Interviews And Articles by Nick Breeze
The UK has recently experienced a deluge of terrible weather that is bringing many parts of the country to crisis point. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, rolled up his sleeves and appeared on the BBC to exclaim: “We are in it for the long haul!”
David Cameron: "We're in it for the long haul!"
I had never previously considered Cameron to be an ironist but with this defying slogan he has proved himself a man of fine wit… even if slightly distasteful in the circumstances. The mainstream media in the UK seem to have an embargo on telling the public the truth about all the extreme weather (and the rest of the world) we are getting. It is worth keeping in mind that it is not just us. The US has experienced incredibly harsh freezing conditions, while the west coast is unseasonably hot with California recording its worst ever drought and Alaska experiencing extraordinary heat anomalies. In Europe, 40% of Slovenia's forests have been badly damaged by ice storms. In Australia heatwaves are breaking new records, floods in Bolivia have left 42 people dead, while in Brazil, extreme drought means that the water supplies of over 140 cities are now being rationed. The list really does go on. The weather is changing around the world and fast.
Last weekend I visited a friend in Salcombe, Devon and as we hiked along the coast we witnessed the erosion in realtime as the waterlogged cliff was literally collapsing into the sea. Concrete roads eaten away by the roaring seas. The houses that look out boasting views that would merit the front page of a travel supplement, now look eerily precarious. Dead birds litter the beaches and one can only imagine the stress being put on local wildlife as a whole.
Devon Coastline, West of Salcombe, February 2014
The BBC recently made an assessment highlighting a link to the loss of Arctic sea ice that is playing a big role in climate change. As any scientist who is looking at the Arctic will tell you, it is warming much faster than the rest of the planet and as it does so, it turns from white reflective skullcap into a dark heat absorbing region of the globe, which is actually accelerating the warming process.
It was the temperature differential between the Arctic and the equatorial regions that maintained the stability of the Jetstream, this is the fast moving band of high latitude winds that kept the cold air in the Arctic. As the Arctic warms and the temperature differential reduces, the Jetstream has become much more wavy and these larger waves are progressing far slower around the globe (see animation below). Because the amplitude of the waves is getting greater, the air masses have to travel much further north and south, and this means that the wind speeds increase producing the violent storms that we have been experiencing, and the sticking weather patterns.
Without the sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar regions and the tropics will continue to reduce and we can therefore expect to experience even greater extremes in the coming years. This will have disastrous consequences for farmers all over the world. Couple this with the desperate state of the world’s oceans which are increasingly polluted and acidifying, it is clear an impending global food crisis may be only a few years away.
Jetstream Animation Produced By NASA
Some politicians, especially those in the British, Canadian and Australian governments are playing down the causes of these extremes saying that “weather is always changing”. Well this is true of course but on a totally different timescale. Ice core records do show that the Earth has spent long periods at both hotter and cooler temperatures. The depth of last ice age was only 4 C cooler than now on a global average and the ice age cycle is every 100,000 years, driven by the earth's orbit. The difference now is the speed of the change driven by man’s release of carbon dioxide, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, which has added 40% more CO2 to the makeup of our atmosphere. Ice core records also show that the Earth responds slowly to change and that there is a lag in the system, this means that whatever course of action we take, there is more warming to come.
Dr Jennifer Francis - Understanding the Jetstream
The issues we face now are all directly attributable to how we power our lives as a society and almost everything we do has a carbon cost in its action, or its production. At a time when we desperately need to cut our carbon emissions globally, we are doing the opposite by continuing to increase them in ever larger quanitities, which is making matters much, much worse. Yet here in Britain, where we have the capacity to install renewable energy systems, Prime Minister David Cameron is marching around Britain telling us all we should jump on board with fracking and commit ourselves to a suicidal carbon pollution based future. So for once we have a politician who is (inadvertently) telling us the truth: “We are in it for the long haul!”.
David Cameron’s government has as its key advisers senior figures from the world of fracking and oil. People like Peter Lilly and Lord Brown, who play very prominent roles in policy formation, are ignoring the risks posed to civilians by climate change, in order to make short term financial gains. Peter Lilly MP is also the Vice Chairman and Senior Independent Non-Executive Director at Tethys Petroleum with earnings of £70,000 last year alone. These kinds of conflicts of interest mean that policy making in the UK is corrupt. Mainstream media is being complicit in not properly discussing the causes of climate change. They also seem to have missed the fact that the debate about climate change has moved on from "is it happening?", to "just how extreme is it? How much time do we have available to us and how best to repair our atmosphere?"
BBC News Saturday 15th February
The scientific community now understands what is happening to the Earth’s climate. In the crudest of terms the world is getting hotter and ice is melting. The Greenland ice sheet is 3 kilometres thick in places and its middle has turned soft like butter. It is carving off into the ocean at an ever accelerating rate. If we lose it then we will incur 7 metres of sea level rise. It is no longer a case of “if”, it is a case of “when”.
Most immediate is the effect of the destabilising weather patterns on global food supply. Prices are predicted to go up as food becomes harder to produce. Britain is experiencing new trends in weather extremes. Without serious change in policies and leadership from international governments, there is going to be incredible pain and suffering around the world. What we are now learning is that no one is exempt. Centuries of relatively stable weather enabled us to build extensively close to coasts and on floodplains. Dramatic photographs that we see in the media of houses and villages under water reflect this very clearly. It is a nightmare for the residents who are now learning that their homes are in the front line of climate change, leaving them unliveable, uninsurable and unsellable.
On the bright side it is worth noting that there are good and clever people around the world who are taking these threats seriously and are developing proposals to remove the carbon from the atmosphere. But none of these proposals can really be successful if we carry on pouring our waste gases into the skyfill site. So the ball is thrown back to us to demand change from our leaders and a rapid transition to as close as possible to 100% clean energy. In answer to the question, what can we as individuals do, well if our leaders are too stupid to understand the science or too-weak to detach themselves from hydrocarbon paymasters, then we must vote them out of office.
We do still have a chance to turn this situation around but the window of opportunity is closing. If we cannot make the change then the natural world will respond by forcing change upon us that we will not like. And that will sincerely be “for the long haul” (or in geological terms, the short-haul to extinction!).
Facing The extreme Nature Of Changing Climate
For more information on how the heating Arctic is effecting global climate you can watch David Wasdell's Arctic Dynamics presentation: Video: Arctic Dynamics (Part 1 & 2) by David Wasdell
By Nick Breeze
And Bru Pearce
David Wasdell: Director of the Apollo-Gaia Project discusses Earth sensitivity to temperature, computer climate models and the link to greenhouse gas emissions:
Filmed and produced by Nick Breeze Twitter: @NickGBreeze
It is reassuring to see the Royal Geographic Society kicking off the new year season of Monday night lectures with one on the subject of climate change, delivered by the newly ennobled and eminent Dame Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the UK Met Office.
Guardian Headline Warning: UK Storms Batter Coast During Christmas 2013
Professor Slingo is an establishment figure who has worked tirelessly in developing the worldwide reputation of the Met Office, as a leading institution with the ability to analyse both regional weather and develop our understanding of climate change. In this lecture, she set out to explain how her stable of over 500 scientists have been working to build powerful computer models that can simulate climate and tell us what the far reaching effects of climate change are going to be.
After several demonstrations of how the models have performed compared with actual observations in recent years, Professor Slingo then vented her annoyance when people criticise the models and the results that they produce, describing them as her “laboratory”, where she and her colleagues go to study the climate. There is a direct correlation between the accuracy of the models and the computing power driving them. Recent years have seen enormous advances in the ability to model our atmosphere in much greater detail. The models rely on data from many sources, such as atmospheric greenhouse gases, moisture in the air, the movement of the thermohaline circulation, storm tracks and intensity, and so on. The more data fed into the model (and computing power available to process it), the better the results.
In terms of the IPCC report published every 7 years, Professor Slingo reassuringly made the point that this is not frequent enough in terms of being able to inform policy, as the weather and climate operate in real time, constantly responding to an almost endless number of feedbacks that cause changes. The need for ongoing analysis and developing intelligence is vital.
This neatly set the stage for the main core of the lecture: the growing need for understanding of climate change for everyone from policy makers, farmers, vulnerable populations, insurance companies and, as most of us around the world have recently experienced in various forms of extreme weather events, us the public. We are all, she says, potential climate “customers” of the Met Office. This concept has led to greater collaboration with the UK government who are funding the development of the models, based on a principal that money can be made from the creation of such valuable knowledge (which is true!).
Professor Peter Wadhams, Professor Martin Rees And Dr Hugh Hunt Discuss Emissions, Temperature And Carbon Dioxide Removal
But is there a fly in the ointment? The IPCC report has set a “target” of 2 degrees centigrade as a safe level of warming that human civilisation can go to before climate change becomes dangerous. Having myself interviewed many scientists working on Earth’s sensitivity to temperature, it seems that this figure of 2C has very little grounding in climate science at all. The Earth, as Professor Slingo pointed out, has warmed 0.8C since preindustrial times. We know that the planet takes many years to catch up with the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so the 0.8C we are experiencing now (coupled with ever increasing extreme weather events) are just the beginning of what we have in store.
Temperature will keep rising even if we managed to stop emitting gases such as carbon dioxide and methane right away. The other trouble on the horizon is that as the Earth warms, it triggers other feedbacks within the system that then accelerate the warming further. These feedbacks are many and still not fully understood. However, what we do know is that many of them are not included in the models and scientists doing work in this area are concluding that even warming of 1.5C is likely to trigger feedbacks that could accelerate warming to more like 4-5C and rising. A good example is the warming of the Arctic and the loss of sea ice. The rapidity of the loss of sea ice was predicted by scientists such as Professor Peter Wadhams who had been studying the thinning of the sea ice volume, in addition to the reduction in area (satellites only capture the extent/area but the volume has been measured from submarines able to move beneath the ice) over several decades. Strangely the models disagreed with what the eye could see and were still predicting a much more gradual loss leading to an ice free Arctic somewhere around 2080. These figures have been revised back to about midcentury but still seem to lag what is actually being seen with first hand observations.
The main point here seems to be that the foundation upon which the Met Office is getting ready to inform policy and global awareness of climate change is seemingly very flawed. There was a sense in the audience that 2C was a target that we are going to achieve and that as long as we have the models to guide us through then we will be able to adapt. Professor Slingo produced a slide with the words “mitigation and adaptation”. In other words, lets stop producing greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and agriculture, combined with accepting a certain level of climate change that we’ll adapt to. Various photographs of farmers and people in worst affected areas were shown to reinforce this point. Perhaps worrying to me is the fact that these images make climate change appear as if it is a problem for the rest of the world and that we, crammed into the Kensington auditorium, have quite a lot less to worry about.
Part of the IPCC discussion has centred around the idea of a “emissions budget”, which equates to how much more carbon dioxide we can emit before we have to stop, in order to avert dangerous climate change. Dates are being set a decade or two from now as the timeline that we have to work to. It would be interesting to know how these figures are reached because, again, climate scientists looking at the level of warming we are due from what we have already pumped into the atmosphere, know all too well that there is no budget left. We are way passed the level of safe concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Mitigation is a must but it will not be enough. Adaptation to the extreme weather events and destabilisation of the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets mean that we are moving into a very different planetary system. For many people around the world, surviving, let alone adapting, is going to be a very serious challenge. Those of us in more temperate climates will face the knock on effects of unstable climate, resource shortages and climate refugees.
Another hot topic that is now being discussed by many scientists and engineers is the need to start drawing carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere. If we could extract the gases from the atmosphere bringing the concentrations down from the current 400parts per million to somewhere near 320 parts per million (preindustrial levels were 280 parts per million), then we would stand a better chance of restoring the climate to something like which we’d be happy to call “home”. This is no easy task, as the amount of gases we currently put up into the atmosphere is far greater than any other material we handle on the planet. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try but it does mean it wont happen over night. Carbon dioxide removal is the essential third title to add to “mitigation and adaptation”. However, mitigation itself is currently a pipe-dream as humanity is ramping up its emissions as opposed to bringing them down. Even the IPCC “business as usual” scenario for greenhouse gas emissions states that we will hit 4C warming by the end of the century. Add in accelerated heating from multiple feedbacks (many are absent in the climate models) and this figure doubles and then triples. Welcome to the inferno!
To return to the Met Office climate modeling, it seemed more clear that this talk was about selling to us, the public, the idea that somehow the models are going to navigate us through this climate change challenge. I don’t personally find it very reassuring. The fact that an impaired and approximate simulation of our hugely complex planetary system, becomes the bedrock of reality for which we plan our futures in the real world, seems more like a form of escapism. Models are vital but they must be much more powerful than they currently are and much more detailed. They must also not seek to downplay what is going on in the real world from observation. If we go down this route then we are really entering the world of fantasy and there does seem to be much of it around at the moment.
In a discussion with friends who have no special interest in climate change, after the lecture, they seemed a little vague as to what they were meant to have taken away. The subject seemed so vast that it was best left to the experts. This again is great mistake. Climate change is an issue that is effecting us now and will continue to do so in ever greater ways. It is essential that we demand robust information and effective policy from those who are in a position to deliver it. Of course, the old adage said by many environmentalists that there is no “planet B” could be wrong. The Met Office models maybe a far safer place to live than down here on Planet A... let’s hope so!
- Written by Nick Ryle Nick Ryle
- Published: 30 October 2013 30 October 2013
Born Risky? More Like Born Timid...
By Nick Ryle, Documentary Producer
The launch of a new, ITB sponsored report into how TV deals with climate change was an interesting, lively but ultimately depressing event.
Logic would dictate that our 2 public service broadcasters, The BBC and Channel 4 would take on some responsibility for communicating basic messages around climate change and the threat that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree is coming our way. But they don’t.
Climate change on TV is still seen through the same filter as any other genre. In this case, it’s a bit tricky to explain, there isn’t anything sexy to shoot, it’s scary, and it’s a turn off for viewers. Therefore, they don’t want to touch it. Yes, lip service is paid by “smuggling” the message in via other formats. Yes, Countryfile will include serious environment stories, but it is a staggering fact that no hour long documentary dealing with climate change ran on any main channel in the 12 months surveyed by the ITB report.
This is just not good enough. This is not just another genre. It is the subject that should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, from politicians through business to the man on the street. Surely, the challenge is clear. The real actions needed to combat climate change and to give us a chance won’t happen until they are perceived as vote winners. Those actions won’t be vote winners until people, particularly young people are convinced that something has to be done and that something will involve sacrifice and change. They’ll be convinced when they know the story and developing narrative.
The position of Channel 4 is particularly feeble. This is a channel with a clear public service remit. A channel whose current slogan is “Born Risky”. Cue sound of multiple jaws hitting the floor, because Channel 4 is probably as risk averse now as its ever been. Maybe it’s about to change, but from what Ralph Lee said last night, not so much so that it will take a risk to find an innovative way to put across the most important message of our time to a mass audience.
I’m in the production world and I’ve tried pitching climate change ideas to C4. At the moment, there is simply no appetite. Maybe the Global Warming Swindle farrago has left scars that haven’t healed, but saying it’s a difficult subject that will put viewers off is pathetic. Find a way. Make it a creative priority. Put out a brief to the brilliant pool of UK independent production companies to come up with the stunning film that will create headlines, stimulate debate, set the agenda and re-establish C4 as the campaigning, risk taking, upstream broadcaster it is currently pretending to be. They did it with the excellent Fish Fight. With the right will they can do it with climate change. Personally, I believe the story of the deniers and the culture of deniability is a fascinating one and offers a neat narrative to which the key messages can be justifiably attached. And if it doesn’t pull in the largest audience, so what? Done right, it will definitely attract noise and get C4 onto their beloved front pages. And C4 will have taken a risk on behalf of all of us.
The BBC have an issue with their editorial guidelines and their demand for balance and fairness. They can’t campaign or editorialise like other channels and that has to be accepted. However, when the scientific community is so united behind the overall evidence for climate change, what sort of balance is really required? Balancing the views of the Deniers against the science is comparing apples and pears – they aren’t the same thing. Yes, its complicated, but it would be wonderful to see some commitment from the BBC to finding a way through this issue.
To summarise, the current report card for UK broadcasters is a B- at best. This needs to change. Its just too important.
By Nick Ryle, Documentary Producer
[Invite read] I am pleased to invite you to this report launch jointly hosted by International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) and the APPCCG, examining television coverage of the environment in UK.
Key findings from the research will be presented, followed by a panel discussion.
Members of the panel will include:
- Bill Lyons, Executive Editor, Countryfile, BBC
- Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs, Channel 4
- John Smithson, Creative Director, Arrow Media
- Chris Rapley, Climate Change Scientist
- Caroline Haydon, author of IBT report
View From The Audience
by Nick Breeze
This week I attended the “Report Launch: International Broadcasting Trust’s ‘The environment on tv: Are broadcasters meeting the challenge?” in the House of Commons in Westminster. This was an interesting meeting that included the scientist, the NGO, the Channel 4 “Factual Programming Commissioner”, the BBC Producer, the report presenter and was chaired by MP and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, Joan Walley. It was a valuable meeting because it brought together strands of the debate on why television, the UK’s most powerful mainstream media channel, was not putting out any programmes that directly discuss climate change.
I was with Nick Ryle, a TV documentary producer, who has had multiple experiences trying to pitch climate change programmes to Channel 4. They all fell flat. The broadcasters do not see it as their responsibility to communicate these challenges because they find it difficult. It is a great shame because what came across to the attendees at this report launch, and was voiced, was that these gatekeepers of the programming budgets, lack the creativity, and the will power, to tackle “the biggest drama that we have ever faced in the world”. That was a phrase that the scientist on the panel, Professor Chris Rapley, coined, and it is very apt. The Channel 4 factual commissioner repeatedly stressed that it was not his job to turn viewers off by presenting the reality of climate change. It was clear that he and his colleagues could not even conceive of looking at the issues as an opportunity to bring about a change in behaviour and policy through deeper understanding.
They asked repeatedly what we thought an audience could take away from a subject perceived as inherently negative. Nick Ryle said quietly that their statements were a “cop out” and this was echoed by others. We have a golden opportunity to look at the solutions that are available to us, in order to overcome the issues we face. It demonstrated, very clearly, a lack of coherent knowledge enabling these “experts” to act responsibly and creatively, thus bringing the audience on a journey towards demanding policy changes and comprehending the forces responsible for maintaining this dangerous and dying paradigm. The vagueness and self-satisfactory positioning of their authority was nothing more than stepping down from critical challenges when they should be stepping up and leading the way.
Understanding how the broader audience respond, should not mean taking no steps to engage them responsibly but rather a more coordinated and in depth strategy to break through and present the truth. Isn’t that what we expect from our mainstream media? It is, perhaps, the remit of the social media channels to take up that challenge and start to reach just as big audience in new ways. Still, there are many of us trying to do this but we do lack those large budgets and profile that can help us achieve those big audiences. All is not lost, we must simply continue. It means that the television takes another step down the road of irrelevance and ends up being little more than a means of escapism; carefully managed information for a large portion of voters who, we are told, cannot stand too much reality.
Drought & Extreme Heating Will Increase Even If We Stop Emitting... But Doing Nothing Is Not An Option
Nick Breeze talks to Earth Dr Reese Halter in the latest podcast episode of the 'Atlantic Pacific Breeze'.
This is an extended conversation where Reese explains why the world is getting hotter and what the impacts will be. Reese explains why we have two choices:
1. Action that will help us survive climate change, or,
It's a serious subject and one that we all need to be talking about, and demanding that our leaders take action on. As Reese points out: If you have a vote in your country... tell the people who are asking for it that they better take action on climate change!
"This is very, very serious... "
Keeping the Bees Buzzing
By Dr. Reese Halter
Are you aware that honeybees in America generate in excess of $44 billion in commerce, annually? I’ve been intrigued with bees all my life. They continue to show my colleagues important new information. Bees are most certainly modern-day canaries in coal mines, worldwide.
Recently, Italian researchers from the University of Trento found that just like humans shake with their right hands, honeybees also greet each other by predominantly using their right antennas. Apparently, the right antenna picks up on certain ‘social cues’ including recognition of their hive mates.
Bee brains might be small, but they are packed with about 960,000 functional neurons (compared to 86 billion for humans). Bee neurons enable them to clearly recognize a human face as well as exactly communicate by dancing where food (nectar and pollen), water and tree resin (used along with bee enzymes for making potent anti-microbial propolis or glue) are located as far as eight miles away.
A team of scientists lead by Cardiff University has just revealed some fascinating secrets of bees’ honeycomb.
Honeycomb is a precise hexagon, six-sided, wafer-thin wax that honeybees make from their abdomen, which provides phenomenal strength for storage of honey. Two pounds of beeswax supports 48 pounds of honey! By the way, over a half a century ago the aeronautics industry recognized the strength of honeycomb and adapted nature’s design to enhance the bending and stiffness of aircraft wings, as the wings must support loads of fuel in the aircraft.
It turns out that honeycomb starts out as a circle and gradually forms into a hexagon. The subtle flow of wax is turned semi-molten by the heat of 113 degrees from a special class of worker bees. The wax becomes elastic, stretching like toffee forming a tiny point that becomes a perfect angle within the hexagon. Some incredible physics and math occur in order to form honeycomb.
Frighteningly, something is going very wrong around the globe in our environment: 20,000 species of bees are showing scientists they are in trouble. Just 20 years ago across America each of our 2.4 million commercial beehives produced about 100 pounds of honey. Today they each produce almost half that amount. In part, their natural diverse forage has been drastically reduced or more likely destroyed altogether. Bees, like to dine, not dissimilarly to people, at smorgasbords. Monoculture food crops cannot supply bees with enough nutrition.
This much we do know. Over the past 110 million years, plants and bees have co-evolved; they depend on one another, when bees die en masse and rapidly all-hell-breaks-loose: Global food security is jeopardized. Researchers affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at Crested Butte, Colorado recently discovered by removing just one species of bumblebee that one third fewer seeds were produced in Rocky Mountain subalpine wildflowers.
There’s one class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids with about 1,000 kinds available, globally. When honeybees are exposed to as little as four billionths of a gram of neonicotinoid's they suffer irreparable poisoning.
Last week, the European Health & Safety Authority banned a fourth neonicotinoid (Fipronil). This week, 36,000 solitary bees were found dead in all 12 nesting boxes on a farm in Niestetal, Germany; poisoned pollen has been implicated. A couple weeks ago, 37 million honeybees died in 600 hives on an organic honey farm in Elmwood, Canada just after corn seed coated in neonicotinoid's was planted. A few weeks before that, 55 American linden or ‘bee trees’ were sprayed with a neonicotinoid (Safari) and 50,000 bumblebees perished in Wilsonville, Oregon.
In order to keep the bees buzzing it is clearly time to stop pesticides that are known to kill them. If the bees die, we die. We need The Save America’s Pollinator Act of 2013. I signed the petition and encourage you, to do so.
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, conservation biologist and author of The Incomparable Honeybee.
In the UK, if a person smells any gas in a building or outside, they are told to call an emergency number straight away so that an engineer can come and fix the leak and remove the danger. In the Arctic, atmospheric plumes of gas have been detected that are over 150km’s across and likely to have disastrous consequences for our civilisation. We simply cannot ignore this problem; it underpins the fabric of all our lives. We must respond.
by Nick Breeze
Last year I attended the EGU conference in Vienna to meet with Dr. Igor Semiletov and Dr. Natalia Shakhova and was extremely grateful to them for giving me time to discuss the issue of changing conditions in the Arctic. Increased temperatures from human caused greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the risk of methane release from thawing subsea permafrost. These two scientists make annual trips to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), in order to gain a better understanding of what is known to be the largest hydrocarbon store in the world. The methane is trapped in the frozen clathrate deposits that has been frozen for millions of years. In this stable condition we tend to consider the methane less of a risk, however, during the course of the last decade, things have started to change.
It is important to realise that methane (CH4) is approximately 20 x more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100yr timescale. Afterwhich it breaks down into CO2. Obviously with current atmospheric increases in emissions and the effects of warming already being felt, we do not have a 100yrs. In a shorter timescale of 20yrs, methane is estimated to be 100 x more potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Baring in mind that there is currently 5 gigatonnes of methane in the atmosphere and that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is estimated to have between 100’s and 1000’s of gigatonnes trapped in the permafrost, if there is any destabilisation, supply of methane could rapidly move the world to a much hotter and dangerous state for humans and many other forms of life.
As a species humans add 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year in the form of emissions. Over the course of the last 200 years this has caused a global temperature rise of about 0.8 C. Although this seems tiny, we are only just starting to understand how sensitive the Earth is to changes in temperature. Add to this that the Arctic has been warming at around 8 times the speed of the mid latitudes and it’s not hard to see why the Arctic Sea Ice has gone into an accelerated melt.
NASA Image of Melting Arctic Sea Ice
It may seem obvious that if we heat the planet up then we will melt the ice. When joining the dots on the severity of what climate change really means, it is important to grasp “feedbacks”. These are the Earth’s response to changes within the climate system. A general rule of thumb is that “positive feedbacks” generally are bad for us and “negative feedbacks” are not. In the case of the Arctic, it is important to understand that there are multiple feedbacks [watch this comprehensive analysis by David Wasdell, Apollo-Gaia Director for more information] that come into play when the temperature changes. The Arctic sea ice is one that has caught the world’s attention because we are entering a phase where we no longer have a northern polar ice-cap. This is, in turn, setting off other positive feedbacks, one of these being the heating of the Arctic ocean as it absorbs sunlight and starts to thaw the subsea permafrost in the shallow seas of the ESAS. This is effectively removing the seal on a vast store of potent methane greenhouse gases that could take us from a steady increase in temperature to the awful sounding “runaway” global heating.
During the interview with Dr Shakhova, I was chilled when she showed me 2 charts, one with small insignificant plumes of methane from over ten years ago, contrasted with a chart from 2011 where the plumes of escaping gas from the permafrost were over a kilometre wide. Dr Shakhova also stated that in recent years all the conditions were changing making the risk of a game changing release of methane from the ESAS much more likely. Dr Shakhova even pointed out that it was likely “in decades”. Dr Semiletov went further to say “anytime!”.
Below are a few video clips from the interview in April 2012. I am very much looking forward to seeing the new work by Dr’s Semiletov and Shakhova et al that will be released shortly, giving us a far greater understanding, and up to date view, of the state of this all important region in the Arctic.
In the meantime, the methane issue has been the focus of NASA’s ‘Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment’ (CARVE) who have detected 150 kilometre plumes of atmospheric methane. This raises a few questions that are critical to our future civilisation:
- 1. If the Arctic Sea Ice and permafrost are degrading at 0.8C, are the IPPCC agreed “targets” of 2C really safe?
- 2. Have we underestimated Earth’s sensitivity to temperature altogether and sailed blindly over into the wild waters of runaway climate catastrophe?
- 3. How much longer can we continue to release carbon emissions into the atmosphere before we lose the gift of choice in the matter and the climate shifts to a hotter state increasing sea-levels significantly, and not favouring large-scale agriculture?
For a longtime the methane issue has remained outside the larger conversation of impacts of global warming, except by reference to far off future risks. There are a handful of scientists such as Professor Peter Wadhams, Head of the Polar Institute at Cambridge University, who, based on submarine observations of the Arctic sea ice’s collapse in volume, has been pointing out that a methane feedback may not be as far away as we think. Professor Wadhams has made these points in the face of angry cries of “Alarmist” from UK politicians with financial interests in the hydrocarbon industry.
The work of scientists including the Russians, Wadhams and NASA’s CARVE team now means we can no longer ignore the risk of methane as part of the Earth’s complex system of feedbacks to temperature change. It also is very likely that at 2C the world will not be the beautifully hospitable place that it has been for humans for so long. It is very likely that we are close to that “tipping point” of no return where global heating goes into a runaway phase and we lose our only life support system. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case but we have to acknowledge the risk if we are to react appropriately.
In order to answer the third question posited above, we have to comprehend the enormity of the task of transitioning away from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). To say it cannot be done is to kiss the world, as we know it, goodbye. It can be done but it will take the will of all of us together, starting with citizens around the world, to politicians and those in the hydrocarbon business themselves. Whilst in Vienna in 2012, I also interviewed Dr James Hansen, one of the most outspoken climate scientists alive today and former Head of The Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. I am including this clip below on what Hansen proposes as a way to curb emissions and start turning the tide on our collective response to global heating.
So how do we respond? It is clear that we need to make changes at a societal level. Never forget that each and everyone of us is a part of society and, as such, we have influence. The action we need to take is tied in with our attitude to the problems we face. The hydrocarbon industries lobby our governments and institutions to make sure their needs are not ignored. This is for one reason alone: profit. Societal reliance on this form of energy is no longer necessary. We should be transitioning away from hydrocarbon fuels. We can’t because these powerful companies are tucked tight inside the framework of our civilisation. There is no doubt that as such, we are entering a phase of willful self-destruction. The only thing that can stop it is us. A good example of this institutional integration is the Royal Geographic Society where Shell’s logos feature prominently and they even have their own page on the society’s web site aligning themselves with our respected institutions, paying lip service to our future concerns. This is disgusting. We should treat hydrocarbon companies as we did the tobacco industries once it was proven how harmful tobacco is to our health. These companies project the use of oil and gas way into the middle of the century. Don’t believe it. On this course, we will end up clinging to an inhospitable planet, barely recognisable as it is today. Take action.
The first and most effective thing you can do is contact your local elected representative and tell them straight. I sent the following email to my own Member of Parliament, Mary McCleod MP and waiting patiently for a reply. It is critical to remember that they have our future in their hands but we have their vote. Let’s use it!
As a citizen concerned with the unnecessary proven damage being done to our environment, I am writing with the following conditions that will have to be met if you are to have my vote at the next election:
- 1. Remove all links to hydrocarbon companies that currently exist within public institutions
- 2. Ban hydrocarbon company advertising
- 3. Introduce a fair tax on carbon that will level the playing field for renewable energy sources and force the hydrocarbon industries to clean up their act
- 4. Implement a framework for a transition to renewable energy immediately
As you represent me on a local and national level I will be listening with interest to all representations you make to government on my behalf. I am also keen to hear your response and will be sharing it with friends and family.
Thank you for your time.
A note on climate fixes such as ‘Climate Engineering’ (aka geoengineering): I have not mentioned proposed climate engineering proposals in this post as we are currently working on an in depth look at several projects that are already in progress. Climate engineering raises many scientific, political and ethical issues and to many people the idea that man can engineer Earth’s climate is a crazy and hubristic fantasy. No matter what we think, it is important that we are all cognisant of the arguments being put forward. We will be interviewing leading commentators and authorities, not just from the climate and engineering backgrounds but also from ethical and philosophical disciplines to help form a view of this controversial subject. The worst case scenario is that we ignore the subject altogether and the decision to engineer climate falls into the hands of a foreign international power willing to gamble the fate of billions, or, a wealthy individual who can afford to take an equal gamble and become what Clive Hamilton has titled his recent book, an ‘Earthmaster’. Groups such as the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been calling for climate engineering to be deployed immediately to cool the Arctic and prevent the runaway heating that climate scientists most fear. The argument for both sides is compelling and the more we shy away from zero carbon emissions the more climate engineering solutions start to look like a relatively cheap alternative. It is time for us all to be part of this critical discussion.
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