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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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.

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Photo from NASA

We Don’t Want to Believe What We Know

In the words of The Doors, People Are Strange.

Take the phrase; ’face the facts.

We probably wouldn’t need a phrase for it, if there wasn’t any choice about it. Hard to imagine Star Trek’s logical Vulcan Mr Spock, or Lt Data ever choosing to do anything other than ‘facing the facts’. But we humans are strange.

It turns out that very often, we do exactly that – simply refusing to accept the facts. Rather than change our actions and behaviours in response to new information, we change our beliefs instead.

In 1954 the social psychologist Leon Festinger and a colleague infiltrated The Seekers, a small Chicago cult, which believed the end of the world was imminent. He wanted to document what happened when, presumably, the end of the world didn’t take place on December 21st 1954 as they had predicted. Expecting the disillusionment and fragmentation of the group, what actually happened surprised Leon and his colleagues – almost all the group changed their beliefs, deciding instead that the actions of their group had actually saved the world from destruction. Rather than accept their view of the world was wrong, they changed their beliefs to accommodate the ‘new facts’.

In his subsequent book ‘When Prophecy Fails‘, Leon coined the phrase Cognitive Dissonance to describe this process of the mind becoming aware that it holds two contradictory views at the same time, naturally wanting to resolve this ‘dissonance’, and so tending to modify the ‘less strongly held belief’ so it no longer contradicts the other – and very often this might mean refusing to accept new information that challenges a particularly strongly held belief.

We all do it.

- We don’t want to believe that eating junk food and not exercising will make us unhealthy, so we convince ourselves that there’s not that many calories in chocolate or wine, and anyway they has lots of other good health benefits.

- We don’t want to accept our holiday to our dream destination actually turned out a bit rubbish, so we focus on the positives, ignore the negatives and tell everyone how great it was.

- We don’t want to accept that we didn’t study enough for the test, so we tell ourselves the exam was particularly hard this year.

Leon wrote: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

It’s not that we ignore logic, just that our emotions work faster than our reason, so it’s our emotions that control our initial responses, and we just don’t like to admit to ourselves we were wrong . . .

It’s not hard to see how this applies to many of the world’s problems today – a couple of recent examples stand out:

- A group of climate sceptics in New Zealand have been legally challenging temperature records that show a warming trend.

- And in North Carolina legislators voted to ignore predictions of coastal impacts from sea level rise in planning decisions.

I can’t imagine there are too many climate sceptics who regularly read Next Starfish, and the rest of us might find it easy to scorn and laugh at stories like these, but perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to judge.

Spend ninety minutes watching Yann Arthus Bernard’s exceptional HD film Home below (you’ll need to open it in new browser), and then ask yourself – is my lifestyle really in tune with my beliefs ?

Cognitive dissonance affects us all, to a greater or lesser extent – it’s part of the human condition.

The good news is ‘we all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for ?’


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Photo from NASA

Retreat of the Glaciers

It’s often claimed by some of those skeptical of global warming and climate change that there is no evidence the world is in fact getting warmer.

There is of course a huge amount of observational data which confirms this, but in addition, you only have to look at the ‘then and now’ photos of the world’s glaciers to see that they are melting.

Glacier mass results from the accumulated balance of new snowfall, minus annual melt. While snowfall is a product of complex localised precipitation patterns, melt is almost entirely influenced by temperature. The hotter it is on average, the more ice will melt. Simple physics !

It’s a fact that the majority of the world’s glaciers are in retreat, and have been for over 150 years.

Apart from being an obvious visual indicator of global warming, this large scale loss of stored frozen fresh water is causing concern due to increasing drinking water shortages, flooding risks, and global sea level rise.

RELATED ARTICLES – Climate Through the Data SmogDo You Believe in Climate Change ? 

Photo by via Wikicommons

Meet KT Tunstall

The current series of ‘Foto Friday’ posts are focussing on individuals who are currently working in their own way to try and make a positive difference in the world.

The singer KT Tunstall (real name Kate), has always worked to offset the carbon emissions resulting from her music career – planting thousands of trees with the Carbon Neutral Company, in what is now part of the Carrifan Forest in Scotland.

She’s given her home a green makeover, and has done work for both the green lifestyle organisation GlobalCool and for World Environment Day. She is also a member of the celebrity-scientist organisation Cape Farewell, that organises groups of celebrities to accompany working environmental scientists on various working expeditions, in order to help raise awareness of the work they do and the issues involved.

In 2010 KT’s stepfather stood for election as a BNP candidate, causing KT to sever all ties and publicly disown him, stating “I abhor the BNP and everything it stands for”.


Photo by Rokfoto, via Wikicommons