14 Feb 2014

We need a radical plan to deal with our turbulent climate

Covering the storms in Cornwall this week has been like reliving my childhood. We came to St Ives on holiday every year from the mid-1960s until the inevitable lure of Mallorca got us, 10 years later.

Cornwall, then, was famous for warm weather. It was the first time I’d seen palm trees – possible because of the jet stream. It would bring warm air from the Caribbean right to our doorstep in Carbis Bay – with a predictability illustrated by all those beach photographs from the 19th century, and by the fact that somebody had bothered to build a railway right out to this far extremity of the British isles.

Now here’s what happened since I ran up and down these pristine beaches in my jelly sandals. Exhibit one: the Keeling Curve, showing parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere.

Since I was born, carbon emissions have grown from 4 btc a year to 10 btc a year – and according to majority scientific opinion that has contributed to climate change. As the world warms, the IPCC’s models predict the polar jet streams will move toward their respective poles, and the evidence is this is happening.

14_graph

Because the science on this is new it is, quite rightly, contested and provisional. The best estimate is that our jet stream is slowing, and as its flow west to east weakens it is getting wavier from north to south.

So while climate scientists can’t say “This storm is happening because of climate change”, they can say we expect extreme weather events to be more frequent, the sea to rise, and the jet stream to be disrupted.

Yesterday a man in gold earrings, a souwester and more sea-wrinkles than a walrus came up to me and told me he’d seen the barometer sink off the scale on Christmas eve, for the first time in his lifetime, and warned me that “mother earth is getting ready to wash the **** off the shore”. (Technically it was the third lowest barometric pressure ever recorded )

Now, because settled human societies are only 40,000 years old, and the earth 7 billion, I am always prepared to heed the warning from climate sceptics we have to take climate variations in our stride; not run around screaming in our wellies that this is the end of the world etc.

However, I am also prepared to believe in the uniqueness and irreversibility of human action. Humanity can impact quite quickly and radically on the natural world and we have to be prepared for all kinds of unexpected consequences.

That is why, as the waves bash over the clock tower in Porthleven, clearly built by people who thought they’d left a reasonable margin of error to avoid this situation, I cling to science.

Just as I do not care what Glenn Beck and Nigel Lawson think about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, or what their views are about haematology, I do not care what they think about climate science.

I want, on the basis of the best available knowledge, for people, businesses, governments to take action.

And here’s where it is getting very politically tricky. If this is just freak weather, then it makes sense to strengthen the defences we have, and the infrastructure, and prepare for a long-range rise in sea levels.

If this is, on the other hand, just the latest warning the planet is giving us that the process of climate change will be very unpredictable, then we will need to do something else.

If you look, for example, at Network Rail’s climate adaptation plan, published in 2011, a lot of the risks seem misdiagnosed. Rising sea levels are seen as long-term issues. Track buckling and heat exhaustion among maintenance workers seemed better able to be quantified than the possibility of the sea ripping away the line at Dawlish.

If, now, Welsh coastal villages are being targeted for abandonment due to the unavailability of funds, while “money is no object” to save Surrey from catastrophic flooding, sooner or later a demand is going to rise for a national strategy on climate change.

Right now, nobody seems to “own” such a strategy, least of all the man in charge of the Defra secretary Owen Patterson, who thinks “the climate has not changed” and that “fewer people will die of cold in winter”.

There are climate deniers in every party, but the Conservatives’ current line – let’s not discuss climate change while Surrey and Somerset are under water – puts them at odds with the other two.

Here’s why it’s about to become very political, once the floods subside. To equip Britain strategically to deal with floods, heatwaves, storm surges and high winds we are going to need a holistic, joined-up plan, that links building regulations, railway plans, sea defences and drainage projects.

To stop burning carbon at a rate that heads off catastrophe, we are going to have to engineer a very rapid transition to a mix of renewables and nuclear, together with a very radical change in the way we consume energy – i.e. towards electrical power and away from gas.

John Ashton, a career diplomat and former climate adviser to William Hague, summed up the problem in a speech late last month: “The market left to itself will not reconfigure the energy system and transform the economy within a generation.”

That is, market incentives, combined with higher energy bills, are not moving us fast enough off carbon.

I think it is axiomatic that the market will also not be an adequate means for deciding which villages we abandon in west Wales, and whether the money for HS2 would be better spent making sure the west of England’s rivers and sea defences can withstand what’s coming.

So a political system geared to market solutions is going to find it quite difficult to accept non-market solution.

There is nothing “left-wing” about taking strategic control of infrastructure, energy and resources to fight a long-range war on a strategic threat. What else were Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill doing in two world wars?

But to enact a strategic plan you need to agree on what the threat is.

A large part of the press has devoted its time to rubbishing climate science in the past decade, so this is not just about politicians being out of touch with people. A lot of naturally conservative people I’ve talked to here – farmers, fishermen – are reluctant to say this is man made climate change related. Only 52 per cent of people think these storms are caused by climate change. So I respect the politicians’ right to tread carefully.

But let’s confront the problem: there is a logic behind climate denial if you think the market is the God-given form of economic life: if the threat is as great as science says, then maybe our assumption that the market can sort it out is wrong, and maybe our entire economic model has to change. Better, then, that the science is wrong – since much of it is so provisional anyway.

Our generation, the ones born in the 60s and 70s who made the carbon graphs curve upwards, has a responsibility to think outside every box we ever created for ourselves.

The IEA, and IPCC and numerous other scenarios spell out the threat. If we don’t adopt a radical plan to stop burning carbon, the catastrophic effects of a temperature rise above the 2 degree target will be very complex, unpredictable and cause global social chaos.

Even if this is just a freak storm – three force 10 gales hitting Newlyn in two months, when one a year would be rare – then at least it is warning us what will happen if we don’t change.

Given the number of very legitimate sectional interests that are going to have to be sacrificed or balanced as we reconfigure Britain to cope with this, in an ideal world you would want a bipartisan agreement across politics as to the nature of the threat and the basic options for dealing with it.

We don’t have that. And that will resonate across politics long after the sea walls are rebuilt and the fallen trees clear.

Follow @PaulMasonNews on Twitter

Tweets by @paulmasonnews

21 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Paul,

    “There is nothing “left-wing” about taking strategic control of infrastructure, energy and resources to fight a long-range war on a strategic threat.”

    Oh yes there IS…….Try telling that to the Canary Wharf “free” market spivs and thieves, the oil companies and their bought-and-paid-for apologists everywhere. It seems to have escaped your attention that is precisely what the Labour Party social democratic policies did in 1945 – everything dismantled since 1979 by the ranting righties in Westminster and Whitehall…….You must have noticed it, it was in all the media at the time.

    Capitalism remains what it was, is and always will be…….a blood and money sucking leech on the backs of the human species. It creates NOTHING. It STEALS. If it could, it would even “privatise” the weather.

    Meanwhile……Global warming?…..What global warming?

    A nicely written blog by the way. Congratulations. Now watch its central tenets get ignored.

  2. Nigel Wilson says:

    For a long while now I have been asking the simple question that if global warming is such that my road fuel and my domestic fuel is surcharged by additional taxes, then why are larger and larger airliners being built to dump more and more CO2 into the atmosphere without penalty. Then when I argue against building more airports and runways I am told we need them for the economy.
    There is a clear dichotomy in policy which leaves me feeling that global warming is just another stick to beat the poor and the powerless with whilst the great and good continue to jet off to another air conditioned building in the tropics to debate other mechanisms designed to expropriate more wealth from the idiotic peasantry.
    When HS2 is cancelled and the money put to coastal and river defences then we will be getting somewhere.

  3. Claire Montanaro says:

    Thank you, Paul, for an excellent article on something very important. The science has been telling us this for years, an inconvenient truth easier ignored or rubbished than considered seriously. Our storms are a wake-up call, as are the extremes of weather elsewhere, and I fear it may be too late to prevent a major climate catastrophe, unless, as you say, radical action is taken now. It could have been so much easier.

  4. Andrew says:

    One question would be, who advised Network Rail on the long term risks. The Met office no doubt. One year of exceptional floods, caused, largely by to the cold in the US. The jet stream forced further south by excess cold air to the north. This system is compared to an air con system. Chill – absorb moisture from Atlantic (as with mist on a windscreen of your car) then rain UK. Under AGW theory this jet stream should be further north and slower. Last year the Met Office said that melting of the Arctic would mean cold drier winters in the future. That theory lasted 6months. AGW theory says that warm air holds more moisture, this is not happening as satellite measurements (NVAP-M) shows water vapour levels dropping, wind is more important not to mention almost no temperature rise in 17 yrs. Talk of increase ocean uptake is highly uncertain, with increasing evidence for a reduction since 2003. Over the 20th century the northern hemisphere sea level has risen approx 1.9mm/yr southern hem 1.1mm/yr. so sea level rise is a LONG term problem. AGW theory is still just a theory which cannot be falsified, because it causes everything, the IPCC is failing to find any serious adverse effects from a microscopic rise in temperatures. This period of bad weather has seen an outbreak of ambulance chasing, which is totally human caused. If anyone mentions the climate model predictions, try not to laugh at them as it may upset.

  5. Kiwi7 says:

    Is the climate changing? Yes, it always has and it always will. However, global temperature has stayed stable for the past 17 years, despite increasing CO2 emissions. And current temperatures are below most of the alarmist IPCC projections. Global cyclones are reducing in intensity and frequency and US tornadoes are at record lows. Gobal sea ice levels normal, with the Antarctic well above normal, even though the Arctic recovering, sill below normal.

    Is man to blame? Only partially.

    Is CO2 primary determinant of climate? Almost certainly not: look to the sun and variations in the Earth’s orbit – Milankovitch cycles and variations in sunspot activity.

    What impact will the UK’s and the rest of the world’s energy policy and CO2 policy have on CO2 concentrations, climate and temperature? Given the massive increase in CO2 emissions from places like India and China who are planning even more coal powered stations – small, and immeasurably small.

    Is all this “green energy” expense on off-shore wind, on-shore wind and solar worth it? Definiteley not. Off shore wind is 3 times as expensive as conventional, on-shore twice as expensive and domestic solar many many times more expensive than conventional. This is consuming capital that could be better spent on flood defences and dredging and driving energy intensive jobs off-shore to places which emit far more noxious substances when they produce the energy required.

    It is only two years ago we were warned that man-made climate change would drain our aquifers and we needed to take action to conserve water; now man-made climate change is leading to record rainfall.

    The whole CAGW thesis is corrupt to the core, and sadly Paul your journalism on this is lazy and ill-informed.

    Try reading this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Climate-Counter-consensus-Professor-Robert-Carter/dp/1906768293

    Or anything by Richard Lindzen.

  6. Michael in southern England, UK says:

    This is a great article, thank you. I especially liked:

    “There is nothing “left-wing” about taking strategic control of infrastructure, energy and resources to fight a long-range war on a strategic threat..”

  7. barrie mckinnell says:

    Well the jet stream is slowing next week. The TOFF,S AND the Rorals can get back to what they do best. Drive around the country in there 4by 4,s murdering animals.bm.

  8. PeterH says:

    A year, a decade, or even a century of turbulent weather is not evidence of climate change, still less is it evidence of man-made change. The earth’s climate has undergone many changes over time, usually when there were no gullible journalists to believe the theories of weird science.

  9. Alistair Kelman says:

    Paul – a market will always take notice of new information. Within the past year some computer models have been able to predict with greatly improved accuracy the areas of the country which are at risk of flooding – better than the models used by the Met Office and presented upon the government website. After this dire winter these privately created predictions could undermine the value of properties deemed liable to flood since this is investment information which cannot be suppressed. Within two years getting a mortgage on a property which is likely to be flooded could because difficult. How a Tory government copes with falling house prices in Surrey and Somerset arising from an inability to get a mortgage upon them is going to be a challenge. We may have to revise Green Belt policies to allow house building on high ground within the Green Belt in return for farmers allowing their lower lying acres to be flooded during times such as these.

  10. BobRocket says:

    It would be interesting to see what the age spread of the flooded houses is.

    Regarding the Porthleven Clocktower, this is a nice painting by Julien Parsons.

    http://www.paintingsbyjools.co.uk/PORTHLEVEN%20STORM.html

    According to the metadata, the image of the oil painting was created in 2002.

    The reason for the flooding of the levels can be laid squarely at the door of the EPA and a planning system that allows building on flood plains.

  11. Ed Wilson says:

    Our first enemy is timidity – all three of the (current) main parties have claimed to agree with you, but it seems that none of them can bring themselves to frighten the horses of denial.

    Then there is denial itself and its relatives – the casual, steamrolling bluster of a Lawson, the “lukewarmist” position of a Lilley, the single-minded (and correct) insistence of a Stringer that we are not reducing our carbon harm anyway, and all the others.

    We need to talk about it again and again, and not fall into the trap of fighting the denial and giving up the game in the process.

  12. Imogen Karen says:

    great post – thank you :)

  13. John says:

    Nice blog. It’s unbelievable how many politicians and commentators seem to think that scientific matters are best settled by their own uninformed opinion, from Philip Hammond’s ‘solar rhythms’ to Andrew Neil’s ‘If this is climate change what caused extreme storms before?”. Er, weather Mr Neil – we’re talking about changes in the frequency and severity of the extreme events here.

    It’s not as if these are stupid people, but they just refuse to engage with the issue. They have so much personal interest in the current political and economic system that they refuse to even consider that it might be need radical changes before things get much worse. I wouldn’t care a jot if they were doing it to themselves, but they are taking everyone else with them too.

    Oh, and the BBC’s coverage has been a supine disgrace. Well done C4 News for keeping the question of climate change to the fore.

  14. George Smith says:

    Great article.

    “Reconfigure” is a mild term for what needs to happen to the UK. The government needs to be sacked and the entire constitution needs to be rewritten.

    Climate change is absolutely the cause of these weather problems.

  15. Boffy says:

    Some of the long term strategic planning should already have formed part of the short-term strategic planning. For example, whether the storms are just a freak or part of permanent climate change, was it really a good idea for planning regulations to allow the building of large numbers of houses in flood plains, just because the land was cheap, and because the assumption has been that everyone can make decisions irrespective of negative consequences, because whether you are a flooded homeowner, or a reckless banker, the state will always bail you out! In the last bout of floods, there was one story about an operating theatre that was flooded because it had actually been built OVER a stream, for goodness sake.

    In the US, many decades of experience of dealing with large flooding rivers showed that flood protection measures tend to be counter-productive, because they simply shift the problem on to someone else downstream, they lead to silt accumulating in unexpected places and so on. On large parts of the Mississippi, they have been removed for that reason. The same thing applies to the coast line. We are not the Netherlands. Its not just a matter of protecting against the sea. The Netherlands do not have mountains as we do, so they do not have the same problem of river flooding from water streaming down from the mountains. A large part of the Netherlands land area depends on flood protection, the same is not true of the UK. But, if the EU really were organised as a rational European State, would it really make sense in the long run to spend huge amounts defending what is only a small part of the European land area? Would it not make more sense to relocate people elsewhere within the European land mass over time, providing them with suitable incentives to do so.

    That, of course, is the point that Bjorn Lomborg has made about less developed economies. Experience has shown that economic development is the best means of dealing with climate change, by simply providing people with alternatives, rather than simply spending money trying to be a modern day King Canute. Huge sums spent on trying to prevent an increase in CO2 levels have very little impact on climate change in anything other than the very long run. The same amounts spent enabling economies to develop so as to deal with the consequences, to move people to more sustainable communities etc. are far more cost effective.

    Cost effective doesn’t mean ignoring the human consequences for existing communities. But, if someone has their house destroyed by flooding in a flood plain, I would far rather support the idea they be provided with a council house in a sustainable community outside a flood plain, than that my taxes go to simply patch up their flooded house – thereby bailing out their insurance company, and the builders who build in flood plains – just waiting for it to be flooded again. The same applies to bailing out the banks. A longer term plan has to be drawn up in conjunction with the affected communities, but there is a strong possibility if the idea that everyone can always be bailed out persists, that no one will agree to any such change.

  16. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Paul – it’s a real pleasure to see an article on the climate threat by a journalist of your standing. All too rare in the media of any of the “5 eyes” nations.

    It appears that you take the issue seriously enough to limit the article to what might be effective as outreach to those I’d term “Flukers”, who honestly don’t yet get the fact that our pollution has global effects, including destabilizing the climate, and still view the intensifying extreme weather events as yet more flukes.

    The problem with this approach is that it leaves the Govt unchallenged under the assumption that it need not commit to commensurate action until there is near consensus across the electorate. So long as well funded denial operations preventing such consensus are tolerated, this means that Govts can continue to postpone such action. (Viz 5yrs of Obama).

    “. . .in an ideal world you would want a bipartisan agreement across politics as to the nature of the threat and the basic options for dealing with it. -”

    I’d suggest that until the nature of the threat is more widely understood, there is simply no prospect of public pressure for action that is commensurate with the problem. For instance, the best science we have on the disruption of the Jetstream driving the latest ‘protracted extreme weather event’ is that it is driven by arctic warming and the loss of arctic sea ice [ASI], but discussion tends to stop short of why such ASI loss has occurred.

    IPCC AR4 gave a highly scientific account of when the summer ASI would be lost – in about 2125. In reality, that event is now likely before 2020, not because the scientists cited by IPCC underestimated AGW, but because they were unable to model 7 of the 8 Major Interactive Feedbacks [MIFs] now observed to be accelerating. Being non-linear in their acceleration those 7 are still not included in the models, despite evidently being responsible for advancing the current arctic conditions by around 100 years.

    Similarly there is damn all understanding that CO2 resides in the atmosphere for around 100 years after its release, or that present AGW reflects the pollution level of the late 1970s – with the timelag being due to the 30 to 40yrs of the oceans’ thermal inertia. This means that if 2050 is the best case of when we end global GHG outputs, we are locked into continued additional warming until the mid-2080s. And that allows 70 years of continuous warming for the Feedbacks to accelerate far past the point of becoming self-propagating.

    Plainly, commensurate action on climate is more than simply rapid global emissions control – it will have to include both Carbon Recovery to gradually cleanse the atmosphere, and also some benign form of Albedo Restoration to halt the untenable warming in the interim.

    An Oct 2012 study headed by an IPCC lead author gives insight as to the actual urgency of such action: “Food Security: Near future projections of the impact of drought in Asia” and is posted at http://www.lowcarbonfutures.org/reports/research-reports
    and shows that China, Pakistan and Turkey are the most seriously affected of the region’s major producers of wheat and maize.

    Quote from the press release:
    “Research released today shows that within the next 10 years large parts of Asia can expect increased risk of more severe droughts, which will impact regional and possibly even global food security.

    On average, across Asia, droughts lasting longer than three months will be more than twice as severe in terms of their soil moisture deficit compared to the 1990-2005 period. This is cause for concern as China and India have the world’s largest populations and are Asia’s largest food producers.

    Dr Lawrence Jackson, a co-author of the report, said: “Our work surprised us when we saw that the threat to food security was so imminent; the increased risk of severe droughts is only 10 years away for China and India. These are the world’s largest populations and food producers; and, as such, this poses a real threat to food security.” ”

    Given that comparable reports are emerging for various other major agricultural regions, and that no reports show Asia being unusually hard hit, the implication is that major regions’ crop failures are likely to coincide during the 2020s giving the onset of serial global crop failures. Their consequences, not least in crushing the operation of any stringent climate treaty, set a deadline on the efforts for the commensurate mitigation of AGW.

    I’d therefore suggest that we can no longer afford to let the deniers set the agenda of the debate, nor can we indulge their (effective) role as the blame deflector for politicians.

    Regards,

    Lewis

  17. Nick Watts says:

    No climate denier’s in Caroline Lucas’ party, and the Greens have been vociferous on this for many years as well as income inequality and other key issues ignored by the Westminster buffoons.

  18. Alan says:

    Your faux ‘average man in the street’ reasoning belies a carefully constructed argument. Can you honestly question climate change theory sceptics with such a tactic? Rather similar to the head of the IPCC charading as a scientist when in actually he is an economist. Who to believe?

  19. Luke says:

    I’ll get the pedant’s award for this, but if you’re saying ‘listen to the science’ you should correct the the bit about the Earth being 7 billion years old to 4 and a half.

    Great piece, i hope it gets some much needed discussion going.

  20. James Greyson says:

    Good reporting. I find it helpful to see two climate problems. One is the problem from impacts we can no longer prevent, but only prepare for. This requires a radical plan which must be primarily publicly organised and funded. This is inconceivable within an austerity mindset so solutions must encompass not just new defences and land use but new money supply.

    The second climate problem is about the impacts we can still prevent. This also requires a radical plan, mainly because the science tells us that impacts are led by concentrations not emissions. Hence the 20 year old debate about cutting emissions is just scratching the surface. Cutting concentrations is inconceivable within current market incentives so solutions must encompass not just new energy supply but new ‘circular economy’ pricing and more.

  21. Sean Lidon says:

    *However, I am also prepared to believe in the uniqueness and irreversibility of human action. Humanity can impact quite quickly and radically on the natural world and we have to be prepared for all kinds of unexpected consequences. *

    Can’t make any sense of that: just pure cant, empty of rational or factual content. Ditto the stuff about Nigel Lawson’s view on haemotology. So what? It doesn’t at all follow that the computer models aren’t fundamentally flawed. And that’s all “climate science” amounts to in this context, because that’s all the predictions are based on: “climate models”, whose content, as with any computer system, is contingent on what people choose to feed them with. Besides, even if the basic theory of AGW is correct, and that humans are indeed agents of climate change, even though all the historical evidence suggests that humans, like all froms of life, are products of climate change, and that the earth has warmed and cooled innumerable times before we ever set foot on it, the UK’s contribution is tiny. Even if we all went green and returned to stone age ways tomorrow there’s no evidence that it would make the slightest difference to the “climate”. As to expert opinion, there’s no shortage of eminent scientists contesting the orthodoxy, many of whom happen to be emeritus, they haven’t got careers hanging on it: physicist Freeman Dyson, to take one example.

Comments are closed.