house uses less energy every year thereafter, and without generating any radioactive waste, upsetting anti-wind farm types, or contributing (much) to climate change.

In a typically confused environmental way, the current UK Government has policies that both support and work against energy efficiency at the same time. The Green Deal and the new national Green Bank are now both helping to support the public and businesses improve their energy efficiency. While at the same time energy efficiency regulations have been relaxed for a range of construction projects – a decision which looks set to land the government with a judicial review !

We tend to think of energy efficiency mainly in terms of low energy light bulbs, loft insulation and snake shaped draught excluders, as well as all kinds of other improved technologies from better car engines to smarter and more efficient power networks.

But improving efficiency isn’t just down to the technology

If we want low carbon affordable energy, we’re also going to have to change our behaviour, and make sure we’re using energy as efficiently as we can.

Most of us will already be doing all the easy stuff – switching off lights in empty rooms, turning things off properly – not just putting them on standby, not overfilling the kettle etc. All very sensible of course, but surely we all know it’s going to take a lot more.

Are we ready to give up our holiday flights ? Reorganize our lives and jobs so we need to drive much less ? Start repairing our things rather than constantly replacing and upgrading them ? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Another option for many of us could be to try getting used to having our homes a little colder. Thanks to central heating, our homes are now an average of 5 degrees warmer than they were thirty years ago.

If your thermostat is set at between 18-20 degrees or so, try dialing it back a little.

And if you’re cold, try wearing a onesie around the house to keep warm . . . you know it makes sense.


Photo by JBLM MWR Marketing via Flickr

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Slaying My Enoughasaurus for Lent

166 - CoinsWhat was the last thing you bought ?

And the thing before that ?

And before that ?

We could all go on, but for most of us sat reading this in the first world, it’s a list that very quickly becomes very long – snacks, clothes, gadgets, books, gifts, coffee, trips, fuel, entertainment, meals out, apps, toiletries, drinks, stuff for home, stuff for the kids, stuff for ourselves . . . It’s not that buying things in itself is bad, it’s just that we all consume so much.

Although it probably doesn’t seem like it, we’re among the richest people that have ever lived, and if you’re reading this online, somewhere warm and dry, with a full stomach and a drink that won’t give you a disease, you’re already one of the richest twenty five percent of people in the world. If you earn the average UK wage of £26,500 a year, you’re in the top 1% !

Drop in on the website How Rich am I to use their calculator and see how you measure up.

We know it’s a big world out there and we know there are millions and billions of people living in poverty while we have so much, but it’s somehow too much to comprehend, too distant, their lives are too different to ours – we can’t relate to it, so we don’t see ourselves as rich. This disconnect is entirely normal and natural, but it means we’re left comparing our lives and our stuff with the society around us . . . along with all the advertising, streets filled with shops and a focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, we’re easily left with the sense of wanting more in order to be happy.

US writer Jeff Yeager talks about ‘Slaying our Enoughasaurus’ – deciding that ‘enough is enough’ and conditioning ourselves to spend less and to be content doing so. He’s one of many now advocating a more frugal but happier life.

I’ve written several times about consumerism and simpler lifestyles but the truth is I’m as guilty as anyone else – it’s very hard not to be a hypocrite.

This Lent I’ll be doing a money diet – and reducing my spending as low as I can.

It’s obviously not a total ban on spending money – I’ll still be paying the bills, putting petrol in the car and food on the table, but the aim is not too much else. No takeaways, meals out, purchased lunches, drinks in the pub, clothes, books, games, music, apps, gadgets or anything else – well almost. I’ve decided to make a few exceptions: I’ve got two social commitments (a meal and a film) with friends that I’m going to honour, but I’ll be doing so very much at the frugal end of things. I’m also going to continue with the sport and exercise I do, but apart from this (and a trip to the dentist) I should be ‘consumption free’ until Easter . . . we’ll see what happens.

Six weeks doesn’t actually seem that long. Robin MacArthur went for a year without buying anything new (almost).

So why am I doing this ?

Well the idea is to teach myself a little more self-control and resilience – freedom from desire etc, but also to see how easy it would be to reduce our spending longer term. Having lower overheads, fewer commitments and more money in the bank seem generally very sensible things to do in these uncertain, austere times.

I’m also hoping giving up spending for Lent will encourage me to spend a bit more time in the garden . . . it definitely needs it !

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Photo by Tax Credits, via Flickr

Help Define Sustainable Development

165 - SustainabilityWhat’s your favourite oxymoron ?

You know, terms that are self-contradictory, like act naturally, original copy, open secret, deafening silence, military intelligence, or my personal favourite Microsoft Works.

How about Sustainable Development ?

Can development ever truly be sustainable ?

Ultimately it comes down to what you think the words sustainable and development mean.

Sustainability is the ability to endure, and in this context is usually taken to mean something along the lines of: The ability to meet our own needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (the so called Brundtland definition).

This implies that we should hope to provide future generations with the same access to resources that we have available to us today, including energy, raw materials, fresh water, fertile land or natural landscape and habitat.

So for example, when it comes to energy, solar is considered sustainable but oil is not – as roughly the same amount of solar energy will continue to fall on the planet every day (at least until far into the future), while oil is a finite resource and will become increasingly scarce before running out.

With more and more of us on the planet, and all of us wanting to have more and more stuff for ourselves, trying to develop sustainable practices and technologies is increasingly important if we want our children and grandchildren to have a better, or even a similar quality of life to us.

So back to development.

We all want homes to live in, jobs to go to, food on the table, health, education, leisure, water, sewerage, electricity, faster broadband, occasional holidays and any number of other things, which all makes development important and desirable. How can we do this in a sustainable way ?

If we build new homes far away from places of work and facilities, it means people will have to use more energy in travelling. If we build in flood plains it means more resources dealing with the effects of frequent flooding. If we don’t install sufficient insulation in new buildings, it means more energy in heating. If we don’t provide efficient plumbing and water storage systems, it means using more water than we need to. If we cut down a forest or concrete over a wetland to build a new town or motorway, it means there is less habitat left for wildlife.

These kind of considerations are very familiar to those of us with a ‘green streak’, but we must remember this is only one aspect of sustainability.

As well as the environmental, the social and economic aspects are equally important – issues of equality, opportunity, crime, access to jobs and services, affordability, fairness ? We don’t want to saddle future generations with either a depleted and polluted planet, a fractured and violent social structure, or a huge unaffordable debt.

Unfortunately these so called three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) are very often seemingly pitted against each other – Do you want unspoiled landscapes or wind turbines ? Do you want cheap food or low impact organic farms ? Do you want nice houses with gardens in the countryside, or more countryside ?

These are not easy questions to answer, and can be very emotive, especially when considering our own local environment – we might all be a little bit NIMBYist on occasion . . . but we have to remember recycling plants have to be built somewhere, unless you’re a BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) !

So what does all this matter ?

You might not be aware, but a New National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF) came into force in the UK last year, guiding the shape of the UK’s future development, and (so the Government hopes) helping construct our way back to economic growth.

In it there is a clear presumption in favour of sustainable development - but what does this mean ?

Unfortunately there’s no simple answer – we all weigh the various factors differently, and a global supermarket chain might have a very different view about what sustainable development means than you might, for example.

But there is something else.

The NPPF also includes a strong commitment to localism, improving the voice of the local community in the planning process – to help decide what gets built where, and what sustainable development means locally.

If we want the proposed wind farm, or don’t want the proposed supermarket then the onus is on us to find our voice – attend meetings, write letters, send emails, comment on policies and ultimately use our vote in local elections . . .

As a former physicist I’m partial to the odd Einstein quote, and though this one might seem a little strong, the sentiment applies:

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil. It will be destroyed by those who watch but do nothing”


Photo from Ivan Walsh via Flickr

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Madagascar – Not the Fun Side of the Island

164 - LemursWhen you think of Madagascar what do you think of ?

Perhaps its thick, dense tropical jungles inhabited by unique wildlife – especially lemurs, either that, or the Dreamworks cartoon film – also with lemurs.

Unfortunately, these days Madagascar is looking a bit different.

Since the first arrival of humans, Madagascar has lost over 90% of its original forest cover, and seen the extinction of many of its original native species, including the enormous elephant bird (extinct by the late 1600′s) and numerous species of giant lemur.

It is estimated around half of this deforestation has occurred since the 1950′s and is continuing today, fueled not only by traditional slash and burn methods of farming, but also by the continued expansion of beef cattle grazing, illegal logging, and clearance for mining and coffee production. All these practices are exacerbated by Madagascar’s extreme poverty and governmental corruption.

Madagascar is home to almost 100 different species of lemur – the iconic primates found nowhere else in the world, almost all species now being classified as endangered. Though lemurs have been legally protected for decades, many local people, desperate for income, continue to hunt them for sale as bushmeat, but it is the continuing destruction of their habitat that is driving them ever closer to extinction.

Solutions are hard to come by.

As in all such circumstances more regulatory protection and stricter controls can only provide a temporary solution. If we want our future world to contain lemurs living in the wild, we will have to find a way to ensure rural Madagascan’s are able to improve their standard of living and have achievable life aspirations without having to destroy their natural environment. Fair trade, debt relief, targeted aid and encouraging political reform will all play a part.

It’s estimated that over 400 million people have seen the Dreamworks Madagascar films, but only a tiny proportion are probably aware of the extent of the danger faced by lemurs and Madagascar’s forests – something you might want to mention the next time the films are repeated on TV.

Photo by Cornelliuscz, via Flickr

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