Friday, 31 October 2014

Ted-Ed get it right

I think the TED-ED series is brilliant for explaining things with visuals and analogues. It can make abstract topics such as tipping points in the climate system more comprehensible for the public. I'm not sure the billiards table is the best example, but as a learning resource for teachers it has a lot of benefits. I find too often scientists grip their scientific integrity and thus complexity too tightly, being able to break it down in ways such as this, perhaps engaging more visual learners, can help get a wider population interested in science.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Scientific Conclusions, Political implications: The A/anthropocene

The anthropocene is a hot topic, it suggests that human disturbance on planetary systems has caused us to enter a new environmental or geological epoch. Authors such as Bill Ruddimann suggest that human interference particularly on methane and CO2 levels stretches back 8000 years, far beyond the current school of thought that dramatic changes only occurred with the advent of fossil fuel. Issues lie in the dating of the anthropocene, and whether as with previous Geological Eras it requires a ‘Golden Spike’ in the stratigraphic record. Some argue that this should be 1945-1964 with the atomic bomb (Marshall et al 2007), the rising of CO2 beyond background levels associated with the Industrial Revolution in 1850 (Steffon et al 2007), or further back dependent on the expansion of domestication, agriculture and forest clearing (Ruddimann 2013)

A simplified version of Ruddiman's (2013) argument, that with the onset of farming our current interglacial is unlike any previous, with not only higher GHG concentrations but a complete divergent pathway. Including that of our nearest neighbour IG S19 that had similar precession and obliquity. Image courtesy of [accessed 28/10/14]

With so many questions surrounding the idea of the anthropocene,  a working group has evolved to solve some, little attention is paid to the consequences of conclusions. In terms of the climate change 'debate' two issues emerge. One of the biggest hindrances to global decarbonisation is historical emissions, suggesting those countries, such as the UK that developed earlier, should decarbonize further and pay more for others to do so. The primary barrier to effective talks in Kyoto was the refusal of developing nations to pay for the historical emissions of developed countries thus denying themselves similar opportunities. Article 3 of the UNFCC states that disparate historical emissions call for differentiated responsibilities in climate protection (UN 1992). Numerous authors have argued that this is the fairest way to divvy up mitigation costs (e.g. Neumayer 2000, Gosseries 2006). It became known as the ‘Brazilian Proposal’ as Brazil argued the inequality in Kyoto. Neumayer concludes that these issues are not static, and indeed by delving further into historical emissions, from early land clearance, this throws an idea debated since the early 90s into chaos. If, as Ruddiman (Submitted) says, there is deviation from our closest interglacial analogue (S19) at 245ppm some 7-6  thousand years ago who lays claim to these emissions? No states where formed, many societies were still semi-nomadic and went on to spawn cultures in other lands. A successful dating of the Anthropocene could throw a further spanner into a debate that is already a plumber’s convention. Giving developed nations a considerable rebuttal to the idea that they should pay more.

The second consequence is the weight it could give to pessimistic arguments. If indeed you claim that human civilisation is unable to live in symbiosis with nature at all, what incentive is there to pay now to reduce emissions? Even if you reduce modern society to the Stone Age we would still have drastic consequences on the way the world works. This would cause even further delay in policy action by adding another perspective to an already infinite debate.

Whilst as student I find the idea of the anthropocene fascinating more attention needs to be paid to the potential consequences of definitions, and thinking not solely from a scientific perspective. Science exists to provide technical understanding of processes and should not be prescriptive to policy (Morecroft et al 2014), but scientists must always be of the wide-range of impacts their work can have outside the academic realm. 

An introduction to the Anthropocene commissioned by Planet Under Pressure a set of global talks from 2012 that UCL were heavily involved in. [Accessed 28/10/14]

Friday, 24 October 2014

Science and your Grandma 

Image of Joanna Chorley from Grandma got STEM

I thought this was a brilliant article on the importance of science communication. Saying that my Grandmas one of the sharpest knives around so I don't think she'd appreciate me toning things down for her. It brings into question the necessity for sciences to maintain the integrity and complexity of their work whilst also making it relevant, and relevant does not have to mean simple. It's more about using words that resonate with the public. Returning to my first post this might be as simple as swapping the word emissions for pollution or making sure any findings are put in context.

Heere's a few things to look forward to over the next few weeks

  • The implications of changing paradigms on global climate change policy
  • How citizen science is helping bring climate studies to whole new populations
  • The dynamic role of a climate scientist in modern academia
I'll also keep sharing anything I stumble across offering new perspectives on public engagement with Climate Science.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Whats the problem? Wickedness in Climate Science

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Professor Carolyn Roberts at Gresham College. This lecture was part of a series reflecting on challenges to the application of science and particularly the nature of communications between people from different perspectives. Entitled ‘Greeness and UK environmental challenges’ it introduces the idea of ‘Wicked Problems’ (Rittel & Webber 1973) and applies them to case studies in Uganda and the 2007 Gloucestershire flooding.

‘Wicked problems’ have a number of characteristics; they are complex and poorly understood, involve several disciplines and dimensions, have effects separated by both space and time, numerous stakeholders (who use different language and have different levels of understanding) and with solutions that never seem to be complete. Whilst the initial talk approached this from a hydrological perspective it’s interesting to explore climate change through the same lens.

Against the checklist paraphrased by Professor Roberts
  • 1)     Climate change is certainly complex and whilst the science is, for the most part, understood the problem itself is not. Is the problem that the climate will be warmer? Or the effects this will have on ecosystems? Societal resilience? Or the balance of mitigation and adaption?
  • 2)     It certainly involves numerous disciplines; Climate, Ocean, Geology, Sociology, Politics, Law, Engineering and a thousand others each have a part to play.
  • 3)     The complications of time and space are possibly the worse aspect of behind the climate science problem. There are lags associated with historical emissions and current warming, current emissions and future warming and all manner of unknown planetary responses. Take the current warming hiatus for example. Then there are the disproportionate effects. The majority of current emissions come from rich western countries, with poorer globally southern countries far more at risk. Both poles are warming differently as is the equator, whilst the higher land mass of the northern hemisphere and greater ocean content of the south also plays into confusion.
  • 4)     For numerous stakeholders, see every person who currently or will live on Earth.
Whats the problem? Image courtesy of [accessed 21.10.14]

Levin et al (2012) characterize Climate change as a ‘Super Wicked’ problem, adding that the problem is urgent, that it lacks a weak central authority and that policy response focuses on the short-term and are formulated by those that have caused the problem. The move to natural gas from fracking, and Obamas recent control on Hydrofluorocarbons highlight the final point in particular. Whilst steps in the right direction they do nothing to address the total amount of CO2 in or entering the atmosphere. Weak central authority was shown in the NYC Climate Summit with the majority of good news coming from businesses or singular cities and mayors. Emissions targets meanwhile were left to governments to decide nationally on a voluntary basis.  Herein lies the dilemma of the ‘Super-Wicked’ problem, how do you evaluate solutions to a dynamic and flexible problem with each addressing Climate Change from a different perspective or orientation. The above authors all share a conclusion for wicked problems, that solutions are never complete, merely better or worse.

The talk on Wednesday finished on rather a sour note with one member of the audience claiming that any optimism was pointless as the course was set and the problem too entrenched. I feel it necessary to disagree for a number of reasons; firstly the gentleman was significantly older than the majority of the audience. He has already enjoyed the world for several years and I don’t plan on giving up on my chance just yet. Secondly solutions present themselves when we re-orientate the problem.  The science is settled, but communicative strategies are not with engagement and understanding a consistent barrier. Stakeholder engagement, technological advance, education of policy makers and open data/citizen science all now have a crucial role to play. This blog will continue to address solutions but the framing of the problem by Professor Roberts made for fascinating watching and I’d urge you all to attend the next one in early December.

Professor Carolyn Roberts
-The First Frank Jackson Professor of the Environment and only the 9th new Gresham professor since 159
-History in water management but also ran her own water consultancy and communication firms
-Founder of the Knowledge transfer network linking businesses and academia and director of its predecessor the Environmental sustainability knowledge transfer network

-Sideline of consultancy with the police for the way bodies float through water

Friday, 17 October 2014

They know, but do they know.. you know?

Public attitudes to climate are hugely important in any mitigation strategy. In 2013 17% of UK emissions (DECC 2014) came from the residential sector, taking into account individual choice over foods, goods and transport the public could have up to 51% of energy (Hillman 2004) use in their hands. Whilst an IPSOS Mori poll found that 86% of British people believe human activity affects climate this doesn’t appear to transfer into action. Only 17% of Adults in the same poll feel ‘well-informed’ about Climate Change. This gap between awareness and knowledge is preventing engagement. With information out there, what barriers are there to its uptake, and can policy help, ultimately affecting individual behaviour?

Lorenzi et al (2007) categorise barriers as individual or social. They deem individual factors, such as uncertainty in sources or climate being a ‘far-off threat’, as denial strategies related to guilt or anxiety. I don’t think this is true. Verheggen et al (2014) found skeptical scientists receive disproportionate media time, whilst other studies (Media Matters 2014) show that certain media groups favour the topic to others. Take a look at the video to see what a representative debate should look like Confusion from media affects the way the public understand a complex issue and prominent voices can seed distrust. I do however see the problem with separation in space and time; louder climate concerns come from countries most at risk (Brechin 2010), with developed countries ranking it below other national issues. Developed nations lack ‘evidence’ of change. One slightly macabre benefit of climate disasters like the Somerset Levels or Hurricane Sandyregardless of their link to emissions, is that it makes people care more about global warming. I’d argue that the majority of individual aspects identified in Lorenzi et al are actually a function of a broader social landscape.

 John Oliver hosts the worlds first mathematically representative climate debate

How then can policy bridge the social gap? The authors suggest two ideas.

1)     Basic information provision, regularly sustained, that is both credible and transparent (following recommendations by the House of Lords select committee of science and technology 2000).
2)     Supportive institutions that make positive choices easier, e.g. lower carbon transport that’s cheaper/more efficient than driving.

The issue with the first is media content; scientific journals are inaccessible for the majority, whilst government advice is lacking. Restricting media would suppress press freedom and freedom of speech in general. I’d personally recommend that all journal articles include a summary for journalists, detailing conclusions and uncertainties in explicit terms. This will prevent misinterpretation from journalists who lack scientific literacy and provide a stopgap to mainstream media. Ideally a government-supported institution dedicated to the dissemination of climate science, spearheading a social marketing campaign (like this by Mckenzie 2000) to transcend news cycles would revolutionize understanding.

Shifting personal behavior is vital to any successful mitigation strategy, although the current UK public is aware of climate change numerous factors converge to prevent awareness becoming knowledge, and subsequently action. Whilst a lot of these are highly individualized policy can help. For example people who have experienced a wild environment care about its protection (Zaradic et al 2009) more than those that haven’t, increased funding for school trips could shape a new generation more focused on nature. Whilst an independent institution is a long way off, clarity of language in journal articles and a summary for the media could provide benefits in the short-term.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Foreign Secretary reads HotColdLeftRight, also makes key speech

After concluding in last weeks post that we should be phrasing mitigation strategies in the context of their tangible benefits I thought this quote from the Foreign Secretary (Rt. Hon. Philip Hammond), at clean tech conference in Boston, was quite apt and was almost lifted straight from this blog:
'But, by doing so, [acting on climate threat] we will not just protect future generations from the worst effects of climate change we will bring tangible benefits to our peoples here and now. We will get cleaner air, more efficient transport and cities, better health. More than that, the technological transformation that is required will provide a stimulus greater than the space programme did 50 years ago, generating massive new opportunities for innovation, jobs and economic growth.'
He then went on to describe the economy that low-carbon technology can bring. I will say whilst he and John Kerry (US Secretary of State) talk a good good game they've got a lot of work to do convincing their own institutions. 
<><><> Take a look at the full speech here <><><>

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Global Blackjack: 2°C or Bust

Global climate negotiations are heating up; the New York summit and its 400,000 strong climate march have mobilized leaders for further talks culminating in Paris next year. The climate policy narrative (including the IPCC) is framed to keep global average temperatures beneath a 2˚C limit. This value is seen in the scientific literature but achieved international recognition as part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Whilst it is thought that warming of 2°C will prevent the worst climate related effects it is being increasingly questioned. A single figure doesn’t suggest pathways for adaption, and an arbitrary value can prove too abstract for people to engage with. If 2° isn’t right, then what is, and how will the language of organisations such as the IPCC affect government and public ability to engage with mitigation strategies?

Victor & Kennel (2014) argue that 2° represents a scientific and political failing. Particularly with the recent warming ‘hiatus’ it has allowed governments to ‘talk big’ without action. Average temperatures mask the complex processes behind climate change, recent increases in Antarctic sea ice analysed by Holland et al (2014) proved a field day for denialists using the very logical heat=melt argument. As in previous climate shifts, warming (or cooling) is highly disproportionate. The Arctic for example is warming far faster than either the equator of the Antarctic, whilst research on New Zealand Glaciers by Rother et al (2014) show a vastly different response in the Southern Hemisphere than the North. Victor & Kennel call for an expanded set of targets and indicators that better represent the state of the planets health. Using ocean temperatures, atmospheric CO2 or regional temperatures allow governments to identify more cause-and-effect pathways. In terms of risk management calculations a singular temperature limit may though prove more effective than multi-vectored analysis (Sandford et al (2014). It is important to note that this all may prove irrelevant as we are currently on track to blow past 2° in line with IPCC 8.5.
Current emissions are in line with RCP8.5 (credit IPCC AR5)

The main issue for me is the lack of tangibility, people cannot see warming, the same as people cannot see emissions. What we can see are benefits (or consequences). Thompson et al (2014) propose a great strategy for evaluating air quality co-benefits of Carbon Policies in the US. With China focusing it’s mitigation strategies around reducing smog, the UK can adopt a similar approach to help companies and individuals see the effects of reducing climate impacts. A visible reduction in air quality, increased species diversity or greener cities are more identifiable than an abstract temperature, in a poll by Yale Climate Communication a greater percentage of Americans identified with the health benefits of mitigation than believed global warming was man-made. Whilst this limit helped mobilise international talks, the world must now turn to more rigorous pathways to change and in particularly the benefits of lower emissions. Victor and Kennel use the analogy that patients still do not understand why doctors monitor their vital signs; but they certainly feel the benefits.