Tuesday 27th December 2022
Let’s give people more clarity about climate change effects at the time of impact
We've just witnessed another deadly arctic blast in the United States. There is a high chance that the bitter pulse of cold was made worse or more likely by a meandering of the polar jet stream, which seems to be slowing as a result of the fading of the temperature differential between the temperate and arctic zones.
A few courageous outlets like the Washington Post and the Guardian have discussed this matter before but are loathe to invoke it in relation to the Christmas of ‘22. Meanwhile most Americans remain oblivious to the backstory while the anti-science faithful are having a rare moment in the erm, sun.
Perhaps this has been not just a lost opportunity to educate but even
something of a dereliction of duty by science and science commun-
ication [raises own hand]. Surely we can do better at embedding into
the general consciousness a broadly accurate understanding of climate
change effects even if many do kick and scream before eventually
swallowing the medicine.
How can this be done? Should we promote uncertain information?
Yes, we need to. Nothing in the climate change story is certain. For
example we can neither predict extreme floods nor state absolutely
that when they occur they were caused by climate change. And I
strongly suspect that people without education in science do not
understand when they hear that “Flood X was made 20% worse by
the intensification of the hydrological cycle”. They want to know if it
was caused by climate change or not.
So, was Flood X caused by climate change? How to answer? Saying we don’t know implies lack of confidence in climate science (and we don't lack it). To say no is obviously at least partially false because Flood X was worsened by the intensification of the water cycle. Introducing probabilities and historical precedents ("once in 10,000 years") only normalises Flood X ("we were just unlucky"). The only reasonable option is to say Yes, it was caused by climate change. And Yes is justifiable on the grounds that in 2022 the entire interwoven global climate system has been altered and is not going to change back. Stating "yes" with confidence is a risk that must be taken.
Are we afraid of being wrong? Are we afraid that to make a mistake will damage the reputation of climate science? We will occasionally be wrong but let’s face it, we have so far been so relentlessly, brutally right that the occasional about-face would be no great shame.
Climate scientists do not care more for their reputations than for the fate of life on earth. The thought is preposterous, yet as extreme weather events increasingly overtake our own hesitancy we are at risk of doing exactly that.
If climate scientists themselves won’t speak with sufficient clarity for the occasion, then science communicators must do so. I propose that we devise a list of weather events that are caused by climate change. It will be stated confidently and the climate science community will be encouraged to back it. It will be updated annually by consensus. It will be short and it will make absolute statements. That, of course, goes against the grain for those who think scientifically but it is time we recognise that most of the world don't think scientifically.
Mistakes will be made but let us not be afraid. I’m not a specialist on jet streams or on North American winters (or even a North American) but, even in the face of the uncertainties I’m calling this one – the great blizzard of ’22 was caused by climate change.
Tuesday 20th December 2022
The climate and biodiversity crises are the one crisis
Today’s announcement of an agreement at the Cop 15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal, Canada is a moving spectacle and potentially represents a ground-shift in the battle. Certainly ecologists, birders, indigenous peoples and other lovers of nature could be forgiven for sporting a silly grin.
Such folks had come to be a little concerned at the (comparatively) large amount of attention lavished on the climate crisis compared against the biodiversity crisis. This is understandable since the decimation of nature has been and continues to be a hideous cataclysm.
Lately the sentiment has even been expressed that the biodiversity crisis is actually a bigger deal than the climate disaster. The reasoning goes like this:
All organisms are tied together via webs of predation, fertilisation, pollination, nutrition, decomposition. Within a given ecosystem, bounty is maintained for all while ever all remain, but when any one species disappears from the ecosystem, every species within it is the poorer and a little less likely to persist.
Early homo sapiens spread to the four corners of the earth and to extremes of climate yet remained quite small in number because their dietary, medicinal, shelter and other needs were very particular. This means they had to embed themselves within biodiverse or complex ecosystems in order
to remain healthy, or at least until some of them shifted to turbocharged hunting regimes and meat became a major source of nutrition.
Tribal and indigenous peoples who still rely either fully or partly on hunting and gathering of wild foods understand human needs and the interconnectedness of all things. So do ecologists, soil scientists, climate researchers, organic gardeners, surfers, Daoists and other sub-cultures who proactively observe nature frequently.
Collectively we have no doubt that as a result of our deep entanglement with nature, our own survival as a species is threatened by the loss. Just one case in point: We depend on pollination for fruit crops and honey production yet a global collapse in pollinators (insects) appears to be underway.
So, is the biodiversity crisis a bigger threat than the climate crisis?
The worsening and so far randomly attended biodiversity crisis is a crime of immense scale. Life-forms that took millions of years to appear and ecosystems that took thousands to millions of years to develop are at the point of being permanently unable to sustain themselves even within protected areas. This finality adds tragedy and bitterness, yet the greater ill to humans at least, is the inherent danger. We are allowing our life support systems to collapse.
The climate crisis though is a behemoth that’s not going to subside for at least decades even if emissions began falling on a shorter time span. A degree of decimation is locked in for both human and natural systems (and it’s not at all guaranteed that emissions will fall). The sooner we can actually mitigate the entire problem and begin drawdown of greenhouse gases the sooner we can reduce that damage. And that very much includes damage to biodiversity.
Certainly saving habitat, species and ecosystems in the short term is an excellent use of resources. Yet slowing the climate change locomotive is not only ultimately crucial to biodiversity, but also very much a boost to saving biodiversity in the short term.
It may be that many nature lovers do not understand the staggering scale and urgency of the climate crisis. This isn’t helped by the penchant of some physicists, chemists and other earth scientists to be less than urgent in their tone, possibly due to a desire to appear restrained and ‘professional’. On the other hand it may well be that many in the often abstract physical science fields pertaining to climate change rarely get close enough to birds, bugs, fungi or even cows to be able to grasp the scale of the biodiversity apocalypse.
But we don’t need a competition anyway, do we. Rather we need everyone to pull together in the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced.
Wednesday 14th December 2022: Lack of clean energy is not the problem
We have this week been greeted with news that, after untold decades of trying, American nuclear fusion technologists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved the holy grail of facilitating the release of more energy than they deposited via lasers. This is considered very exciting because it means that in the fullness of time we will theoretically have nearly limitless, ostensibly clean energy.
While this is nice to hear since we happen to have a climate crisis brought on by the use of dirty energy, it prompts some questions.
1 Since it will presumably take decades before nuclear fusion powers homes and factories in Europe, the USA, China, Africa and the Pacific Islands, will not other clean energy technologies such as wind, solar, pumped hydro and nuclear fission be already widespread ahead of fusion power?
2 Are those hanging on the fusion-solution aware that the climate crisis is here now and we need energy intensity reductions right now, as opposed to decades (or even a decade) down the track?
3 What will be the result of producing near-limitless clean energy? Surely economic growth will enter a phase like none seen before. This means demand for raw materials, and hence environmental destruction will soar to levels also not seen before. And as growth accelerates, demand for yes, energy, will also skyrocket in a savage circle.
Nuclear fusion is another green and grassy new paddock of the farm that supplies civilization with its staple food - surplus energy. Our human ancestors harnessed fire and took over the world. Other creatures did not approve then and they're angry as hell now. It’s time to end our fascination with “clean” energy. It will not save us. It should be merely a bandage to hold back the terrible tide we have called up.