SciBlogs

Archive January 2011

Easterbrook adrift: WWU geology dept issues statement on climate change Gareth Renowden Jan 17

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Word reaches me that the geology department at Western Washington University — home of emeritus professor and data fiddler Don Easterbrook — has adopted a position statement on climate change. The statement is supported by the entire geology department, and is clearly designed to distance WWU’s geologists from Easterbrook’s odd ideas and dodgy practices. Here’s what they say:

Decades of scientific research have shown that climate can change from both natural and anthropogenic causes. The Geology Faculty at WWU concur with rigorous, peer-reviewed assessments by the National Academies of Science (2005), the National Research Council (2006), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) that global climate has warmed significantly and that human activities (mainly greenhouse-gas emissions) account for most of the warming since the middle 1900s. If current trends continue, the projected increase in global temperature by the end of the twenty-first century will result in large impacts on humans and other species. Addressing the challenges posed by climate change will require a combination of adaptation to the changes that are likely to occur and global reductions of carbon dioxide emissions from anthropogenic sources.

Congratulations to WWU’s geologists for taking this stand. I wonder if Easterbrook will now withdraw his claim that most of the last 10,000 years were warmer than today, apologise for stealing and altering a graph from Global Warming Art and apologise for calling me a liar? But then he is a denier, and that means never having to say you’re sorry…

Stern at the frontiers of knowledge Bryan Walker Jan 16

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The cost of cutting back emissions is more than we estimated, but that is because the consequences of climate change are already here.” These words of Nicholas Stern’s are included in the announcement that he has just been awarded the 400,000-euro BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the climate change category. He elaborates:

’Emissions are rising rapidly, and the capacity of the ocean to absorb carbon is less than we thought. Also, other effects, particularly the melting of the polar ice, seem to be happening much faster. We need to take more drastic steps, so the costs will inevitably be higher’.

However this doesn’t alter the message of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change for which Stern received the award, namely that failure to tackle climate change will exact a far higher economic cost than action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This idea, the award announcement says, has ’fundamentally changed the international climate change debate and stimulated action’.

Acting now, says Stern, not only saves far greater costs in the future but also represents an important economic opportunity:

’Climate change economics is the next industrial revolution. The countries who invest now in this new growth market will gain the advantage of a first mover. Those who don’t risk being left behind’.

He notes that China and some European countries, Spain among them, have woken up to the benefits of fostering a low-emissions economy. He urges Spain to stay the course. But the US and some other rich economies are advancing more slowly. There’s certainly little sign here in New Zealand of any great enthusiasm from the government to join the next industrial revolution. (My observation, not Stern’s). The Minister for Economic Development is still firmly stuck in the last one.

Stern sees climate change is a major economic opportunity which calls for investment. He’s also adamant that taking steps to mitigate climate change can help us to pull clear of the current economic crisis, implying that it is foolish on the part of some governments to use the downturn as an excuse for inaction.

The BVVA announcement provides a succinct summary of the economic understanding that Stern brings to the situation we have landed ourselves in:

’Stern warns that climate change may be the biggest market failure the world has yet seen, because the damages caused by greenhouses gases are not reflected in the prices of the goods and services whose production causes the emissions problem. The response, in his view, is to shift onto a low-carbon growth path based on three kinds of policies: a carbon pricing system based on taxation and development of an efficient market in emission rights, the right technology policy, and the removal of barriers to changes in social behaviour so energy saving habits are encouraged and rewarded.’

Nicholas Stern commented:

“I feel very privileged to receive a prize that is dedicated specifically to climate change research. It is certainly a very clear statement of the importance that the BBVA Foundation attaches to an area so vital for the future existence of human beings on this planet.”

Stern has no doubt about the realities of climate change. It is a mark of his writing that he takes the science with full seriousness and consequently orients his thinking to how it can be most adequately addressed. There’s no trifling with the issue. As the opening quotation of this post indicates he remains up with the play. His thinking is also marked by his sense of humanity. It was a striking feature of his 2009 book The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress and Prosperity (US edition — UK title Blueprint for a Safer Planet) that he insisted throughout that combating climate change is inextricably linked with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and that we shall succeed or fail on them together.  I reviewed his book on Hot Topic. He’s a worthy recipient of a significant award.

Don Easterbrook’s Academic Dishonesty Gareth Renowden Jan 15

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As Don Easterbrook has shown no signs of withdrawing his article claiming that most of the last 10,000 years were warmer than present, and as his university has shown no appetite for addressing the issue, Professor Scott Mandia of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team and I decided to write to the local press. The letter below was sent to The Bellingham Herald (local newspaper) and to Western Front Online (Western Washington University newspaper) on Monday January 9, 2011. Scott also called and left a message with the Bellingham Herald News Editor. He did not hear back from either newspaper, so we’re reprinting the letter in full here and at Scott’s blog.

Sir or Madam,

Don Easterbrook, a Professor Emeritus at Western Washington University has been promoting his belief that natural cycles of the sun and oceans are going to cause global cooling over the next few decades and this will offset the CO2-caused warming headed our way. In 2001, he announced that global cooling was about to begin and would last for the next 25 years. Of course, the previous decade was the warmest in over 150 years and 2010 is likely to be the warmest or second warmest year in that period. Easterbrook wants to persuade us to ignore global warming despite the fact that most of his peers, climate scientists, military and intelligence experts, health officials, and insurance companies expect major societal disruptions due to the current and expected human-caused climate disruption.

It is ok to be wrong. Science cannot prove an idea is true but only that it is false. Correcting mistakes is how science moves forward. But Easterbrook is not just wrong, he is playing fast and loose with the data. He was caught red-handed using a doctored graph in a 2007 conference (see http://bit.ly/goEkd3) and in subsequent articles and talks. Easterbrook not only edited these graphics to change the information they contained, but did so in order to minimize the evidence of recent global warming. This is, at the very least, academic malpractice. More recently (12/28/10) he incorrectly labeled a graph of temperatures for the previous 10,000 years to claim that most of these years were warmer than present. His ’current temperature’ was really 1855 and not the much warmer present day. He was notified of his mistake but refuses to issue a retraction (see http://bit.ly/dW6BOk). A good scientist corrects and learns from mistakes, but this seems foreign to Easterbrook.

WWU officials were notified of Easterbrook’s doctoring of data last May and again this January but have so far chosen to do nothing. Academic freedom must be cherished and defended but dishonesty should never be condoned — whether at WWU or any other institution of higher education.

Scott Mandia and Gareth Renowden

Bios: Scott Mandia is a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College, Long Island, New York and has been teaching meteorology and climatology courses for 23 years.

Gareth Renowden is an NZ-based science writer and blogger, author of Hot Topic — Global Warming & The Future of New Zealand. He has written extensively on Easterbrook’s cavalier approach to climate data.

Everyone agrees: 2010 ties for top temperature Gareth Renowden Jan 15

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NASA2010temps4series.png

All of the major global temperature series — surface and satellite — report that 2010 is tied for first place as the warmest year in the long term record. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center both have 2010 tied with their previous record holder 2005, while the UK’s Climatic Research Unit and the satellite series from the University of Alabama Huntley (UAH) report that 2010 is tied with 1998. Commenting on the surface record, NZ climate scientist Jim Salinger said:

The three sources of global mean temperature analysis shows that the globe continues to warm with nine of the top ten years occurring between 2001 and 2010. Global average temperatures for the decade 2001 to 2010 were 0.44 deg C above the 1961 to 1990 average for HadCRUT3, making it the warmest decade on record going back to 1850.

Despite differences in detail between the various surface records, the GISS graph above clearly demonstrates that they show nearly identical long term trends. As the NZ Herald pointed out, 2010 should spells the end for that favourite denialist trope — it’s been cooling since (pick a year), but I’m a bit more sanguine. I confidently predict that with the current intense La Niña likely to ensure that 2011 is not a record-setter, the usual suspects will insist there’s been a plateau in temperatures, with cooling sure to follow. Until the next strong El Niño comes along, of course, because with the solar cycle moving towards maximum insolation, the global average will almost certainly set a clear new record. 2012, perhaps?

[Small milestone: This is the 1,000th post at Hot Topic since the site launched in April 2007.]

Casualties of Climate Change Bryan Walker Jan 14

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As we watch the devastation of the Queensland flooding it’s timely to be reminded of climate change impacts being experienced and anticipated in other parts of the world.  In the latest issue of The Scientific American three researchers have written an article — Casualties of Climate Change — in which they suggest that climate-forced migration and displacement may be the defining humanitarian challenge in coming decades. They begin with some general observations on the threat of rising sea level not only to small island nations, but also to a country like India where a metre of sea level rise will displace 40 million people. South Asia is in addition particularly threatened by the likelihood of more intense rainfall — more monsoon rain combined with a decrease in frequency is what some models are suggesting. Shifts in seasonality of river flows as glaciers shrink is also likely to impact on the agricultural livelihoods of several hundred million rural Asians, as well as the food supplies of an equal number of Asian urbanites.

There’s a lot to understand yet, but the increase in climate-related catastrophes is already a fact.

’The frequency of natural disasters has increased by 42 percent since the 1980s, and the percentage of those that are climate-related has risen from 50 to 82 percent. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that in 2008, climate-related calamities drove 20 million people from their homes–more than four times the number displaced by violent conflict.’

The article then selects and comments on three regions of the world where there are initial signs of population movements impelled by climate change: Mozambique, the Mekong Delta, and Mexico and Central America. The writers look briefly at the factors which are at work in each region to cause relocation of population, treating them as case studies which might spur further analyses of regions where mass migrations are likely to occur.

In 2000, 2001 and 2007 disastrous floods in the Zambezi and Limpopo river basins in Mozambique displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In the past people have moved periodically out of the floodplains to avoid floods, but in this last decade as the severity and frequency of flooding has increased the government has encouraged permanent resettlement and has initiated a work-for-assistance programme to help the resettlement. The resettlement schemes remain heavily dependent on governmental and international aid however because of the lack of infrastructure and frequent crop failure in the areas to which people have been moved.

Mozambique is threatened by a double whammy, flood in the north and drought in the south, as the climate turns ever more unforgiving. They can be simultaneous, as in 2007 when the south was in drought even as the Zambezi further north was overflowing its banks. Models suggest that rainfall levels may increase in the north while decreasing in the south. Much depends on the spacing and intensity of the rainfall: further intensification will mean a continuation of the catastrophic flooding experienced throughout the past decade. Without continuing humanitarian assistance it appears likely that resettled people will need to migrate longer distances or across borders — the capital city Maputo or the neighbouring South Africa are the most likely destinations for such population movement.

The Vietnamese portion of the Mekong Delta is home to 18 million people, or 22 percent of Vietnam’s population.

’It accounts for 40 percent of Vietnam’s cultivated land surface and more than a quarter of the country’s GDP. Its residents grow more than half of Vietnam’s rice, produce 60 percent of its fish and shrimp haul and harvest 80 percent of its fruit crop.’

All that is under threat. A one metre sea level rise this century would displace 7 million people in the Delta, a two metre rise 14 million, or 50% of the Delta’s population.  Flood cycles are part of life in the area, and ‘nice floods’ range between half a metre and three metres. In recent decades however both the frequency and magnitude of floods exceeding the four-metre mark have increased. This has already led to migration by some to cities. The government is furthering a programme to adapt farming methods to the changes, and to relocate some of the poor landless to new residential clusters, but clearly there is a prospect of large population displacement ahead.

In Mexico and Central America it’s drought and storms which are driving population relocation. The area is home to 10 million farmers who struggle to meet their basic needs by growing traditional staples. They need moderate rainfall, not droughts and tropical storms which are increasing and driving people into the cities or to El Norte (’The North’). The great majority of migrants to the US come from these poor rural areas.  Many environmental and social factors contribute to the problems farmers are encountering, but climatic factors are adding to the distress. One farmer:

’My grandfather, father and I have worked on these lands. But times have changed…. The rain is coming later now, so that we produce less. The only solution is to go away [to the U.S.], at least for a while.’

The article wonders about allowing seasonal migration to the US and Canada on temporary work visas when climate disasters such as drought or flooding occur, while for the longer term regional planners work out water-saving irrigation technologies and alternative livelihoods.

These three regions are indicators of what migratory pressures may lie ahead as the effects of climate change begin to bite. Increases in flooding, drought and sea level rise will put pressure on many populations. The authors of the article want to urge the international community to prepare for the humanitarian challenge. Their recommendations in conclusion are sensible and civilised.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels.
  • Invest in disaster risk management, which has been shown to decrease the likelihood of large-scale migration.
  • Recognise that some migration will be inevitable and develop national and international adaptation strategies.
  • Establish binding commitments to ensure adaptation funding reaches the people who need it most.
  • Strengthen international institutions to protect the rights of those displaced by climate change.

Too many teardrops Gareth Renowden Jan 12

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This astonishing video was shot on Monday as flash flooding hit the Queensland town of Toowoomba after a reported 140mm of rain fell in only 30 minutes. 12 people are confirmed to have been killed in the region, and 90 more are missing according to state premier Anna Bligh. Floodwaters are rising in the state capital Brisbane, with the central business district closed down. Flood levels are expected to top out above the levels reached in 1974 — the previous record holder. I know that Hot Topic‘s readers will join me in wishing the people of Queensland well. This ABC page has a list of relief funds to which you can donate. I can confirm that Skeptical Science’s John Cook is OK, and not expecting any direct impacts. We’ll be talking to him about the floods in the next Climate Show, scheduled for recording next week.

Has global warming had an impact on this event? Watching the deniers quotes The Age saying that the floods are “consistent with (although not proof of) climate change predictions for northern Australia”, and that seems fair. The direct “cause” of the flooding is the current strong La Niña (possibly the strongest since records began, according to AMOS president Prof Neville Nicholls). This phase of ENSO causes warm water to pile up against NE Australia, helping to fuel large rainfall events. The record floods of 1974, for example, were associated with a La Niña event. To make matters worse, over the last year sea surface temperatures around Australia have been running at record levels, as this Bureau of Meteorology chart from their climate summary for 2010 shows:

The recipe seems clear enough: an intense La Niña and record sea surface temperatures combining to cause record floods. A more precise attribution of warming’s influence on the event will have to wait for the studies to be done, but for the time being it certainly looks likely that this is another extreme weather event which has been made worse by recent warming.

Update 13/1/11: Barry Brook at Brave New Climate considers the costs of the floods, and puts them in to the context of the last few years of Aussie weather extremes, and NASA’s Earth Observatory has an image showing rainfall in the Brisbane area, showing that over 200 mm fell in the flash flood regions.

[Nick Lowe]

Skewed views of science Gareth Renowden Jan 11

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This excellent video by QualiaSoup looks at how people make judgements about science, and how opinion and bias can distort reality. Climate science is not mentioned, but it’s all too obvious how the arguments used here apply to those who deny the need for action — especially in the light of Doug Mackie’s recent post on cognitive dissonance. Hat-tip to GrrlScientist, who suggests it would make an excellent video to show students taking an introductory science course. It would indeed.

Moving the earth for oil Bryan Walker Jan 11

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Ethical oil. That’s what Canada is producing from its massive tar sands operation, according to the newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent. I admit to having missed that dimension in what I have read of the oil extraction from tar sands. I understood that when the CO2 emissions from its production is added to the CO2 from its combustion it emits between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional crude. I also understood that the environmental effects of the mining and extraction process are appalling, that restoration undertakings are more promised than real and that First Nation communities are gravely affected. Most telling of all I understood that according to James Hansen if the world wants to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it must not only rapidly phase out coal emissions but also leave unconventional fossil fuels such as oil from tar sands in the ground.

But I didn’t understand that tar sand oil was ethical. What makes it so? The Minister explains:

’It is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy. The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors.’

He added in a subsequent interview that the Obama administration needs to be reminded that, unlike the energy it buys from other foreign suppliers, oil-sands petroleum ’is the product of a natural resource whose revenues don’t go to fund terrorism.’

So the oil is ethical because Canada is a democracy. He doesn’t actually name the countries which produce less than ethical oil, but his characterisation presumably draws on a recent book Ethical Oil by Canadian author Ezra Levant which instances Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela and Sudan as much less desirable sources.

As the Globe and Mail sees it, Kent’s pitch is ’an attempt to beat back efforts by U.S. politicians and activists who want a boycott of Canada’s oil sands owing to its greenhouse-gas-heavy extraction methods and ensuing environmental damage’.

Kent complains that the product has been demonised, but in its support falls back on the sort of argument we’ve heard a lot of in New Zealand. He calls it ’relevant measurements’.

’Oil-sands production accounts, I think, for 5 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and barely 1 per cent of the equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions by American coal-fired power generators.’

Citing the tentative economic recovery, Kent said the Harper government will not impose any greenhouse-gas reductions on the oil patch that would discourage investment across the sector.

’Our focus for the next several years is going to continue to be on maintaining the economic recovery and we will do nothing in the short term which would unnecessarily compromise or threaten to compromise that recovery. It is not our intention to discourage development of one of our great natural resources. We know it can be developed responsibly.’

The Canadian government does have some intentions for emissions reductions — 17 percent down from 2005 levels by 2020. But the rules when they come will be drawn up ’with a sensitivity to maintaining a competitive situation’.

It is clear that the Canadian Government has not faced up to the fact that we can’t both successfully tackle the threat of climate change and also pursue fossil fuels to depletion. That’s the plain fact of the matter, and no amount of bluster about developing natural resources or economic recovery or maintaining competitiveness can alter it.

It’s a fact which many Governments must face, not only Canada’s. Indeed while reading the Globe and Mail report I was struck by the similarities to the position of the New Zealand government. Our Minister of Energy and Economic Development is defending the exploitation of what he describes as our natural resources with equal robustness. He paints a rosy economic future from deep sea oil drilling and lignite coal development. It will, of course, be undertaken with due regard for the environment. In fact, he went so far as to say in his opening address to the NZ Petroleum Conference last September that the development is needed to enable us to care for our environment.

’I would strongly argue that it is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment. A strong economy allows the government to spend money on biodiversity, on improving water quality, on insulating our houses, on protecting our endangered species and preserving our heritage. All those things cost money. None of them are free. A strong economy allows expenditure on them…

’So rather than stop ourselves from using our natural wealth, this government has made it clear we want to develop our natural resources in an environmentally responsible way.’

The doublethink is staggering.  The only honest way of putting what both Ministers are saying is that anything we do towards emissions reduction will be token at best, because we are dead set on developing our fossil fuel resources. Why don’t they just put it baldly so that we all know where our Governments stand?  Why the weasel words about environmental protection?  Why talk of reducing emissions when they plan fuelling their increase on a large scale?

We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be.

No doubt I’ll be accused of being simplistic in pressing such questions when the issue is one of great complexity. Well, there may be complexities to be worked through, but the underlying picture is starkly simple. We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be. It was a group of Canadian scientists who have just published a widely reported paper in Nature Geoscience which predicts climate change resulting from even the present level of CO2 will be persisting for centuries. I wonder what Canadian Ministers make of that.

Another newly published Canadian paper was reported on TV3 news last night because of the major shrinkage it predicted in New Zealand glaciers during this century. I wonder if that registered with New Zealand Ministers. All the wealth of the South Island lignite fields or of oil discovered in deep sea drilling won’t suffice to put the ice back in the glaciers.

Fraser’s Penguins Bryan Walker Jan 10

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I decided to read Fen Montaigne’s book Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica because of what I understood it would have to say about climate change. It does say very important things on that subject, but along the way it proved a fascinating account of the life of the Adélie penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula and of the scientific monitoring which has recorded the welfare of their colonies in the vicinity of Palmer Station for more than three decades. As well, the author provides memorable descriptions of the land, sea and skyscapes and the pleasure he took from them. His weaving in some of the impressions of the early Antarctic explorers added interesting historical perspective. The book is a rewarding read on many fronts.

Bill Fraser is a scientist who for thirty years has observed and studied the Adélie colonies at Palmer Station. Much of the material for Montaigne’s book was gathered during the spring and summer of 2005-2006 when the author spent five months working as a member of Fraser’s field team. Solid work it was too — painstakingly measuring, counting, checking, closely examining excrement, weighing, taking opportunities as the weather allowed. Montaigne gains credentials for the task of portraying scientists at work by his months of painstaking work with the team, though it is his ability as a writer which brings the scene to life. The book demonstrates the invaluable contribution patient and intelligent journalism can make in interpreting science to a wide general readership.

The book also demonstrates how far-reaching is the mounting evidence of drastic climate change and how many scientists in many different disciplines are uncovering that evidence. Fraser began quite early to suspect that global warming was affecting the Adélies on the Antarctic Peninsula. By the 1980s sea ice was decreasing, the ice-loving Adélie populations were faltering, ice-avoiding species like chinstrap penguins and fur seals were increasing. ’It reeked of habitat change due to a warming climate.’  In 1991 he was lead author in a paper arguing that it was primarily shrinking sea ice that was leading to the growth of chinstrap populations and the decline of the Adélies. Rejected by Science and Nature the paper was finally published in 1992 in Polar Biology, as one of the first scientific papers to suggest that global warming was beginning to nibble at the edges of Antarctica. A prominent scientist who at the time criticised his thesis as ’certainly premature’ now grants that the accumulated evidence of the last two decades leaves ’no doubt’ that declining sea ice has been a crucial factor affecting penguin populations.

The intricacies of the Adélies’ relationship with their Antarctic Peninsula breeding environment are where the effect of global warming on the steadily declining populations of the birds has gradually become more manifest to Fraser. For example, during the 1990s it became apparent that there was increasing spring snowfall in the Palmer area. Although counter-intuitive, more snow was consistent with a marine environment that was seeing sea ice shrink. Less ice means more open water, leading to increased evaporation. That moisture forms as precipitation, which tends to fall as snow along the Antarctic Peninsula. There was also an influx of warmer air and storms from the north, which brought more snow.  The Adélies need nesting grounds free from snow to successfully build their stone nests. Increased snowfall can delay nesting and meltwater can lead to addled eggs. Delayed nesting can put hatching out of sync with the peak of krill abundance. Fraser discovered that heavy spring snows led to lighter fledged chicks throughout the Palmer area, meaning birds which were less likely to make it through the winter months. A series of such insights are explored in the book, evidence that the Adélies of the Antarctic Peninsula are a lesson in how rapidly ecology and ecosystems can change: ’In geological time,’ says Fraser, ’ it’s a nanosecond.’

It’s certainly too fast for the Adélies to adapt to. Their evolution is so finely attuned to the environment that even tiny differences can affect their survival. They need a snow-free habitat by the end of November. If they don’t get it their breeding success is poor. Fraser comments that the birds can’t simply alter their breeding patterns because of the snow. ’The birds are just hardwired and they don’t adjust. They are hardwired into oblivion.’ It is that descent, manifest in the dramatic decline in numbers, that provides a dismal aspect to Fraser’s work. It’s not only the snow that’s contributing to the Adélies decline: the deleterious effect of dwindling sea ice on their food supply, especially krill and silverfish, is apparent from his observations.

Fraser and his colleagues see the changes sweeping down the rapidly warming Antarctic Peninsula as a prelude and warning of things to come worldwide. Montaigne picks out some sobering messages. One is that our unprecedented burning of fossil fuels can result in abrupt and unpredictable regional changes. Another is that although the continent proper, a vast ice cap of enormous thickness, is showing only small signs of warming, the changes hitting the peninsula represent the first breach in the citadel. If the rise in greenhouse gases continues and leads to temperature increases of 2 to 5 degrees in this century, then the current gnawing at the edges of Antarctica will become large bites and bring about destabilising changes to the ice shelves, ice sheets and sea ice as well as the vast numbers of seabirds, seals and other creatures whose life histories have evolved within the Antarctic world. A consequent disruption of alarming proportions in terms of sea level rise and alterations to the global climate system will follow for the world beyond the bounds of the Southern Ocean.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems most vulnerable after the Antarctic Peninsula. Montaigne talks with Robert Bindschadler, one of the researchers studying West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier’s speedy slide into the sea. The researchers are firmly of the opinion that ocean heat is getting to the ice and causing the changes. ’So even if you isolate Antarctica on the surface from global warming, there’s this back door — that [ocean] heat is still getting to this part of the ice sheet.’ They estimate that if all the ice from the ice sheets that feed the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers were to flow into the Southern Ocean, global sea levels could increase by as much as five feet. Nor does Bindschadler consider this a remote possibility. He’s not so sure it couldn’t happen in his lifetime.

But that’s a big picture. The smaller world of the beleaguered Adélie colonies of the peninsula also carries warnings. Fraser knows that the earth’s climate has often see-sawed in the past, and that there were ecological consequences accompanying it. But this time the change is being driven by the rapid burning of fossil fuels and the planet is teeming with people as it wasn’t in previous eras of climate change such as the last glaciation.  ’Never has change like this taken place with so many people who need these systems to survive. When I look back at these incredible changes here, that’s what’s running in the back of my mind.’

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Fishpond (NZ), Amazon.com, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]

A hard road Bryan Walker Jan 06

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The jury may have found the climate protestors at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal power station guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass, but the judge in his sentencing yesterday clearly showed a good deal of sympathy with the offenders. The 18 activists received sentences ranging from 18 months conditional discharge to 90 hours unpaid work. Two of them received modest fines. Judge Jonathan Teare conceded the public may consider his sentencing “impossibly lenient”. But he said he had been put in a highly unique position given the moral standing of the campaigners.

“You are all decent men and women with a genuine concern for others, and in particular for the survival of planet Earth in something resembling its present form.

“I have no doubt that each of you acted with the highest possible motives. And that is an extremely important consideration…

“There is not one of you who cannot provide glowing references from peers or professionals. And if I select some of the adjectives that recur throughout they are these: honest, sincere, conscientious, intelligent, committed, dedicated, caring.”

However he said motivation could not absolve them from punishment and proceeded to impose the mild sentences.

During their trial at Nottingham crown court, the defendants admitted they planned to break into the plant, but argued they were acting to prevent the greater crimes of death and serious injury caused by climate change.

They claimed that had their protest succeeded in closing down the power station for a week, they would have prevented the emission of 150,000 tonnes of CO2.

In a statement after the sentences were handed down the defendants maintained their position:

“We still feel our actions are a reasonable response to the irrational destructive situation, of runaway climate change … that we are taking action on climate change is no longer an option — it’s a necessity. We want to reiterate our support for everyone everywhere fighting for climate justice.”

James Hansen was among the witnesses who appeared for the defence. Much of his evidence revolved around the need to avoid reaching a tipping point where climate change would spiral outside of control. “You do not want to reach a point where you begin to get collapse (of ice sheets) and rapid change. If you reach that point you have gone too far and it will be out of humanity’s control.”

The lenient sentences reflect those handed down in a Scottish court to the Aberdeen airport protestors, which I discussed on Hot Topic a few months ago. Protestors such as these deliberately break the law and in doing so indicate their preparedness to face the consequences. Those of us who merely watch may be pleased for them when the consequences are less severe than the law allows, but there is more at stake than whether the courts’ sentencing will be harsh or not.

As Bradley Day, one of the Ratcliffe protestors suggests in a Guardian article today, there is small solace in lenient sentences alongside the realities with which the protestors are concerned:

’Despite hearing terrifying evidence from some of world’s leading climate change experts; learning of the millions of pounds spent in their local area as a result of extreme weather conditions; listening to gut-wrenching testimonies from flood victims across the globe; and observing senior politicians explain our crippling democratic deficit, the jury went on to deliver a unanimous guilty verdict.’

It’s what the verdict implies about the public response to climate change that bothers him.

’The jury received a more extensive education on climate change than most people get in a lifetime. That they could not vindicate our actions is nothing to get self-righteous about; it is deeply disturbing. If the jury, after everything they had heard, couldn’t bring themselves to sympathise with our actions, who will?’

Five years ago when he first engaged in the issue he was full of optimism.

’People appeared to be waking up to the issue in the nick of time. Like hundreds of others, we launched a community action group in our town. When we hosted a public meeting it was standing room only.’

But as the years passed it became apparent that nothing had been achieved, and he now thinks climate change is being treated as an issue of the past, as it gets only a fraction of the attention it enjoyed not so long ago. (This impression receives some confirmation from a recent analysis of media climate coverage in 2010).

So what’s to be done? He works through to a McKibben-like conclusion:

’Will the next 12 months see climate change, the issue, continue to slide into obscurity as climate change, the reality, kills at an ever escalating rate? If we are to reverse the current trend we need to do more than lobby our MPs. We need to do more than shut down coal-fired power stations. In 2011 we need to begin a comprehensive grassroots engagement project.’

It’s hard slog he’s looking at:

’This is no small task. Three weeks in front of the world’s leading climate experts didn’t do it for 12 people from Nottingham. This scheme requires long-term commitment. Getting out and talking about these challenging issues is draining and comes with little glory. But those of us terrified by the prospect of climate change cannot afford to ignore those who don’t feel the same way.’

Climate change is a terrifying prospect. So is a society which continues about its business as if little untoward is happening, even though it treats with some leniency those who resort to civil disobedience to challenge that complacency.