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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7 Tips for Keeping Warm this Winter

If you’re currently reading this in San Diego, or somewhere equally warm, then you might want to skip this post, but if you’re in a somewhat cooler climate, December is a good time to start thinking about keeping warm. Particularly if some of the longer range predictions about this being an especially cold winter turn out to be true.

If you’re sat at home, how warm is your room ?

If you don’t know, consider spending £5 to get yourself a room thermometer this Christmas.

Room temperature is normally taken to be 20C , with typically quoted values ranging from 18 – 21C, the range in which most of us will feel fairly comfortable. Below this increased health risks begin to occur, below 18C most people will begin to experience some discomfort, while below 16C there is an increased risk of respiratory disease. Below 12C there is an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, and below an ambient living temperature of 9C hypothermia is a possibility. An extra 27,000 deaths occur over the winter in the UK, mostly of the elderly.

So it’s vitally important for both our health and our comfort to keep ourselves warm during the cold weather, but on the other hand we might be concerned about wasting both energy and money. Whether we’re motivated by reducing our carbon footprint or our energy bill (in my case it’s both) it’s important we manage to keep warm as efficiently as possible.

Here are a few tips – you might want to share them with more elderly family, friends or neighbours.


It seems obvious, but a if you have a central heating system controlled by just a single thermostat, that’s probably what you’re doing. Fitting room thermostats or radiator thermostat valves will let you heat just the rooms you use most – ie: not the spare bedroom, front room, conservatory etc.


Again, another ‘no-brainer’, but a surprising number of homes with central heating systems don’t have effective timer controls. Check your controls to make sure the heating is only on when you’re there.


A draught is ventilation in the wrong place (and vice-versa). Go draught hunting and use draught excluders, letterbox and keyhole covers, insulation strips, thick curtains and similar to deal with them. It your home is particularly draughty you might want to consider using a thermal camera to identify them (though it might be a good idea to get advice before hiring one). Remember though that it’s best to leave at least some ventilation somewhere in the house, to allow exchange of air.


Some ‘how to keep warm lists’ suggest letting warm bath water cool in the bath etc as a good idea to help heat your home. Generally speaking this isn’t a good idea, for two reasons. Firstly, moist air takes more energy to heat than dry air does – so the more water vapour you have in your home, the colder it will be (for a given amount of heating). Secondly, the water vapour doesn’t magically disapear – it just condenses on cold surfaces, like exterior walls and windows, often giving rise to black mould, which can become a significant health hazard. Avoid drying wet clothes on radiators without adequate ventilation, and make sure steam from cooking is properly vented.


Opening the curtains during the day to let in sunlight, and closing them as it starts to go dark, in order to retain heat might not make a huge difference in most homes, but it will help, and could be quite beneficial if your home has a conservatory, or other large expanse of exterior glass. Obviously the better insulated your curtains are the more effective they will be.


We wrap up warm when we go out in the cold, most of us could do a lot better at wearing warmer clothes inside as well. There are all sorts of suitable, comfortable ‘lounge-ware’, from jogging trousers and jumpers, to socks, thermals and even hats. I can confirm the currently popular onesies are very effective for keeping warm (though far too embarrassing to answer the door in) ! Sitting under a blanket to watch TV is also a good idea.


Your body keeps warm by using the food you’ve eaten, so if your home is cold it’s especially important to make sure you’re eating well, preferably with plenty of hot meals and hot drinks, while alcohol tends to lower core body temperature. A spot of exercise might also be a good way to help keep warm.

Photo by Ruben Laguna via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – Cold Cold Wind, Insulation’s What You Need

Flooding and Global Weirding

This article was first posted in November 2012 – but unfortunately seems equally appropriate for January 2014 !

Apologies for only updating NextStarfish once last week – one of the reasons is that I’ve spent quite a lot of time battling the effects of the UK’s latest flooding in my day job. Unfortunately, with more rain forecast over the next 24 hours, it’s probably not quite over yet.

Almost every year  it seems there’s more flooding, more properties affected, more damage and more demands for investment in flood defences – what’s going on ?

Partly it’s the media of course – online and 24 hour news coverage mean we hear more about, and are more aware of, flooding than ever before.

Secondly there are simply more of us around than there used to be. An extra 10 million in the UK compared to 50 years ago, so any given incidence of flooding is likely to affect a greater number of people. This is true right across our crowded world, especially in dense urban areas, which are often located on the coast or on rivers, and which become home to millions more every year.

Thirdly we’ve changed the way water flows through the landscape. Centuries of paving over more and more soil and installing drainage networks to quickly route rainfall downhill into the nearest stream, works well for saving us from puddles and a spot of soggy ground under typical rainfall conditions, but trying to direct all that water rapidly down the same pipes into the same watercourses is a recipe for disaster when the big storm comes!

Fourthly we’re putting ourselves in the way of the water more and more – as our cities have expanded we’ve built ever more homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure on flood plains. As most of us have become increasingly insulated from the reality of nature over the years, we’ve forgotten that ‘rivers sometimes get larger’ and ‘flood plains sometimes flood’, and, it seems, allowed less and less space for water.

If we want less flooding, it seems we’re going to have to get smarter in planning our towns and cities in ways that don’t put us on a collision course with water.

But there’s also another question – whether we’re also experiencing more frequent and more extreme rainfall events?

Is our weather changing ?

Lots of commentators seem to think they know the answer.

How do they know ?

Unfortunately our personal observations and recollections are just not all that reliable or helpful – recalling a particular long hot summer or heavy snowfall from childhood is a poor line of evidence for the reality of global climate change. Our memories are far from infallible, and tend to highlight the unusual, rather than the usual. In any event they are by definition local, limited to wherever we were, as well as to our own single human lifetime.

What does science have to say ?

Can we look at the evidence and work out what’s going on ?

A lot of people are asking the same question, whether in connection with droughts across America, monsoon failures in India or hurricanes in New York.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m a Pollution Scientist, not a Climate Scientist, and if I’m honest I haven’t really spent much time looking at the data, so even if I felt compelled to offer you my opinion, it probably wouldn’t be worth you listening to it!

But there are a increasing number of well respected institutions, who have offered their opinion, dabbling in the new field of attribution science. They’re probably worth listening to: 

NASA state that the number of record high temperatures in the US has been increasing, while record lows have been decreasing, as well as increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.

The European Environment Agency state that the combined impacts of projected climate change and socio-economic development is set to see the damage costs of extreme weather events continue to increase.

Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office has stated that “we are much more confident about attributing [weather effects] to climate change. This is all adding up to a stronger and stronger picture of human influence on the climate.”

So is this current flooding the direct result of climate change ? – Who knows – impossible to tell.

Is climate change making flooding like this more likely in the future ? – It appears the answer is yes.

It might not be much comfort to those affected by the recent flooding, but at least rich societies like the UK can provide alternative shelter, support and assistance to those affected, and devote resources to developing resilient communities and preventing future flooding.

This is not the case in many parts of the world, where millions are still living with the after effects of more catastrophic floods.

If you’re currently affected by flooding – the best of luck in sorting out your problems.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]

Photo Image used under Creative Commons License from Salford University, via Flickr

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9 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Lists of  ’ways to reduce your carbon footprint’ are hardly new on environmental websites, and no doubt, as you’re all such wonderful people, you will all already be well on the way to a low carbon life already.

This list is just another reminder, a small nudge, to help keep us all focused on what is perhaps the most significant threat our planet will face in our lifetime.

Personal actions alone aren’t going to suddenly bring atmospheric CO2 levels back into line, but on the other hand, without them nothing will !


Energy use in our home (or place of work) is the seemingly obvious place to start, in reducing carbon emissions. More efficient heating and lighting and improved insulation are all important areas, as is improving energy efficiency by turning off unused appliances, using room thermostats and timers to properly control heating and cooking more efficiently (for example by keeping lids on, using pressure cookers and not over-filling pans with unnecessary water that needs boiling etc). By using less water we also reduce the need to abstract, treat, store and supply so much, reducing our carbon emissions further, as does producing less wastewater for treatmeent, including unnecessary toilet flushing.

We can also take steps to ensure that the energy we do use has as low a  level of carbon as possible associated with it, perhaps by generating some electricity ourselves from solar cells, or using solar thermal tubes to heat domestic water.

There is also the vitally important question of where we buy our energy from. Though obviously all electricity is essentially the same once fed into the grid, by selecting a supplier who will invest in low carbon generation, we can help decarbonise our countries energy supply.


Of course we should all try to travel less, by grouping trips together or using phone/email/video-conferencing in place of travelling in order to meet-up. Arranging for home delivery is also usually more efficient than making a special trip to the store.

We could try becoming more familiar with local bus and train routes and timetables, and trying to use public transport as much as possible. We should also try to share transport wherever we can by lift sharing and car pooling. Most obviously, we should also try to walk, rather than drive, where we can.

Air travel unavoidably generates significant quantities of carbon, and we should also think carefully about the amount of flying we undertake. Anyone flying a few times a year will emit more carbon through air travel than all their other activities combined!


A significant percentage of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by agriculture, food processing and transport. Eating a greater proportion of locally produced food, unprocessed food, and food with less packaging, will significantly reduce carbon emissions. Growing any food ourselves ticks all three boxes.

A number of foods also have greater carbon emissions associated with them, particularly meat, and in limiting our consumption of these high carbon foods we can further reduce our emissions.


Better, in this context, means lower carbon footprint over the lifecycle. More energy efficient home appliances, gadgets, cars, are all obvious choices, but it’s usually more beneficial to buy second hand items wherever possible, and reduce the carbon generation associated with production and transport of something new – second hand furniture, clothes, toys, books, bikes, tools are all possible options.

The issues of durability and repairability are also important. Much less carbon will be produced repairing a good quality product than simply throwing away an inferior one that isn’t worth repairing, and buying another.

We should also try to buy locally produced goods wherever possible, to reduce the transport impacts.


The easiest way to minimise the carbon emissions associated with the production of various goods, is simply not to buy them.

Many of us in the developed world have a highly consumerist lifestyle, being obsessed on a constant cycle of working-earning-shopping and throwing away. Changing our lifestyle so we gain more enjoyment from non-consuming activities, such as spending more time with family and friends, or enjoying the outdoors and nature, will reduce our dependency on shopping and consumption, as an enjoyable pastime.

It’s not all bad news though. We can also shift more of our consumption from material goods to digital goods and services, which typically have a much lower associated carbon footprint.


Energy is needed to treat and dispose of the waste we produce, but far more importantly waste also represents unnecessary energy usage and associated carbon emissions. Whether food waste, packaging, junkmail, old clothes, unrecycled building materials or anything else, waste represents an inefficient use of our resources.

As the wider economy moves to reduce/reuse/recycle as much as possible, we should work to do likewise in our personal lives – producing as little waste as we can, reusing items or donating them so others can. Finally recycling them as a last resort.


The thing is all of the above takes time, and effort, and daily life is all too often hectic and exhausting. Many of us struggle to reduce our emissions because we are too pressed for time, or too short of energy to change.

Sometimes it’s just easier to jump in the car, buy a packaged ready meal or throw stuff out rather than sort through it and donate it. If that sounds familiar, you might first have to look at slowing down your pace of life, so you can then find the time and energy to tackle reducing your carbon footprint.


You might have seen endless lists of ways to reduce your carbon footprint talking about things like  turning off the lights when you leave the room for five minutes, making sure your car tires are properly inflated to maximise efficiency, using both sides of a piece of paper or using rewashable towels instead of paper napkins.

While these aren’t wrong, they do tend to miss the point.

We’re not going to manage to avert our current course from potentially catastrophic global warming by simply making a few tiny changes like these here and there in our lives.

We’re actually going to have to live differently.

Hopefully better technology will help us out, but we’re also going to have to change our collective behaviour.


Pretty much the most important thing you can do from this list is to influence others to start reducing their carbon footprint too. Tell your friends, family and work colleagues, use you social media and also be sure to let your MP, Council, school or employer know your thoughts.

Of course there’s the tricky question of how you tell them.

In most cases pointing out the extra advantages of reducing carbon might prove more effective than focusing on the carbon issue alone. Insulation = lower bills. Car sharing = less petrol. Switching to digital billing = less paperwork. Using technology instead of sending staff travelling to meetings = more efficiency.

Just in case you need a bit of extra motivation – this is a recent talk by Climate Blogger David Roberts, set to some nice visuals.

RELATED ARTICLES – Insulation’s What You Need, The Future of Energy, Climate Through the Data SmogDo You Believe in Climate Change ?, Saving Tomorrow Today 

Photo from NASA