Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Climate Safety - a clear and present danger?

George Monbiot's weekly column in the Guardian and at is always bitingly sharp and accurately argued from the recent references that he shares. This week he began by attacking Bush's final acts of environmental vandalism as he slips away into obscurity.

However, Monbiot quickly moved his argument on to recent claims that runaway global warming is much more likely and more imminent than any follower of the IPCC would have imagined. 

Having just read the excellent book by Wally Broecker and Robert Kunzig, "Fixing Climate", I am well aware that many climate changes in the historical record happened incredibly quickly.  I understand that positive feedbacks mechanisms like the lubricated flow of icesheets from meltwater drainage and the release of methane from melting permafrost and Arctic waters have the potential to raise sea levels in decades rather than centuries or millenia. These are the tipping points of dangerous climate change that we have heard so much about since Al Gore's inconvenient lecture in 2006.  What I didn't know was the sheer magnitude of the changes already in progress and the climate impacts still to come - even if we ceased all manmade greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow - as the planet's air, land and water all return to equilibrium under the insulating blanket that we have already discharged into our skies.

I ws sufficiently sceptical of Monbiot's claims to begin trawling through his online references, where I soon found myself in a world so much bleaker than Broecker's. It will take me a while to assimilate this new information and to decide whether this is reality rather than paranoid delusion. However, I would like to share the references here and encourage you to review them and draw your own conclusions.

First, a scientific paper published this year by Jim Hansen et. al. which assesses what level of atmospheric CO2 we need to target in order to retain climatic conditions similar to those that have held throughout human history. 

In dense shorthand of technical abbreviations, satellite observation and ice-core histories, Hansen and colleagues assess the correlation between previous, sudden climate switches and all the possible drivers for these events (e.g., greenhouse gas levels, aerosols, solar irradiance, ocean circulations, etc). 

They draw the unambiguous conclusion that our current atmospheric CO2 level of almost 400ppm wil result in several metres of sea level rise and other dangerous climate shifts that will render many populated areas uninhabitable and undermine any efforts to feed the world's people or protect our remaining biodiversity. They advocate rapid stabilisation at no more than 350ppm CO2 and assert that this is inconsistent with ANY future use of coal without carbon capture.

Having digested this, I was prepared to move onto a beautifully assembled work from the Graduate School of the Environment (GSE) at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), published in collaboration with a charity called the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC). 

The centrepiece of this new website is their 2007 report of the same name, giving a powerful and cohesive evaluation of the steps needed to totally decarbonise Britain's energy infrastructure within 20 years. Central to their vision is a system of Tradeable Emissions Quotas (TEQs), to be issued free to individuals and businesses and used or sold as the holders see fit. Numbers of TEQs issued will decrease gradually and drive our investments and behaviour towards carbon-neutral alternatives.   The animation on their home page gives a short, sharp and accessible summary of the challenge and is well worth viewing.

Another incisive home page animation can be seen on the iconic 350 website, which seeks to become the hub of a new global movement to bring about Hansen's vision.

Lastly, I come to what Monbiot was really telling us. Tomorrow, he will be on the panel of an open meeting in London to launch the new report from PIRC, called "Climate Safety".

Try as I might, I could not download the report or its conclusions from the PIRC website. It will, however, be available from Amazon for around a fiver and I trust that an electronic version will also be available after the launch event. I am gutted that I cannot be at the meeting on Thursday but I look forward to hearing about it from anyone who can get along.

While this climate of fear about climate seems far from everyday sustainable living, it actually needs to engender the sense of urgency that even now is missing from almost all the debate in Britain, whether in Parliament or in the pub. We're all doing something, we all know we should be doing more but we wonder whether it will make any difference and we're kind of waiting to be told what to do because it's the Government's job to lead on this sort of thing isn't it?

Well, that would be nice but the reality is that it's down to us. You and I have always been part of the problem and, however much we're doing to tread lightly, we remain part of the problem. If you've read this far then you, like me, are also determined to be part of the solution. 

We don't know all the elements of this solution but our journeys of discovery can be guided by the process of Continuous Improvement, the quality methodology pioneered by Joseph Juran, who died this year at the grand old age of 103.

Continuous Improvement starts with understanding the issues ("get the facts"), measuring where we are starting from (baseline analysis) and determining the "vital few" actions that will make the biggest difference (using the "Pareto principle"). We then work to establish relevant improvement targets and we continue measuring, to monitor our progress towards these targets, as we implement those actions. Ultimately we are rewarded by celebrating success.

New facts, such as those presented by Monbiot and the websites I have reviewed here, challenge us to go round the loop again, to reassess the targets we have set and think more creatively about the actions needed to reach them. Those actions with the highest impact will, like sudden climate change,  also be discontinuous, step changes - revolution rather than evolution - but this does nothing to diminish the importance of each citizen's responsibility and duty to reduce their own carbon footprint progressively.  I am certain that personal awareness and individual determination will remain at the heart of our response and form the essence of all effective actions to keep our climate safe.

At this point, I feel we need to think very creatively indeed. The "Zero Carbon Britain" report opens with a perfectly chosen quote from President John F. Kennedy.

"The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were."

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