Archive for December, 2009

Three degrees

I’ve just been reading some news articles about Copenhagen. The latest is a (confidential) UN report that states that even with the best offers on the table, the world will warm an average of 3 degrees Celsius.

I actually think this is being optimistic.

The trouble is that the Earth is not a ball of rock that heats up and cools down in a simple linear manner. There is an amazingly complex web of interactions (that we don’t fully grasp yet.) For instance, take the current level of warming, not even 1 degree Celcius, and yet the summer artic ice will be gone in a matter of a few years:

Real vs projected Ice-loss

Most scientists until just a couple of years ago, would never have expected the loss to be so rapid (see how the real loss compares with projected losses by the IPCC.)

It’s even worse that that though. The measure that is more valuable is not the area of ice covered, but volume, and that has been declining even faster than the graph above shows. As we lose the artic ice (which acts effectively like a mirror, reflecting heat away) the surrounding area warms up even more rapidly, defrosting vast tracts of Siberian permafrost. This permafrost contains immense stores of carbon dioxide and methane (a greenhouse gas which is shorter lived in the atmosphere, but much more potent.) These gases are locked up in these so-called “clathrates” which are stable only because of the freezing temperatures. Once these start to let-rip, they will further amplify the warming. This is a classic positive feedback. (negative feedbacks, which reduce the effects of global-warming, are unfortunately harder to find – an example would be people dying due to increased heatwaves.)

So, it’s like a tragic domino-effect, with one system affecting many others, which in turn affect others in a vicious cycle. If we can’t control it now, we’ll have no chance once this process gets under way.

Many scientists say that 2 degrees Celcius is a major ‘tipping point’ after which we’ll lose control, but in reality, it’s just an educated guess. It may be 1 degree – we may have already crossed this invisible boundary. There’s just no way of knowing. Look at the artic-ice decline projections again. We’re already tracking much worse than all modelling predictions from just a few years ago. Expect the science to become ever more alarming as the models are refined.

The trouble is that the Earth is much more dynamic, complex and subtle than anyone will likely ever realise. We should be aiming for immediate-as-humanly-possible cessation of emissions that we can control, even if it entails substantial sacrifice, because the alternative will be much, much worse.


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A tribute to Copenhagen

Following is a my tribute to the Copenhagen conference which as it stands isn’t going too well. This limerick was inspired by Radio National’s “Wonderful Copenhagen” competition (Fran Kelly did say she liked limericks!)

Wonderful Copenhagen
There once was a planet called Earth,
Then, 4.5 billion years after birth,
It evolved a new species,
From DNA pieces,
That polluted for all they were worth.

This continued ’til everyone felt,
The impact of artic-ice melt,
A global nightmare,
(Or full of hot-air?)
For many, disaster was spelt.

The science said 350 per mil,
Was the most CO2 we could spill,
If it grows any more,
We’ll see famine and war,
Our chances? Effectively nil.

Our last shot to counter stagnation:
A treaty to unite every nation!
We all tried to fight,
But it wasn’t done right,
Like a roll made with egg but not bacon.

The trouble was there from the start,
Wonderful Copenhagen was breaking apart,
Counting offsets, a subtraction:
A dangerous distraction,
Like methane from a cow’s fart.

This cautionary tale I now tell,
Whilst chiming our lonely death-knell,
The science was clear,
But it fell on deaf-ears,
Humanity was too hard a sell.

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Climate change denial

One thing that has puzzled me recently is how polling indicates that less people believe that climate change is real than a year ago. This seemed counter-intuitive especially as the science is now unequivocal that it is happening, and it’s largely caused by us:


Then I realised that maybe it’s a good thing. Denial is an emotional reaction and is typically the last stage before acceptance, so perhaps this shows that many people are reacting to the possible truth and all it’s consequences. A big moment for me was realising that climate change will profoundly affect food supplies, and not just make things ‘a bit warmer.’ I’ve also learnt that nature is interlinked in a myriad of ways we will probably never fully understand, and that you can’t tackle, say, the dwindling water of the Murray-Darling river system, without tackling climate change.

There are no easy answers and my belief is that we have to change our behaviors quite a bit as well as governments putting in regulation, encouraging investment in cleaner forms of energy and so on. Our government certainly hasn’t been up-front and honest about this, and continues to peddle the line that things can go on as before.

BTW – check out this brilliant, brilliant short film about the fallicy of ‘cap and trade’ systems for carbon pricing:


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