Fossil fuel? Nein, danke

I’ve just finished writing a comment piece for the Badger, Sussex University’s student newspaper, about University investment in oil & gas companies.  It’s part of a campaign that I and a few students from the School of Global Studies are undertaking to try to get the University to withdraw their funds (‘divest’) from such organisations.  I’ll be updating this blog with our progress.  Here’s the article:

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last decade or two, you’ll be aware of the very real threat to our civilisation posed by climate change, spurred on by the burning of fossil fuels to provide the services demanded by modern societies.  Perhaps less well-known, though, is the concept of ‘unburnable carbon’, and the colossal inertia we are faced with in trying to tackle the problem.

Some degree of global temperature rise is now unavoidable.  Indeed, it has already begun.  By now, the question is where the thermometer stops; international negotiation, underpinned by scientific research, has resulted in the verdict that 2°C is the most we can allow.  Many think of this as some description of a ‘safe limit’, though let’s be clear; even this modest level of warming poses significant risks to global food and water supply, habitats and coastlines.

Recent research, however, puts the scale of the challenge even further into perspective.  Climate change institutes have estimated that if we’re to stick to our target, humanity can afford to release another 560 – 880 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere before 2050, with almost no emissions thereafter.  Compare this to the reserves of fossil fuels under the ground which coal, oil and gas companies worldwide have on their books; an amount equivalent to a mammoth 2860 GtCO2.  This means that of everything in the ground which companies know they can extract easily, burning about 20% would bring us to our target.  Anything more and we quite literally begin to cook the planet.  In the face of this, companies are still spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year trying to find more fossils under the ground to add to their reserves.  This wilful blindness desperately needs to be stopped.

You may be somewhat surprised, then, to discover that our University has hundreds of thousands of pounds invested in fossil fuel companies.  Nearly all such bodies do, as do churches, local authorities and public pension funds.  This is why student bodies across the globe have begun a movement to demand their institutions stop this practice of profiting from climate change and inadvertently endangering our futures.  The Fossil Free campaign, part of the organisation 350.org, has delivered scores of petitions to Vice Chancellors and their equivalents, and we plan to do the same.

A few hundred thousand pounds in isolation means nothing to the industry, but it sends a message that we will not stand for this.  The campaign is gathering momentum.  Universities and religious organisations are divesting; in January the chief of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim suggested governments and businesses do the same.  Norwegian pension fund managers are looking to galvanise the support generated so far by divesting.  These are small steps, but with each new addition the impetus gathers.  Fossil fuels are a gargantuan industry, but the challenge our generation faces is greater.

If you are in support of encouraging Sussex to divest from fossil fuels and implement an ethical policy, please come along to our next meeting at 1630 on AprIl 2nd in Falmer Common Room, and sign the petition at http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/sussex-university-ethical-investment-campaign

You’re on thin ice, sunshine

Here’s something to disquieten your day.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency within the US Government who do some very respectable work on climate, released this video recently showing the ages of different parts of Arctic ice over the last 27 years.  The whiter the ice, the older it is.  Make sure you watch it to the end.

You can see from the very dark blue that there’s still a wide area covered with ice, even at the end of Summer.  However, what’s less obvious is that this ice is thinning.  As that happens, that which has been buried deep for decades becomes exposed and melts.  News ‘articles’ like this love to point out that the 2013 coverage area was greater than the previous year (2012 took the trophy for lowest sea ice minimum on record).  To anyone who is inclined to believe the Daily Mail, I recommend looking up the phenomenon of regression to the mean.

Maybe this illustrates what I’m trying to get at more clearly:

We’re looking at an ice-free Summer Arctic within a decade.  When this happens, the climate takes a turn for the worse; Arctic sea ice – a shiny white surface covering a vast area of the planet – does an excellent job of reflecting the Sun’s intensity back into space.  When’s it’s gone during Summer months, the dark ocean absorbs the energy much more readily, accelerating the climatic warming process.  This is a well-understood ‘positive feedback’ effect, though there’s nothing positive about it.  It’s because of phenomena like this (and others) that climate scientists are increasingly worried about ‘runaway’ global warming; we face a tipping point some time in the future, where warming triggers these feedbacks and we end up with a temperature increase much greater than the 2 degrees many are trying desparately to avoid.

Tyrannosaurus Lawson

On a fine, soggy February morning a few weeks ago (this post is a bit belated), a chap named Lord Nigel Lawson was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, gracing the nation with his highly-informed views on climate change in a `discussion’ with the esteemed Sir Brian Hoskins.  Having prematurely reached middle age, I happen to listen to this fine broadcast on a fairly regular basis.  I am also prone, as my girlfriend would inform you, to the occasional mild display of wrath towards inanimate information-providing devices.  Never, though, have I held in my heart such a desire to defenestrate a radio as I did that morning.

Lord Lawson (yes, the father of Nigella, poor woman) was, in a bygone era, a member of Thatcher’s cabinet.  Having held the role of Secretary of State for Energy in the early 80s, he was largely responsible for the privatisation of our energy sector.  He’s now the chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – a group which ideologically opposes the notion that we are influencing our climate (and which won’t disclose the source of its funding).

If you happen to live in this country, you’ll be aware that we’ve had a spot of rain recently, and now vast swathes of southern England are ankle-deep in liquid sunshine, causing something of a political shitstorm for just about everyone involved.  The idea that this could be caused by climate was inevitably brought up, so Lawson and Hoskins (a member of the Committee on Climate Change) were brought to Broadcasting House to lock horns, as it were.  You might want to listen to the discussion – it makes for very entertaining/infuriating listening (delete as appropriate).

Before I voice my disagreements with this true champion of environmentalism, allow me to point out that Lawson has no scientific background, whatsoever, yet he makes atmosphere-related claims with such confidence you could mistake him for a veteran climatologist.

In his very first breath, we are informed that it is not the case, of course, that “these rainfalls [which caused the floods] are due to global warming”.  He carries on in his rambling manner which only an 81-year-old Conservative Lord can pull off, to tell us how “nobody knows” about the effects of climate change (except him, it seems), and that it’s all just “extremely speculative and uncertain” – apart from the bits he knows.  No, really, he knows it.  He went on to utterly disprove the predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of more extreme weather events as a result of climate change.  2013 was “unusually quiet” for tropical storms, he asserts, and with such authority!  “You fools,” he may as well have cried, “how could you believe those yoghurt-spoon-waving environmentalists?!”  It would seem, though, that he may have forgotten about the strongest typhoon, ever, in the Philippines last year.  Or in terms of more general extreme weather, Australia’s hottest January, ever.  Or its hottest day on record, ever.  Or its 123 records being broken in 90 days.  Or the worst UK March snowfall in 30 years.  Or the worst drought in California, ever.

I’m being facetious, and possibly labouring the point a little too hard (I could go on though), but I can’t help but be astounded by the sheer hypocrisy of Lawson.  One second he dismissed the climate as too complex to study, and minutes later he makes wild oversimplifications by suggesting that the planet hasn’t been seen to be getting warmer in the last 15 years.  This `pause’ is in fact a slightly slower rate of increase than observed before – though still an increase – and is in part (amongst many factors within such a complex system) due to the oceans acting as a giant heat sink.  To simply suggest that climate change has stopped is short-sighted wishful thinking.

Perhaps I should be more understanding that an elderly gentleman is disinclined to change his entire worldview because of evidence which undermines it after so many years – we are, after all, beginning to reach a deep understanding of the psychological factors behind climate change denial (more on that another time).  What really has wound me up, though, is that the BBC even asked him to appear on the programme.  In their unending pursuit of fair journalism, organisations such as our beloved public broadcaster will never fail to voice both sides of a story.  In the majority of cases this is, of course, the right thing to do; we, as the public, want to hear both sides of the story so we can make our own mind up.  Now, I don’t want to be interpreted as dictating what the public should and shouldn’t be told, but scientific stories like this just don’t fit this model of subjectively-formed news.  By placing someone like Dear Old Nigel in front of the microphone, the BBC lets the message be put across that there is still a significant amount of debate amongst the scientific community about the causes and effects of climate change.

Here’s the thing. There isn’t.

If you’re here reading my ramblings (quite possibly at my behest), then hopefully you already understand that.  But let’s just make sure we’re absolutely clear here.  The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human emission of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere over the last century and a half is causing the average surface temperature of the planet to increase.  As Lawson rightly points out, the climate is an extremely complex system, but these are the facts and their fundamental causal mechanisms are well-understood.  If you have any doubt in your mind, I implore you, please go and look at the latest report by the IPCC.  Here’s the summary – it’s not technically challenging, it’s quite long, but it’s relatively easy to get the gist of.

I don’t want to get too much into the IPCC right now (this has ended up being longer than I intended, again), but they are the crème de la crème of scientists who are involved in climate.  As such they use the language of science, in the sense that it is very purposeful, particularly with regard to uncertainty;  statements like “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of … observed warming since the mid-20th century” (p.17) use the concept of `likeliness’ in a scientific manner – as the result of thousands of analyses, models and expert opinions.  It is of a different league to “it’s extremely likely that I will insult my radio tomorrow morning when I am woken up by it” (which, I assure you, is extremely likely).  Unfortunately, it’s precisely this language that brings so much grief to climate scientists – the very manner in which they themselves try to respect scientific uncertainty (which must be respected) leaves them vulnerable to criticism by the likes of Lawson spouting off that they “don’t know”.

(He does though).