Tag Archives: climate change

Australian firefighters on fire policy

firefightsausPeter Marshall, national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, writing in the Melbourne Age argues that the government needs to face the drivers of changes in fire riks, not only extinguishing fires in Face global warming or lives will be at risk:

… Firefighters work in conditions that most of the public try to flee. We often put our lives on the line. We understand that our job is dangerous by its very nature. However, we are gravely concerned that current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events.

Consider the devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a “low global warming scenario” will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days. However, under a “high global warming scenario”, catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect up to a 230 per cent increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for a massive increase of up to 221 per cent in extreme fire days by 2050, with catastrophic events predicted as often as every eight years. Given the Federal Government’s dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events.

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Tim Flannery on Australian bushfires

Australian mammalogist and writer Tim Flannery on the Australian bushfires in a Guardian article Australian bushfires: when two degrees is the difference between life and death:

The day after the great fire burned through central Victoria, I drove from Sydney to Melbourne. For much of the way – indeed for hundreds of miles north of the scorched ground – smoke obscured the horizon, entering my air conditioned car and carrying with it that distinctive scent so strongly signifying death, or to Aboriginal people, cleansing.

It was as if a great cremation had taken place. I didn’t know then how many people had died in their cars and homes, or while fleeing the flames, but by the time I reached the scorched ground just north of Melbourne, the dreadful news was trickling in. At first I heard that 70 people had died, then 108. Then 170. While the precise number of victims is yet to be ascertained, the overall situation at least is now clear. Australia has suffered its worst recorded peacetime loss of life. And the trauma will be with us forever.

I was born in Victoria, and over five decades I’ve watched as the state has changed. The long, wet and cold winters that seemed so insufferable to me as a young boy wishing to play outside vanished decades ago, and for the past 12 years a new, drier climate has established itself. I could measure its progress whenever I flew into Melbourne airport. Over the years the farm dams under the flight path filled ever less frequently, while the suburbs crept ever further into the countryside, their swimming pools seemingly oblivious to the great drying.

Climate modelling has clearly established that the decline of southern Australia’s winter rainfall is being caused by a build-up of greenhouse gas, much of it from the burning of coal. Ironically, Victoria has the most polluting coal-fed power plant on Earth, while another of its coal plants was threatened by the fire. There’s evidence that the stream of global pollution caused a step-change in climate following the huge El Niño event of 1998. Along with the dwindling rainfall has come a desiccation of the soil, and more extreme summer temperatures.

This February, at the zenith of a record-breaking heatwave with several days over 40C, Melbourne recorded its hottest day ever – a suffocating 46.4C, with even higher temperatures occurring in rural Victoria. This extreme coincided with exceptionally strong northerly winds, which were followed by an abrupt southerly change. This brought a cooling, but it was the shift in wind direction that caught so many in a deadly trap. Such conditions have occurred before. In 1939 and 1983 they led to dangerous fires. But this time the conditions were more extreme than ever before, and the 12-year “drought” meant that plant tissues were almost bone dry.

Despite narrowly missing the 1983 Victorian fires, and then losing a house to the 1994 Sydney bushfires, I had not previously appreciated the difference a degree or two of additional heat, and a dry soil, can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was quantatively different from anything seen before. Strategies that are sensible in less extreme conditions, such as staying to defend your home or fleeing in a car when you see flames, become fatal options under such oven-like circumstances. Indeed, there are few safe options in such conditions, except to flee at the first sign of smoke.

My country is still in shock at the loss of so many lives. But inevitably we will look for lessons from this natural tragedy. The first such lesson I fear is that we must anticipate more such terrible blazes in future, for the world’s addiction to burning fossil fuels goes on unabated, with 10 billion tonnes being released last year alone. And there is now no doubt that the pollution is laying the preconditions necessary for more such blazes.

When he ratified the Kyoto protocol, Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd called climate change the greatest threat facing humanity. Shaken, and clearly a man who has seen things none of us should see, he has now had the eye-witness proof of his words. We can only hope now that Australia’s climate policy, which is weak, is significantly strengthened.

After ignoring the Kyoto protocol for years, just months ago we committed to a reduction in pollution of a mere 5% by 2020 over 2000 levels, with the possibility of increasing that to 15% if a successful treaty comes out at Copenhagen later this year. Our national goal is a 60% reduction in emissions by 2050, but such targets are easy to articulate if the bulk of the work must be done by future governments.

As the worst greenhouse polluters, per capita, of any developed nation, there is an urgent need for Australians to reduce our dependency on coal. I believe that if we want to give ourselves the best chance of avoiding truly dangerous climate change, we should cease burning coal conventionally by around 2030. No such policy is currently being contemplated. Instead, as perhaps anyone would, Australians have been focusing on the immediate cause of some of the fires.

Rudd has said that the arsonists suspected of lighting some fires are guilty of mass murder, and the police are busy chasing down these malefactors. But there’s an old saying among Australian fire fighters — “whoever owns the fuel, owns the fire”. Let’s hope that Australians ponder the deeper causes of this horrible tragedy, and change our polluting ways before it’s too late.

Notes on desiging social-ecological systems

Pruned on the rehabilitation of degraded landscapes presents Pedreres de s’Hostal:

Pedreres de s’Hostal is a disused stone quarry on the island of Minorca, Spain. In 1994, the quarry saw its last stonecutters, and since then, the non-profit organization Líthica has been hard at work transforming this industrial landscape into a post-industrial heritage park.

Conservation Magazine’s Journal Watch reports on a recent paper Willis, S.G. et al. 2009. Assisted colonization in a changing climate: a test-study using two U.K. butterflies. Conservation Letters DOI:  10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00043.x, which describes a successful assisted colonization:

Based on climate models and a survey of suitable habitats, scientists introduced 500 to 600 individuals of two butterfly species to new sites in England, miles away from what were, in 1999 and 2000, the northern limits of their natural ranges. After monitoring for six years, they found that both introduced populations grew and expanded their turf from the point of release, similarly to newly colonized natural areas.

The butterflies’ success outside of their usual limits suggests that their naturally shifting distributions had been lagging behind the pace of climate warming, the researchers conclude. The results also bode well for the careful use of this sometimes controversial technique for other species threatened by climate change. After all, wildlife can only run so fast and for those species moving up mountains to escape the heat, there’s only so far they can go.

MacArthur Foundation granting $2 million to help ecosystems and human communities adapt to the effects of climate change. On Gristmill:

the IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund — will use it to establish a new Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network. Details on the network are still being hashed out, but it’s intended to be a resource for promoting best practices to conservation groups, governments, and others. It will aid projects such as creating protected corridors to help mountain-dwelling animals migrate to higher elevations and restoring natural barriers on coastlines, such as mangrove forests.

On Gristmill, futurist Jamais Cascio posts his recent reflections on geo-engineering in response to the detailed comparison between different geoengineering strategies a writes Geoengineering is risky but likely inevitable, so we better start thinking it through:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

If we don’t want to see geoengineering deployed, we have to get our carbon emissions down as rapidly and as widely as possible. If we don’t — if our best efforts aren’t enough against decades of carbon growth and temperature inertia — we will see efforts to do something, anything, to avoid global catastrophe.

On Worldchanging Alex Steffen argues that Geoengineering Megaprojects are Bad Planetary Management:

Many of us oppose geoengineering megaprojects, not because we are afraid of science or technology (indeed, most bright green environmentalists believe you can’t win this fight without much more science and technology), but because these kinds of megaprojects are bad planetary management.

It’s bad planetary management to take big chances with a high probability of “epic fail” outcomes (like emptying the sea of life through ocean acidification). It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.

Jamais and Alex debate their points a bit in the WorldChanging comments.

Australian fires

From ABC News

The deadly Australian bushfires appear to have been so deadly because they were unusual.  The fires caught people before they new it was coming, and unlike many fires they were too strong to fight.  What made these fires unusual?  At first look it seems to be a combination of a lack of social memory, fuel accumulation, and climate change – that together reduced community resilience to fire.

From the New Scientist’s Short sharp science blog Time for a new Australian bushfire policy?

Australia has a national fire-preparedness policy, perhaps uniquely, of encouraging people to either “stay and defend or leave early”. But as the tragedy continues to unfurl there will be increasing pressure to reexamine a policy developed for conditions that existed half a century ago.

The rationale behind the policy is that if you have a fire plan in place – that is, you have a water source, a pump that is not dependent on the power supply, you have ember-proofed your house, and so on – it is safer to stay and let the front pass over, than to leave at the last moment. And historically, it is true that most houses lost in bush fires have burnt because of defendable ember-strikes rather than direct contact with the fire, and most deaths have been due last-minute evacuations.

But conditions have changed. Southern Australia’s epic 12-year drought, higher temperatures due to climate change, and less “prescribed” burning to remove the plant life that acts as fuel, all combine to increase the risk of extreme fire. This year already, we’ve had several days in the mid-40s that have burnt leaves off trees, and squeezed the last drops of moisture out of already tinder-dry bush. One survivor described the ground underfoot prior to the fires going through as “like walking on cornflakes”.

Under those conditions, a fire plan may simply not be enough, as Victoria’s premier John Brumby told the Fairfax Radio Network today: “There is no question that there were people there who did everything right, put in place their fire plan and it wouldn’t matter, their house was just incinerated.” Brumby wants the policy rexamined.

People have changed too. Small towns like devastated Marysville – 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Melbourne – as well as the ever-expanding fire-prone city fringes, are as likely to be home to retirees and “treechangers” (city people who move to the country for a life change) as they are to families with generations of bushfire experience.

One of the commonest reasons for people who intend to stay and defend their properties to change their mind and leave at the last moment is that with no direct experience of fire they are not prepared psychologically.

According to Robert Heath, a psychologist at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, they don’t bank on the overwhelming heat, the lack of contact with the outside world, the darkness, or the noise: loud and like a huge blowtorch, apparently. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that many people who lost their lives are thought to have done so while fleeing in their cars.

For more details see:

Thanks to Arijit Guha for pointers.

Climate lurches as global game changers

In response to the Edge.org 2009 annual question, which this year was – What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see? Laurence Smith, Professor of Geography and Earth & Space Sciences at UCLA, writes about abrupt climate change in West Antarctica and seven other sleeping giants:

We used to think climate worked like a dial – slow to heat up and slow to cool down – but we’ve since learned it can also act like a switch. Twenty years ago anyone who hypothesized an abrupt, show-stopping event – a centuries-long plunge in air temperature, say, or the sudden die-off of forests -would have been laughed off. But today, an immense body of empirical and theoretical research tells us that sudden awakenings are dismayingly common in climate behavior. …

The mechanisms behind such lurches are complex but decipherable. Many are related to shifting ocean currents that slosh around pools of warm or cool seawater in quasi-predictable ways. The El Niño/La Niña phenomenon, which redirects rainfall patterns around the globe, is one well-known example. Another major player is the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC), a massive density-driven “heat conveyor belt” that carries tropical warmth northwards via the Gulf Stream. … a THC shutdown nonetheless remains an unlikely but plausible threat. It is the original sleeping giant of my field.

Unfortunately, we are discovering more giants that are probably lighter sleepers than the THC. Seven others – all of them potential game-changers – are now under scrutiny: (1) the disappearance of summer sea-ice over the Arctic Ocean, (2) increased melting and glacier flow of the Greenland ice sheet, (3) “unsticking” of the frozen West Antarctic Ice Sheet from its bed, (4) rapid die-back of Amazon forests, (5) disruption of the Indian Monsoon, (6) release of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, from thawing frozen soils, and (7) a shift to a permanent El Niño-like state. Like the THC, should any of these occur there would be profound ramifications – like our food production, the extinction and expansion of species, and the inundation of coastal cities.

…the presence of sleeping giants makes the steady, predictable growth of anthropogenic greenhouse warming more dangerous, not less. Alarm clocks may be set to go off, but we don’t what their temperature settings are. The science is too new, and besides we’ll never know for sure until it happens. While some economists predicted that rising credit-default swaps and other highly leveraged financial products might eventually bring about an economic collapse, who could have foreseen the exact timing and magnitude of late 2008? Like most threshold phenomena it is extremely difficult to know just how much poking is needed to disturb sleeping giants.

Climate change is only part of the great acceleration

While accepting a journalism award, American environmental journalist Andrew Revkin was asked “Obviously climate change is the biggest story on your plate right now, but looking ahead what do you see?” he replied:

My coverage has evolved. Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. So how we mesh infinite aspirations of a species that’s been on this explosive trajectory — not just of population growth but of consumptive appetite — how can we make a transition to a sort of stabilized and still prosperous relationship with the Earth and each other is the story of our time.

And it’s a story about conflict. It’s a story about the fact that there are a billion teenagers on planet earth right now. A hundred thirty years ago there were only a billion people altogether — grandparents, kids. Now there are a billion teenagers and they could just as easily become child soldiers and drug dealers as innovators and the owners of small companies in favelas in Brazil. And little tweaks in their prospects, a little bit of education, a little bit of opportunity, a micro loan or something, something that gets girls into schools, those things — that’s the story of our time. And climate change is like a symptom of the story of our time, meaning our energy choices right now come with a lot of emissions of greenhouse gases and if we don’t have a lot of new [choices] we’re going to have a lot of warming.

Wine and climate change in the UK

Richard Selley an Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London has written a book The Winelands of Britain: past, present and prospective, that describes how climate, geology, and culture have shaped wine growing in the UK.

He projects that climate change will destroy the wine producing potential of current wine producing areas of the UK, such as the Thames Valley, and the Severn valley. From an Imperial college press release:

…if the climate changes in line with predictions by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, by 2080 vast areas of the UK including Yorkshire and Lancashire will be able to grow vines for wines like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon which are currently only cultivated in warmer climates like the south of France and Chile.

Different grape varieties flourish in different temperatures, and are grouped into cool, intermediate, warm and hot grape groups. For the last 100 years ‘cool’ Germanic grape varieties have been planted in British vineyards to produce wines like Reisling. In the last 20 years some ‘intermediate’ French grape varieties have been successfully planted in southeast England, producing internationally prize-winning sparkling white wines made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.

Combining temperature predictions from the IPCC and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre with his own research on UK vineyards throughout history, Professor Selley predicts that these cool and intermediate grape varieties will be confined to the far north of England, Scotland and Wales by 2080, with ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ varieties seen throughout the midlands and south of England.

Explaining the significance of his new study, Emeritus Professor Selley from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering, said: “My previous research has shown how the northernmost limit of UK wine-production has advanced and retreated up and down the country in direct relation to climatic changes since Roman times.

“Now, with models suggesting the average annual summer temperature in the south of England could increase by up to five degrees centigrade by 2080, I have been able to map how British viticulture could change beyond recognition in the coming years. Grapes that currently thrive in the south east of England could become limited to the cooler slopes of Snowdonia and the Peak District.”

Projected wine variety ranges in 2080

A climate change and development slide show

The 2007/2008 UN Human Development Report Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world focuses on the inequalities of climate change, as well as providing its usual indicators of human development.

According to the report, in 2007 the most developed countries are Iceland, Norway, Australia, Canada, and Ireland while the least developed (of the countries ranked) are Mali, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone).

The high developed countries are responsible most of the accumulation of greenhouse gases driving climate change, while the low development countries are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (see also previous post on climate inequalities).

Now the report has inspired an exhibit at the UN – One planet, one chance. Magnum photos produced a video for the exhibit, which uses gripping photos to describes the basic inequalities of climate change. The video is below the break.

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For climate change – Meat matters more than miles

food miles - percent impactA new paper Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews (Environ. Sci. Technol.,42(10), 3508–3513, DOI: 10.1021/es702969f ) conducted a life cycle analysis of the greenhouse gas outputs of foods in the USA (but they didn’t manage to include the impacts of land cover and soil change).

I expect weightings would probably not change a lot if other environmental impacts, such as declines in other ecosystem services, were considered as well. However, I expect they would change a lot in countries with less intensive agriculture. It would be interesting to see someone do the math for these cases.

Environmental Science and Technology news, reports on a paper in Do food miles matter?:

It’s how food is produced, not how far it is transported, that matters most for global warming, according to new research published in ES&T (DOI: 10.1021/es702969f). In fact, eating less red meat and dairy can be a more effective way to lower an average U.S. household’s food-related climate footprint than buying local food, says lead author Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University.

Weber and colleague Scott Matthews, also of Carnegie Mellon, conducted a life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of growing and transporting food consumed in the U.S. They found that transportation creates only 11% of the 8.1 metric tons (t) of greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) that an average U.S. household generates annually as a result of food consumption. The agricultural and industrial practices that go into growing and harvesting food are responsible for most (83%) of its greenhouse gas emissions.

For perspective, food accounts for 13% of every U.S. household’s 60 t share of total U.S. emissions; this includes industrial and other emissions outside the home. By comparison, driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon of gasoline for 12,000 miles per year (the U.S. average) produces about 4.4 t of CO2. Switching to a totally local diet is equivalent to driving about 1000 miles less per year, Weber says.

A relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same greenhouse gas reduction as eating locally, Weber adds. Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year.

Several other recent studies have analyzed particular foods and poked holes in the food mile concept. For example, it can be more energy efficient for a British household to buy tomatoes or lettuce from Spain than from heated greenhouses in the U.K.

The new work expands on those studies by providing a comprehensive look at the U.S. food supply. Weber used an input–output life-cycle assessment, which counts not only the CO2 produced when food is shipped but also all greenhouse gases, including methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), emitted from farm production. This means counting all the way back to the fossil fuels used to manufacture fertilizer and tractors.

“There is more [total] greenhouse gas impact from methane and nitrous oxide than from all the CO2 in the supply chain,” Weber says. In large part, he adds, this is because N2O and CH4 emission in the production of red meat “blows away CO2”. Cows burp CH4, and growing their feed uses large amounts of fertilizers that are converted to N2O by soil bacteria.

Update: Simon Donner on Maribo also discusses this paper.