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Hollywood goes big on climate change

April 9, 2014 in Climate risk, Movies, Public Awareness

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The UN's Ban Ki-moon with Arnold Schwarzenegger,  2012 Global Advocate of the Year for his work on climate change Image: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The UN’s Ban Ki-moon with Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2012 Global Advocate of the Year for his work on climate change
Image: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Kieran Cooke

It’s being billed as “the biggest story of our time.” This weekend viewers of Showtime, the US cable channel, will be watching the first of an eight-part documentary series on climate change: some of the biggest names in Hollywood are involved.

LONDON, 9 April – There’s Harrison Ford in the jungles of Indonesia, investigating deforestation and the plight of orang-utans. There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, battling wildfires in California, Don Cheadle seeing the impact of drought in Texas, Matt Damon examining the consequences of a heat wave.

Years of Living Dangerously, a US$20 million production due to be first aired on cable TV on 13 April in the US, features an Oscar red carpet roll-call of Hollywood celebrities along with a cast of high-profile US journalists and columnists, all looking at the impact a warming climate is having on people around the world.

“These are the stories of people whose lives have been transformed by climate change”, says veteran director James Cameron, one of the backers of the project.

“Everyone thinks climate change is about melting glaciers and polar bears. I think that’s a big mistake. This is 100% a people’s story.”

Hollywood is no stranger to the subject of a changing climate: so-called disaster movies such as The Day After Tomorrow, Category 7 and Waterworld all used dramatic though some would say rather implausible changes in climate as the backdrop for some edge-of-the-seat film action.

Well-trodden path

A growing band of Hollywood stars has been speaking out about the dangers of climate change: Leonardo DeCaprio  produced and narrated The 11th Hour, a 2007 film investigating the state of the global environment. Morgan Freeman and Susan Sarandon have been among the Hollywood celebrities lobbying President Obama to do more on climate change.

Meanwhile a whole new genre of climate change-related documentaries has hit the silver screen. An Inconvenient Truth, a film starring former US vice-president Al Gore, is perhaps the most famous while the low budget The Age of Stupid, is among the most acclaimed.

Thin Ice and Chasing Ice are other documentaries looking at the impact of a warming world, while more focused local productions such as Are You Listening! – a Bangladeshi film about one community’s battle against rising sea levels – are playing to enthusiastic audiences.

There are differing opinions about the effect Hollywood celebrities have on the issue. Declan Fahy is an associate professor at American University’s School of Communication. He tells the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media that celebrities have a powerful promotional value and can reach wide audiences.

Not actors but preachers?

“They put a recognisable, individual face on a complex, systemic phenomenon like climate change and therefore make the issue connect with audiences, engaging them on the issue and potentially mobilising them to take action.”

However Fahy warns that using Hollywood stars can cause problems. Celebrities come with their own cultural baggage and their own histories: they can be open to the criticism of being another example of a liberal entertainment elite preaching to people.

The backers of Years of Living Dangerously, who include the Hollywood movie mogul Jerry Weintraub, feel the use of celebrities brings a new, high-profile urgency to the subject.

James Cameron says the series will include ample upbeat and optimistic messages along with the grim news about a rapidly warming atmosphere.

“This is about survival”, says Cameron. “This is the biggest story of our time – and this is the time to tell it.” – Climate News Network

US cools on states’ climate action

April 1, 2014 in Emissions reductions, Fossil fuels, Policy, Public Awareness, USA

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The federal government is now more active on climate change, the individual states less so Image: Wikimedia Commons

The federal government is now more active on climate change, the individual states less so
Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

While Washington is doing more to address climate change, individual American states are scaling back their policies – apparently to public approval.

LONDON, 1 April – In the last five years – five years marked by heat waves that broke all temperature records, an unprecedented superstorm that devastated New York, catastrophic blizzards in the north-eastern states and sustained drought in the south-west – American citizens have become more divided in their views on climate change.

In 2008 seven out of 10 believed it was their state’s job to address global warming if the federal government failed to do so. The proportion is now down to one in two. The degree of commitment to an opinion has also changed. In 2008, 41% agreed strongly with that position. Now only 19% do so, according to a report from the University of Michigan.

The report, by the University’s Centre for Local, State and Urban Policy, also reveals that a greater number of people are opposed to increases in fossil fuel taxes as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: in all, 71% are against, and of these, 55% are strongly against. Overall, only 5% strongly support increases in such taxes.

Gasoline taxes as an instrument to reduce greenhouse emissions were supported by only 23% of respondents in 2008; this proportion fell to 17% in 2013.

Paradoxically, a large majority of Americans continue to support the argument that a proportion of electricity in any state should come from renewable sources. However, only 29 states so far have agreed such a mandate, and all of them before 2008.

The research is not directly concerned with public recognition of the reality of climate change, although other pollsters and analysts report that opinion tends to shift according to argument and direct experience of climate extremes.

“This less engaged era of state activity has come as American public support for state-level actions regarding global warming has declined”

Instead it is concerned with the more complex question of democratic responsibility for response, and the authors observe that voter attitudes and state policies seem to be broadly in step.

So the question is about whether people think federal or state government should take the initiative.

“Since the turn of the 21st century it has been the states, and not the federal government, that have been the leaders in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the authors conclude.

“But just as the federal government under the Obama Administration has emerged as a more aggressive player in climate change policy, the states have entered into a period of more limited effort and even modest decline in terms of policies targeting global warming.

“This less engaged era of state activity has come as American public support for state-level actions regarding global warming has declined from where it was five years ago.” – Climate News Network

How weather shapes our climate ideas

January 12, 2014 in Public Awareness, USA, Warming, Weather

EMBARGOED until 1800 GMT on Sunday 12 January

Very hot days can dispose us to accept that climate change is happening, while cold days do the opposite Image: Craig Shaw SnowMonkeyJapan via Wikimedia Commons

Very hot days can dispose us to accept that climate change is happening, while cold days may do the opposite
Image: Craig Shaw SnowMonkeyJapan via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Researchers in the US say most people’s convictions about climate change are largely shaped by the weather outside – because that’s the most immediate data we can find.

LONDON, 12 January – It’s by now a no-brainer to say that what we think about climate change is often influenced by what we know of weather change. On a cold day many of us are much less ready to agree that the climate is changing than we are on a warm one.

But now researchers have gone a stage further, trying to establish just why we react to these topical prompts rather than to the evidence of long-term change. And In a series of surveys, they have found that we often respond to the most accessible and immediate information – whether on temperature or something else – that we can find.

The research, published in Nature Climate Change, was completed by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

One survey examined several possible influences on perceptions of the climate, for example testing 686 people on whether individual words could alter their reactions on a very warm day. But the researchers found that speaking of “global warming” rather than “climate change” made little difference.

Experience beats memory

Another survey gave around 330 respondents information on the scientific distinction between local temperature and global climate change, while a control group – a different set of respondents, used to draw comparisons – received information unconnected to climate. Yet greater knowledge about how climate works made very little difference to how that day’s weather affected the respondents’ views on climate.

Then the researchers wanted to see whether more accessible information – like the current day’s temperature – simply took over from less accessible information, such as scientific explanations of global climate change.

So as well as asking about the current temperature they asked 300 participants to do a word puzzle which included several heat-related terms. This “priming” with extra “accessible” information did increase levels of belief in climate change.

In another test they asked 251 people about the previous day’s temperature (which was by then a memory), and found it did not influence their beliefs about climate change in the same way that the current day’s temperature did: that was a matter of immediate experience.

One cold day

In a final survey of 270 people, asking what they recalled of warmer-than-usual events, the researchers found that one unusually warm day could prompt memories of other similar days and could lead people to overestimate the frequency of such exceptionally warm days.

The lead author of the study, Lisa Zaval, a graduate student in psychology at Columbia University working with CRED, said the survey’s findings about warm weather events could apply to cold ones, too. “Our data suggest that perceiving today’s local temperature to be colder than usual can lead to decreased belief in and reduced concern about global warming”, she said.

“Strengthening the association between… cold weather, or extreme weather fluctuations, and climate change in people’s minds might be a good step.”

Her team’s report sounds a similar note: “If the United States is to take a stronger stance against climate change, forecasters may be well advised to make increasing warming abnormalities more cognitively available to the general public.” In other words: in a warming world, prepare for all sorts of surprises. – Climate News Network

Climate change – and it’s for free

December 21, 2013 in Climate, Human response, Public Awareness, United Kingdom

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Headlines confusing? Muddled by the media? Head for Exeter! Image: Me.blogger from Barcelona, Spain, via Wikimedia Commons

Headlines confusing? Muddled by the media? Then sign up with Exeter and find out what’s what
Image: Me.blogger from Barcelona, Spain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A British university has teamed up with climate scientists to help to explain – at no cost to participants – what climate change is, why it matters, and what solutions are on offer.

LONDON, 21 December – Having trouble explaining the impact of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere? Puzzled by talk of the acidification of the seas? Interested to learn the effect global warming will have on food supplies?

Then step this way. Or rather, enrol on a course being run online by the UK’s Exeter University in partnership with the UK Met Office Hadley Centre, called “Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions”.

And the best thing about the eight week course? It’s all for free.  Already more than 8,000 people from around the world have signed up.

Tim Lenton, professor of climate change and earth systems science at Exeter, is the main organiser of a unique experiment at the University called the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

“Climate change is a huge, defining issue of the era”, Lenton told Climate News Network. “We feel it’s vitally important to make the subject open and accessible to everyone – not just to those who can afford to come to university. Access to the latest information on the issue is important.”

Sceptics welcome

Lenton hopes the course, which begins on 13 January 2014, will appeal to a wide spectrum of people – to those in the developing world who might not have ready access to information on climate change and to others who might never have thought of going to university but are interested in learning more about the world and its climate.

“This is a new project for us – it’s really designed as a taster to get people interested and to be spurred to become more involved in the whole question”, says Lenton.

“We want to appeal to everybody, including those who might be sceptical. And we’re certainly not spreading a doom and gloom message: we want to offer solutions as well as examine the challenges that face us all.”

The course is being led by eight prominent academics from various disciplines at the university. It examines the record of climate change in terms of the Earth’s history, looks at developments since the industrial revolution, and questions the underlying assumptions behind various modelling techniques.

Climate politics

The course will also focus on geo-engineering and its possible applications, and on how buildings can be better adapted to a changing climate.

“We wanted to approach climate change in a multidisciplinary way”, says Lenton. “For instance we’ll be looking at sustainability and social and political factors – why some object to wind farms, how the whole issue of climate change has become so politicised.

“And students will have plenty of opportunity through social media to give feedback and participate in what we hope will be a very active debate.”

Lenton admits the motive for the course is not entirely altruistic. It was relatively inexpensive to structure as some parts of the programme are already being taught at the University. And for Exeter and the Met Office Hadley Centre, also in the city, it’s good public relations.

“It’s a chance to showcase some of the important work we’re doing down here”, says Lenton. “It makes us more visible. And it could well encourage students to come to Exeter and learn more.” – Climate News Network

Reigniting the climate change debate

December 15, 2013 in Climate, Human response, Public Awareness

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The 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen: Turning point for the climate debate? Image: Greenpeace Finland via Wikimedia Commons

The 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen: Turning point for the climate debate?
Image: Greenpeace Finland via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A British group says people’s interest in global warming has dwindled, and new ways of telling what is essentially a human story should include talking to those who may be sceptical about climate change.

LONDON, 15 December – George Marshall is a co founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), an organisation based in Oxford in the UK which specialises in climate change communication.

Whenever he can, Marshall tries to engage people in conversation about global warming: he finds it a tough task.

“I’m always casual about it – after all, no one wants to find themselves sitting next to a zealot on a long-distance train journey.

“But I need not worry because, however I say it, the result is almost always the same: the words collapse, sink and die in mid-air and the conversation suddenly changes course…it’s like an invisible force field that you only discover when you barge right into it. Few people ever do, because, without having ever been told, they have somehow learned that this topic is out of bounds.”

Others in the business of communicating climate change will sympathise: they become used to eyes glazing over, people suddenly finding others to talk to or urgently expressing the need for a drink. It can be a lonely occupation.

COIN has just produced a report entitled Climate Silence, questioning why the interest of the public in global warming is still low – despite all the warnings about the threats being faced.

The report, which focuses mainly on events in the UK, says public interest in the issue was at its height back in 2008. The Stern Review, making the financial case for tackling the problem sooner rather than later had, been published, the UK had brought in its Climate Change Act, and there was optimism that a global deal on climate change could be sealed at the  Copenhagen summit.

Scientists reticent

Now, says COIN, the situation is radically different.

“Civil society, exhausted by the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations in 2009, has largely fallen silent. Scientists, cowed by personal attacks, have become increasingly reticent.

“A door that was once firmly shut – to sceptical voices in the mainstream media – has been opened again…public interest has dwindled. The debate has become stale and fatigued.”

The UK public has recently been focused on the seemingly unstoppable rise in household energy bills, says COIN. Energy companies, much of the media and some politicians have been quick to blame “eco-taxes” for escalating costs.

“Climate change – if it was mentioned at all – was presented as the enemy of the common man: an elite, costly and distant concern that should not be considered during times of austerity.”

Energy saving has been talked about solely as a question of bringing down costs to the consumer, rather than in the wider context of climate change.

“What actually needs to happen is a little more challenging than this – ultimately involving a complete overhaul of how we travel, eat, heat our homes, consume and work.”

Collective failure

Ditto the Climate Change Act, says COIN: all the talk is of achieving technical targets – rather than considering climate change as a vital social issue that needs to be talked about and discussed by the general public.

COIN’s views on the lack of engagement of the UK public on climate change would seem to be backed up by a forthcoming survey, quoted in the report, from the Royal Society of Arts. Of 2,000 people surveyed in 2013, 40% said they never speak about climate change to their friends, family or colleagues.

In the US there seems to be less public engagement in the issue. A survey this year by Yale University found that only 8% of respondents said they communicated publicly about climate change, while nearly 70% said they rarely or never spoke about it.

“We have failed, collectively, to make climate change something that inspires passion in all but a vocal minority (on either side of the argument)”, says COIN.

So what’s to be done? COIN proposes a national series of conversations embracing a broad cross-section of society – including those who might be sceptical. Ways must be found to inspire people to care about the problem. Climate change, it says, is fundamentally a human story, and public campaigns must reconnect with that basic fact.

“For too long, climate change has been stuck in a rut – pigeon-holed as a scientific and an ‘environmental’ issue – a niche topic that has little direct relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

“Without a way of translating the dry, faceless facts of climate science into living, breathing reasons to care about climate change, meaningful public engagement will remain out of sight.” – Climate News Network

Climate leaves European cities hesitant

December 4, 2013 in Adaptation, Emissions reductions, Europe, Policy, Public Awareness

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Sunrise on the waterfront at Liverpool, UK, a city with a big stake in tackling climate change Image: Scouserdave at en.wikipedia  Commons

Sunrise on the waterfront at Liverpool, UK, a city with a big stake in tackling climate change
Image: Scouserdave at en.wikipedia

By Tim Radford

The European Union is a leader in the attempt to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But quite a few European cities seem not to have heard of climate change.

LONDON, 4 December – European governments might have national targets to meet the demands of climate change. Many European cities, however, may not be in the mood.

Diana Reckien of Columbia University in the US and 11 European colleagues report in the journal Climatic Change that one in three cities have no plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and seven out of 10 cities have no formal plans to adapt to climate change.

Cities – think factories, offices, cars, public transport, lighting, central heating, air conditioning, waste disposal and huge and continuous programmes of building, demolition and renewal with steel, concrete, brick and glass – account for between 31% and 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cities represent huge concentrations of people and economic investment, vulnerable to flood, windstorm, extremes of temperature and other climate-related violence. And cities don’t actually have to involve themselves in the complex international deals that bedevil government climate policies.

Cities are at liberty to decide to reduce emissions, and to adapt to any future hazards that citizens may identify.

The research went beyond questionnaire and interview. The researchers focused on action rather than words. They made a detailed analysis of 200 large and medium-sized urban areas – large means more than 250,000 people; medium is defined as more than 50,000 – in 11 European countries.

Slow to adapt

They looked at strategic policy and planning documents; they scrutinised adaptation plans that might abate or reduce vulnerability to climate change; and they considered mitigation plans that involved improved energy efficiency and renewable energy generation.

Only one city in four had taken steps both to adapt to climate change and to mitigate it by setting measurable targets to reduce emissions. Overall, 130 of the 200 cities had a mitigation plan and 28% had an adaptation plan.

But civic ambitions varied across national boundaries. More than 90% of British cities had a mitigation plan; of cities in France and Belgium only around 42% had confronted the challenge.

Of the 30 cities examined in Britain, 80% had adaptation plans, but in Germany out of 40 cities, only 33% were ready. The Dutch scored highest for ambition, by aiming for 100% reduction in emissions by 2050.

Ambition outstrips action

It is not as if nobody has mentioned global warming to civic authorities across Europe. Legislation in France, for instance, requires all major cities to have both a mitigation plan and an adaptation plan in place by the close of 2012. Right now, the scientists report, 14 French cities out of 35 have neither.

If the cities were representative of Europe, then on this showing the European Union would achieve its declared target of a 20% reduction in emissions. But this would be a long way short of the 80% reduction in emissions now required to keep global average warming to a maximum level of 2°C .

The EU is responsible for an estimated 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the EU has played a significant role in pressing for climate action at a global level. But not all countries within the EU have a uniform approach. And there remains a gap between declared ambition and civic action.

“Not all cities with high ambitions lie in countries with a national target as seen in the Netherlands. Likewise, an ambitious national target is no guarantee of an ambitious urban target. Every country analysed that has a nationally agreed target has cities without a GHG emission reduction target,” the researchers say. – Climate News Network

Warsaw – Day 11: Civil society turns its back on talks

November 21, 2013 in Climate, Emissions reductions, Human response, Policy, Public Awareness, Science, Warming

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The opening last week of COP 19: But by today some had had quite enough Image: Mateusz Włodarczyk

The opening last week of COP 19: But by today some had had quite enough
Image: Mateusz Włodarczyk via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown in Warsaw

The Climate News Network’s Paul Brown, at the UN climate talks – the 19th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – reports on a day which saw an unprecedented mass exit from the procedings by green groups and other campaigners.

Half the green groups taking part in the climate negotiations here have staged a mass walk–out in protest at the lack of progress.

It is first time in 19 years of tortuous annual negotiations over targets and timetables for saving the Earth’s climate from overheating that the non-governmental organisations have felt sufficiently frustrated to take such a step.

Many of the 800 people involved are members of national delegations and are an important part of pushing the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

The groups concerned, some of them – like ActionAid, Oxfam and WWF – normally considered moderate, issued a joint statement saying that the climate talks here were set to “achieve virtually nothing.”

Enough is enough

The statement said: “The actions of many rich countries here in Warsaw are directly undermining the Climate Change Convention itself, which is an important multilateral process that must succeed if we are to fix the global climate crisis.

“The Warsaw Conference has put the interests of dirty energy industries over that of global citizens – with a Coal & Climate Summit being held in conjunction; corporate sponsorship from big polluters plastered all over the venue; and a presidency (Poland) that is beholden to the coal and fracking industry.

“When Japan announced that it was following Canada and backtracking on emission cuts commitments previously made, and Australia gave multiple signals that it was utterly unwilling to take the UN climate process seriously, the integrity of the talks was further jeopardized.”

Many individual statements from experienced campaigners underlined the lack of progress. Susann Scherbarth, for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “We are walking out in frustration and disappointment, enough is enough.”

Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy initiative, said: “We have been forced to take this action because of the failure of governments to take these talks seriously. We are not walking away from the UN process on climate change, just this conference in Warsaw.”

However, half the NGOs decided to stay in the talks and continued lobbying for progress. Several said they understood the sentiments of those outside but felt that there was still hope.

Nocturnal negotiations

The negotiations to try to rescue something from the talks were set to continue through a second night. Delegates are trying to negotiate the skeleton of an agreement whose aim is to bind the 194 participating nations into a new deal to help prevent the climate overheating. It is due to be signed in Paris in 2015. Pledges of emission cuts and of timetables to achieve them are not expected at this summit, but some time next year.

The main sticking point at Warsaw has been the lack of funds to help developing countries adapt to climate change and repair the losses caused by sea level rise and extreme climate events. There is one day left for formal negotiations, but in fact they are expected to run into Saturday to try to reach a deal.

Any countries or delegates who might have been relieved at the loss of campaigners from the conference can expect to see them back again at the next conference in Lima, the Peruvian capital, in 2014. In the meantime the NGOs said they would concentrate on raising public awareness of the threat to the planet and would organise as many civil protests as possible.

The groups are: ActionAid, the Bolivian Platform of Climate Change, Construyendo Puentes (Latin America), Friends of the Earth (Europe) Greenpeace, Ibon International, the International Trade Union Confederation, LDC Watch, the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, the Peoples’ Movement on Climate Change (Philippines), Oxfam International and WWF. – Climate News Network

Adapt to warmer world say US scientists

November 9, 2013 in Adaptation, Climate, Policy, Public Awareness

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Biomass plant in Italy: One form of adaptation that can help as the mercury rises Image: Threecharlie via Wikimedia Commons

Biomass plant in Italy: One form of adaptation that can help as the mercury rises
Image: Threecharlie via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

There is no silver bullet for tackling climate change, US scientists say. The only option is for every part of society to accept the need to adapt to it.

LONDON, 9 November – Senior US scientists have some fresh advice for governments concerned at the prospect of climate change. It’s happening, they say. Get used to it. Evolve with it. Adapt, or go under.

The recommendations, couched in matter-of-fact language, simply point out what ought to be obvious: as changes become more pronounced, people everywhere will need to adjust. That means that climate scientists, social scientists, engineers and other disciplines must work together to determine who is most vulnerable to changes triggered by deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, and huge agricultural investment, and think of ways to adapt.

“Adapting to an evolving climate is going to be required in every sector of society, in every region of the globe. We need to get going, to provide integrated science if we are going to meet the challenge,” says Richard Moss of the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

And his co-author Philip Mote of Oregon State University said “What we need is more visibility to gain more inclusiveness – to bring into play the private sector, resource managers, universities and a host of decision-makers and other stakeholders. The stakeholders need to know our scientific capabilities, and we need to better understand their priorities and decision-making processes.”

Moss, Mote and 24 others put their argument in Science and call it the “hell and high water” response. The consensus grew out of a scientific workshop in 2012 that identified four challenges.

One was to understand the information needed to make decisions about adaptation to climate change. Another was to identify the different vulnerabilities in society, the economy and the environment.

Responsibilities for science

A third was to improve forecasts and climate models in ways that can address specific problems, and a fourth was to provide the technology, the management and the policy options for adaptation.

Society faces complex problems everywhere as climate changes. Snowmelt patterns are changing, so the water available for industry and agriculture will be less predictable. Plant and animal species are stressed by changing climate patterns, sea levels are rising and more intense storms threaten coastal communities.

The US Administration has already issued an executive order on the need to adapt to climate change. The issue is inevitably up for discussion at the intergovernmental talks in Warsaw, starting on 11 November.

Scientists put climate change on the international agenda more than 20 years ago, long before the evidence of change was at all clear. The hell and high water approach is an explicit recognition that there is more for science to do.

“Traditionally, we think that what society needs is better predictions,” said Moss. “But at this workshop all of us – climate and social scientists alike – recognised the need to consider how decisions get implemented and that climate is only one of many factors that will determine how people will adapt.” – Climate News Network

Stockholm heat toll ‘doubled in 30 years’

October 23, 2013 in Climate, Extreme weather, Public Awareness, Warming

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Summer 2003 heatwave in Hyde Park, London, England. Image: Stephen Craven via Wikimedia Commons

Summer 2003 heatwave in London: Cities are normally warmer than the surrounding countryside
Image: Stephen Craven via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Swedish researchers think the changing climate was responsible for doubling the number of heat-related deaths in the capital, Stockholm, in the 30 years from 1980.

LONDON, 23 October - It’s a small sample – just one city, during one 30-year interval – but it could have significance everywhere: deaths from extreme heat doubled in Stockholm, Sweden, between 1980 and 2009 and the agent behind this grim reckoning looks very much like global warming.

Daniel Oudin Åström of Umeå University, Sweden, and colleagues, report in Nature Climate Change that they looked at recent mortality in Stockholm, and then compared the records of deaths with those from 1900-1929.  The period 1980-2009 was marked by northern hemisphere summers with unprecedented extremes of heat – in 2003, 2007, 2010 and 2012 – and in 2010, temperatures in Europe exceeded all 20th and 21st century records.

Stockholm is a city more adapted to cold than heat, more associated with long bleak winters than stifling summers. Sweden is a society with a long history of good record-keeping, but Stockholm in particular is also a city of demographic change and immigration. So the population at risk from extremes of heat in this century cannot be matched very easily with that of a century ago, but Åström and his fellow researchers decided it was worth a try.

They calculated the weeks in which people would have been most at risk – from cold in winter as well as heat in summer – and considered the age groups most likely to suffer and collapse from heat exhaustion and heat stroke or from hypothermia and other winter hazards. They counted 220 extremes of cold at the beginning of the 20th century, and 251 such extremes in the last 30 years. Then they compared the pattern of mortality over the two timespans, and concluded that the extra 31 cold spells accounted for 75 premature deaths.

Then they looked at the high end of the thermometer, and saw a much more dramatic change. In the early 20th century, there were 220 very hot spells. In the most recent period, there were 381 extremes of heat. On this basis, an additional 288 people who died in Stockholm from the effects of heat did so with a 95% probability that climate change was implicated.

Determining the cause

Comparisons like these are very difficult to make. Human life expectancy has increased, and so has overall health care, sanitation and education.  Cities have expanded dramatically in the last 100 years. Motor traffic, street lighting, central heating and air conditioning have all helped make air temperatures in cities so much higher than in the surrounding countryside, where comparative meteorological measurements are normally made.

The Swedish scientists took such changes into account: without such adjustments, their extra death toll would have been 447.  They concluded that heat-related deaths in the last 30 years were twice those to be expected in the period before global warming.

Despite overall warming, and higher than average winter temperatures overall, the frequency of extremes of cold had increased during the same period, with a smaller excess of deaths. And the researchers confirm that they found no evidence that humans had physiologically adapted to a warmer world in the years since global temperatures began to rise.

Scientists make such calculations and then publish them, inviting other researchers to pour cold water on them. In fact, the cold water is coming anyway, according to Andrea Toreti of Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany and colleagues.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that as the atmosphere warms, so the air will be able to hold more water vapour, with all the more to fall on rainy days. The researchers took eight high resolution global general circulation models and tried to calculate rainfall extremes for the remainder of the century.

To do that, they took reliable data from the past, and projected the pattern of extremes to 2099. They also divided their projections into three time periods: from 1966 to 2005; from 2020 to 2059; and from 2060 to 2099.

The not very surprising conclusion is that with increasing temperatures, and with more moisture in the air, there will be more rain. But the scientists were looking for extreme events, and conclude that as the century wears on, extreme torrential downpours of the kind that once happened only every 50 years will start to happen every 20 years or so.

In the high latitude northern hemisphere (and that includes Stockholm) the strongest change will be in autumn and spring, where the daily extreme precipitation is expected to increase by 45% and 39% respectively. - Climate News Network

Universities urged to cut fossil fuel ties

October 20, 2013 in Climate, Greenhouse Gases, Policy, Pollution, Public Awareness, Renewables, Transparency, Warming

EMBARGOED until 2301 GMT/0001 BST on Sunday, 20/Monday 21 October

Students at British universities are key players in the campaign to  disinvest in fossil fuels Image: Paul Chapman via Wikimedia Commons

Students in the UK have a key role to play in the campaign to stop universities investing in fossil fuels
Image: Paul Chapman via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

As international pressure mounts to stop investment in further fossil fuel exploitation, the UK’s higher education sector is being urged by campaign groups to aim for fossil-free universities

LONDON, 20 October – Campaign groups in the UK say the fossil fuel industry is too deeply entwined financially with British universities and urge them to disinvest within the next five years.

The groups have published a report, Knowledge and Power – Fossil Fuel Universities, in which they accuse the universities of allowing the industry to hide behind a coating of greenwash.

It warns: “Universities offer their credibility for cash when they sign deals sponsoring staff positions, buildings, conferences and lectures with fossil fuel companies. These deals play a key role in shoring up the fossil fuel industry’s public image.”

The report, which calls on universities to phase out fossil fuel research and refocus their work towards climate solutions, says universities have an estimated £5.2 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry – £2,083 for every student in the UK.

“A small proportion of the wealth of university endowment funds is invested directly in the shares of oil and gas companies,” the report says. “A far greater proportion supports the industry by investments held in pensions, unit trusts, and other financial products.”

Executives revered

The report is critical of the admiring relationship it says exists between academia and industry, claiming: “Fossil fuel executives are revered by universities, invited to speak at prestigious events, and given honorary degrees. Senior executives from BP and Shell have received 20 awards in the last decade alone. . .”

Of the 250 papers published by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, the report says, only three are on renewables. The Institute receives more than half of its grants from oil and gas companies, but might argue that this could hardly be otherwise, given the relative wealth of the hydrocarbon sector and its opponents.

The report, which was in part crowdsourced online from students and staff at universities across the country, is published on behalf of three campaign groups: Platform, which describes itself as “a London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organisation”; People & Planet, a British student network seeking to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment; and 350.org, a global grassroots climate change campaign seeking to prevent C02 emissions increasing to more than 350 parts per million (most countries have agreed to aim for a 450 ppm threshold).

It is timed to coincide with the start of a divestment campaign in Europe, to be launched with a Fossil-Free Europe tour by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, and other prominent campaigners.

Efforts to persuade investors to divest from fossil fuel companies include a study released earlier this month by the Smith School of Enterprise  and the Environment at Oxford University, which concluded that fossil fuel divestment campaigning posed “the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies”.

Louise Hazan, climate campaigns and communications manager at People & Planet, told Climate News Network: “Universities are public institutions that are meant to serve the public interest.

Research undermined

“They lead the world in research on climate change, but that research is completely undermined when they are both funded by the fossil fuel industry and investing in it.

“We realise that we will depend on these fuels for years to come, but we believe that our universities have a responsibility to lead society away from them.

“Beyond their direct investments, which are relatively small in the scale of things, UK universities’ investment decisions and research priorities can play an important role in helping society to wean itself off fossil fuels and hasten its transition to a low-carbon future.”

Bill McKibben said: “Severing our ties with the companies digging up the carbon won’t bankrupt them – but it will start to politically bankrupt them, and make their job of dominating the planet’s politics that much harder.

“Universities have a central role to play in this regard, since they are one of the few places in our civilization where reason still stands a good chance of prevailing over power.” – Climate News Network