Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Is extreme weather due to climate change?

25 July 2007

With parts of Europe baking in a heatwave, while parts of England are experiencing their worst flooding for 60 years, it is tempting to ascribe this extreme weather to climate change.

Parts of Europe have been sweltering in record temperaturesBut climate scientists are reluctant to make this link.

"You can say that due to the Earth getting warmer there will be on average more extreme events," said Dr Malcolm Haylock, an expert on climate extremes, "but you can't attribute any specific event to climate change."

This month, hundreds of people have died in a heatwave that has swept across south-eastern Europe. Wildfires have raged across Greece, confounding attempts to contain them.

Meanwhile, severe floods have brought chaos to parts of England, forcing hundreds of homes to be evacuated.

Growing consensus

There is a growing consensus, based on past climate records and other data, that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the Earth's climate.

Homes around England have been evacuated following the floodsMany climate scientists now believe the data points to global temperatures rising by between 1.1C and 6.4C by the end of this century.

But as far as the droughts and floods are concerned, climate scientists have found it more difficult to attribute long-term trends in rainfall to human activities.

European weather is affected by a climate system called the North Atlantic Oscillation. This describes changes in atmospheric pressure at sea level as measured over Iceland and over the Azores.

"Over the last 50 years or so, there's been a trend to lower pressures over Iceland and higher pressures over the Azores in winter, although this trend has reduced in recent years," said Dr Haylock, who works for re-insurer PartnerRe in Zurich, Switzerland, and is formerly of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, UK.

Firefighters have struggled to hold back the flames in GreeceThe impact of this climate system reaches from the upper atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean.

But its most obvious impact over the last half century is a trend towards drier conditions in southern Europe and more extreme rainfall in northern Europe during winter.

Its effects during other seasons, such as summer, are not as clear. Local weather systems seem to play a larger role here.

Computer models

Dr Haylock said that recent changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation could not be linked to human-induced climate change.

Scientists simply do not have the long-term measurements to say either way.

Climate models can be used to predict future climate variationOn the other hand, there is a growing consensus that the recent changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation will continue in the future, leading to winter storms in Europe tending to move further north and drier conditions in southern Europe.

Computer models suggest that, as the climate gets hotter over the coming decades, the available water in the landmass of Europe may be reduced. This may in turn have knock on effects for global temperatures.

"When we run these climate models for future years, we find we were getting very, very hot days. These were so hot, they can't be explained just by more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," said Dr Haylock.

"Water on the ground cools the atmosphere around it a lot, and once this has dried out, the temperatures just accelerate. So there is some concern that these hot days may become more frequent over the next decade, but that is still uncertain."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Carbon Trading in Australia

Here is a story on Australia's first carbon trading exchange which is a voluntary scheme between businesses that want to trade greenhouse gas emissions.
25th July 2007

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's first carbon trading exchange opened on Monday, setting an initial price for carbon at A$8.50 ($7.50) per metric ton under the voluntary scheme.

Australian Climate Exchange (ACX) established the joint venture aimed at cutting the country's greenhouse gas emissions and bracing firms for possible pollution limits five years ahead of the introduction of a government-backed scheme.

About 1,600 tonnes of Voluntary Emission Reductions (VERs) changed hands, opening at A$8.50 per tonne for 2007 and closing at A$8.60. The total value of the trades was A$13,610, according to data on ACX's Web site

This compared with prices of 19.50 euros ($26.96) for European Union carbon emissions on the ECX exchange for delivery in December 2008, the first year of commitments under the U.N. Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The ACX exchange is the fourth voluntary market, following schemes in the United States, UK and Japan.

ACX Limited Managing Director Tim Hanlin said businesses wanted an opportunity to sponsor clean technology now.

"This is a voluntary emissions trading market and it's business to business trading of greenhouse gas emissions," Hanlin told Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) radio.

Carbon trading involves putting a price and limits on pollution, allowing companies that clean up their operations to sell any savings below their allocated level to other companies.

ACX is a joint venture with companies trader Australia Pacific Exchange.

Brown links floods to climate change

July 25, 2007

BRITISH Prime Minister Gordon Brown has linked the country's worst floods in 60 years to climate change, as emergency workers warned the disaster was far from over.

Large swaths of central and western England have been submerged as rivers swelled and burst their banks during four days of heavy and persistent rain, leaving thousands without clean water or electricity and facing the prospect of more rain.

Water levels appeared to have peaked below a level that would have flooded a power station servicing 500,000 homes. But emergency services have said it could take some time for water to drain from devastated areas.

The largely rural counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire were the worst hit, forcing Royal Air Force helicopters to evacuate about 150 people in its biggest-ever peacetime rescue.

After a helicopter visit to the area, Mr Brown linked the floods to climate change and pledged £200 million ($467 million) in extra funding, plus a review to address future issues.

"Like every advanced industrialised country, we are coming to terms with the issues surrounding climate change," the Guardian quoted him as saying.

"We will have to invest in coastal defences, flood defences and, of course, drainage in infrastructure in the years to come."

Referring to the weekend storms, he said: "What we had was a month's rainfall in some places in an hour. This was unusual."

The Environment Agency said water levels in many of the worst-hit parts were set to peak.
In Gloucestershire, the worst-hit area, at least 150,000 homes were without water after a treatment works flooded, while 40,000 were without power. It could take up to two weeks to restore water supplies to some households, some reports say.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

What we don't know does hurt us.

What We Don't Know Does Hurt Us. How Scientific Illiteracy Hobbles Society
Norman Augustine

Norman Augustine is chairman of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and a member of the engineering faculty at Princeton University.

In an oft-told variation of the Hindu myth of cosmology, a young boy asks his father what holds up the Earth. Amused, the father assures his son that the world rests on the back of a very large turtle. "But what holds up the turtle?" the boy asks. After brief reflection, the father says, "A huge elephant." "But," the boy continues, "what is under the elephant?" Sensing that he is rapidly losing control of the conversation, the father finally exclaims, "Son, it's elephants all the way down from there!"

As one who interacts frequently with the public, I often hear similarly disconcerting explanations about the "cosmology" of the modern world. If one asks a new owner how their home computer works, one is likely to hear: "You plug it in, push the "on" button...and it's all microchips from there on down."

Apathy about science and technology seems especially rampant among my fellow Americans, among whom indifference toward scientific understanding is almost considered a badge of honor. A recent National Science Foundation survey showed that less than half of American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly, only 21 percent can define DNA, and just 9 percent know what a molecule is. Another poll showed that one in seven American adults--roughly 25 million people--could not even locate the United States on an unlabeled world map. NASA administrator Dan Goldin cites a question he received while defending funding for the space agency: "Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?"

The disdain toward science is hardly restricted to the United States. The lead character in British writer Muriel Spark's play The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie states very frankly: "Art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that's their order of importance."

Somewhat more reassuring to those committed to the fields of science and technology, novelist C. P. Snow was appalled at the lack of technological understanding on the part of much of the public. He would occasionally ask an individual if they could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He almost always got a negative response. "Yet," said Snow, "that is about the scientific equivalent of 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?' "

The great irony, of course, is that as much as any other on Earth, the American economy and our attendant standard of living are based on a foundation of rapid scientific advances. Today, we take for granted that skyscrapers do not collapse, satellites in geosynchronous orbit allow us to communicate reliably and near-instantaneously with others around the world, elevators in 100-story buildings operate perfectly, dams do not fail, automobiles do not break down on the hottest days or the coldest nights, a vast electric power grid faithfully delivers energy to millions of homes and enables us to keep our pizza hot and our ice cream cold, bar-code scanners in supermarkets do not make mistakes (if humans make the proper data inputs), jet airliners carry us safely to our destinations, advanced medical devices function for years within our bodies without significant degradation, and a trillion dollars in electronic transactions are flawlessly entered into millions of individual accounts each day.

Our utter dependence on these advanced technologies became distressingly clear to millions of North Americans this past winter, when a freak ice storm toppled major power lines across eastern Canada and the northern United States. Suddenly, simply switching on an electric light became for many a distant dream; weeks went by before power was restored to many communities. As this episode dramatically demonstrated, much of what separates our modern way of life from that of our cave-dwelling forebears is the product of science--and its sister field, technology.

But despite the innumerable positive contributions of science, and despite the remarkable technological innovations that are constantly being fashioned from that science, there is a great challenge to our scientific community today--one that seems likely to intensify in the years to come. I am referring to what I have from time to time called the challenge of "socioscience."

To a not inconsiderable segment of the public, the word "science" conjures up images of Chernobyl, Bhopal, Thalidomide, Challenger, and the atomic bomb. Too often science is perceived as the cause of problems rather than the solution, as something to be avoided rather than something to be embraced. This aversion to modern technology was the stated rationale of the Unabomber--a viewpoint that traces its history back to the Luddites and other early anti-technology movements. But as Intel CEO Andrew Grove has observed, "Technology happens." And so, I would add, does science.

In a corresponding vein, we have seen huge court judgments rendered against companies for a variety of transgressions based on highly questionable "proof," at least insofar as scientists understand the term. Many juries seem to give about as much weight to the opinions of astrologers as to astronomers. We have seen life-saving medical devices forced off the market by the crushing costs of litigation. And we have the "not in my backyard" syndrome carried to absurd extremes. Recently an outraged citizen demonstrating against a proposed biomedical research laboratory reportedly exclaimed, "They're trying to bring DNA into my neighborhood!"

In short, while scientists have generally considered themselves to be the intellectual descendants of the "Benjamin Franklin" model of the benevolent scientist, bringing enlightenment to humankind, too often scientists are actually perceived by the public to be more in the "Dr. Frankenstein" mold, unleashing scientific havoc on an unsuspecting world.

The lesson we need to draw from this phenomenon is increasingly evident: Modern scientists (and their first cousins, engineers) must become as adept in dealing with societal and political forces as they are with gravitational and electromagnetic forces--and, candidly, up to this point I would not give us a passing grade. Today's scientists are no longer constrained simply by the laws of nature, as was generally the case in the past, but also by the laws (and attitudes) of the land.

For example:

Could we send men and women to Mars? Technologically speaking, I believe we could. But politically there is no will to do so.

Could we vastly increase the amount of electricity available to Americans through safe, nonpolluting nuclear power plants? Almost certainly--as is in fact being done in Europe and Japan even today--but communities in America are still repelled by the notion of nuclear power, especially after the horrendous example of Chernobyl.

Could we build automated highways that would increase convenience and reduce accidents? Absolutely. But who is to pay for them--and who is to insure their builders in today's litigious society?

Would an inventor be permitted today to introduce a new product that would create millions of jobs and make people's lives far more convenient, if projections showed it would cost the lives of 50,000 Americans a year? I do not know what Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, and Henry Ford would answer, but I would seriously doubt it.

Could we build a superconducting supercollider? A manned base on the moon? Open new Alaskan oil fields? Create a reliable ballistic missile defense against terrorist nations? Quite likely--if anyone wants us to.

In a sense, scientists and engineers in the past have been fortunate, for we became accustomed to being measured by nature itself--an unwaveringly fair and consistent, albeit unforgiving, judge. Today, in contrast, we are often judged by humans--with all the vagaries, special agendas, and inconsistencies that entails. This has led me to propound what I have called Augustine's Second Law of Socioscience (and engineering), with due apologies to Sir Isaac Newton: "For every scientific (or engineering) action, there is an equal and opposite social reaction."

As scientists and engineers, our achievements are increasingly taken for granted and our occasional failures subject to intense public criticism. A portion of the problem is due to the fact that there is still widespread scientific illiteracy even among those who hold high-level decision-making positions. For example, only 20 of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a science or engineering background (which is, by the way, an increase from the recent past). There are only two in the Senate and none in the Cabinet. Of the 50 governors, 9 have a science or engineering degree. Keep in mind that these are the people who must make the decisions regarding automobile pollution standards, approval of a space program, funding of the superconducting supercollider, the human genome project, and developments in bioengineering such as the possibility of human cloning.

The danger to all when those to whom we entrust our well-being do not understand the rudimentary scientific aspects of critical issues was eloquently noted by the late Isaac Asimov, who wrote, "Increasingly, our leaders must deal with dangers that threaten the entire world, where an understanding of those dangers and the possible solutions depends on a good grasp of science. The ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, questions of diet and heredity--all require scientific literacy. Can Americans choose the proper leaders and support the proper programs if they [themselves] are scientifically illiterate?" *

All of this leads inevitably to my proposal for a two-pronged effort to help Americans survive--and thrive--in the technologically driven 21st century. First, we need "rocket science for beginners": It has often been debated whether scientists need to be exposed to the liberal arts; a more compelling need, in my opinion, is for poets to be exposed to physics. In reality, uninformed decisions about scientific issues are the equivalent of denying ourselves the future.

Second, living as we do in a "sound bite" world, scientists must learn to communicate far more effectively with nonscientist audiences. In my judgment, this remains the greatest shortcoming of most scientists and engineers today. The time has arrived when scientists will have to come down from the Ivory Tower and enter the arena of real-world debate, bubbling controversy, and--brace yourselves--politics.

It is no longer viable to place our candle under a bushel, for at best we will find ourselves in darkness and at worst our bushel will go up in flames. One must ask why, in today's technology-based society, scientists' voices are so seldom heard along with those of all the others who choose to express their views on scientific issues? We must equip scientists of the future to present their cases in almost every forum imaginable--from town meeting to state legislature, from The New York Times to Sixty Minutes, from the Congress to the Oval Office.

If, as we have in the past, we put our trust solely in the primacy of logic and technical skills, we will lose the contest for the public's attention--and in the end, both the public and the scientific and technical communities will be the losers. If, on the other hand, we become more adept at explaining science and technology, while at the same time encouraging more "rocket science for beginners," our future will be bright indeed.

And already a few encouraging signs are beginning to emerge. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision strengthened the hand of trial judges to exclude evidence from scientifically frivolous studies or dubious "expert" witnesses. This would seem to be common sense, but for many years we have seen such questionable tactics go unchecked, leaving complex technical arguments to be decided on the basis of little more than the emotion of jurors. The Supreme Court decision reinforces a comment once made by former Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger that "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion...but no one is entitled to their own facts."

Over the long term, I am an optimist. I believe our fellow citizens will ultimately come to understand the critical link between scientific advances and our generally comfortable way of life. I believe we will realize that the answers to many of the problems that still confront us will need to be solved by scientists and engineers who understand the complexities of the societal problems their work impacts. Ultimately, I endorse the view of that great "honorary" American, Winston Churchill, who is reported to have said, "Americans will always do the right thing...after they have exhausted all the other possibilities."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Worst polluters 'off the hook' under Howard

Dr Pearse says the Government should do more to encourage the biggest polluting companies to cut their emissions - rather than give them a free ride at the cost of the rest of the community.

By Adele O'Hare
ABC news

Prime Minister John Howard's plan for an emissions trading scheme is letting Australia's worst polluting industries get off the hook, the author of a damning book argues.

Guy Pearse is a Liberal Party member and former adviser to the Howard Government who has documented the role of the self-described 'greenhouse mafia' - the lobbyists for the worst polluting industries - in helping to write government policy on climate change.

In his new book, High and Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia's future, Dr Pearse says lobbyists from these industries have admitted to him on tape that they have been running Australia's greenhouse policy remotely for many years.

Dr Pearse says this kind of compensation for the worst polluting industries is the exact opposite of the kind of incentives an emissions trading scheme should provide.

"If you look closely at the implications of effectively carving out those worst-polluting industries from the emissions trading scheme, the impact is to double the carbon price that the rest of the economy bears," he said.

"So you and I end up paying more for our electricity, in order that our worst-polluting industries get off virtually scot-free."

He says that instead of encouraging Australia's worst polluters to cut emissions, the report's recommended course of action would give them a free ride.

"What's being proposed is that our worst-polluting industries get compensated, both for the erosion of their asset value now that we're costing pollution rather than allowing it for nothing, but also they're going to be receiving 100 per cent compensation for the increase in the cost of electricity associated with putting a price on carbon," he said.

"But... once you understand who's in his ear, then his policy makes perfect sense because it turns out that our worst-polluting industries have an overwhelming overrepresentation among the voices that Howard takes most seriously on climate change."

"And when you look closely you find that it's only about 10 per cent of the economy, the mining, metals and energy sector, that he's really paying a great deal of attention to, and going out of his way with his greenhouse policy to serve."

"Those industries, while most Australians now have been sold a message that they are the backbone of the economy and the key to our future prosperity, they're only about $1 in 10 in the economy and about a job in 20."

More here

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

War for Oil

Here is a story about the real reason the Australaian government went to war in Iraq - to keep its oil supply safe. Hmmm.
War for Oil
The Australian government has added oil supply security to its list of justifications for keeping Australian troops in Iraq.

The defence minister, Brendan Nelson, says humanitarian grounds, clamping down on terrorism and standing by allies are all reasons for staying in Iraq, but he says there should not be any surprise that securing oil supplies is also on the list.

"It is in the interests of Iraqis to protect and support energy security as much as it is for those that actually buy that oil from Iraq,"

Mr Nelson said. The minister argues instability in the Middle East could affect many nations that rely on the region's oil supplies.

The opposition Labor party's Joel Fitzgibbon says the government has been dishonest with the public from the start of the Iraq war.

"People have suspected oil has been a consideration for some long time now," he said. The prime minister has warned that globalisation could lead to increasing rivalry over oil.
Please also check out:
Peak Oil Debate
More Peak Oil Debate
World Energy Outlook 2008

Global oil supply crunch looming

Here is a worrying story about the possibility of a global oil supply crunch (as demand outstrips supply) - Peak oil debate anyone??

Global oil supply crunch looming

July 10, 2007

Record petrol prices are inevitable with global oil demand outstripping supply over the next 5 years leading to a supply crunch, the International Energy Agency said.

In its Medium-Term Oil Market Report, the adviser to 26 industrialised countries said demand will rise by an average 2.2 percent a year between 2007 and 2012, up from a previous medium-term forecast of 2 percent.

"Despite four years of high oil prices, this report sees increasing market tightness beyond 2010," the IEA said.

"It is possible that the supply crunch could be deferred - but not by much."

The IEA's previous Medium-Term report called for world demand growth of 2 percent a year between 2006 and 2011.

It now expects global demand to reach 95.8 million barrels per day (bpd) from 86.1 million bpd in 2007. The forecast assumes average global GDP growth of 4.5 percent annually.

"The results of our analysis are quite strong," said Lawrence Eagles, head of the IEA's Oil Industry and Markets Division. "Something needs to happen."

"Either we need to have more supplies coming on stream or we need to have lower demand growth."

The Paris-based IEA also said additional global refining capacity over the next five years will lag earlier expectations as rising costs and a shortage of engineers delay construction.

It said world production of biofuels would reach 1.75 million bpd by 2012, more than double 2006 levels, but the fuel will remain marginal as economics hobble further growth.

More here
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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Climate Change Protest

Photo by Glen Mccurtayne

Climate Change Ski Team member Josh Brown of Bega is led away after his protest.
He shouted: "What are you doing about global warming? There is no snow, there is no snow"

Human greed takes lion's share of solar energy

July 3, 2007

HUMANS are just one of the millions of species on Earth, but we use up almost a quarter of the sun's energy captured by plants - the most of any species.

The human dominance of this natural resource is affecting other species, reducing the amount of energy available to them by almost 10 per cent, scientists report.

Researchers said the findings showed humans were using "a remarkable share" of the earth's plant productivity "to meet the needs and wants of one species".

They also warned that the increased use of biofuels - such as ethanol and canola - should be viewed cautiously, given the potential for further pressure on ecosystems.

The scientists, from Austria and Germany, who publish their results today in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed data on land use, agriculture and forestry from 161 countries, representing 97 per cent of the world's land mass.

This showed humans used 24 per cent of the energy that was captured by plants. More than half of this was due to the harvesting of crops or other plants.

The human use of the natural resource varied across the globe, ranging from 11 per cent in Oceania and Australia, to 63 per cent in southern Asia.

An agriculture professor at the University of Melbourne, Snow Barlow, said the paper showed humans were taking up too much of an important natural resource.

"Here we are, just one species on the earth, and we're grabbing a quarter of the renewable resources … we're probably being a bit greedy."

Chee Chee Leung

"Mass incidents" on the rise as environment deteriorates

China Daily

Chinese people's refusal to accept an ever deteriorating environmental situation has resulted in a rising number of "mass incidents", the country's chief environment official said on Wednesday.

Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), did not give detailed figures or examples when addressing a national environment meeting on Wednesday.

But Zhou did reveal that his agency received 1,814 petitions in the first five months of the year appealing for a better environment, an 8 percent increase over the same period of last year.

"As people's living standards rise, they are focusing more on the environment and on quality of life," said Zhou, acknowledging that repeated environmental incidents have undermined public confidence.

Since May, blue-green algae outbreaks have been reported in eastern Taihu Lake, Chaohu Lake and southwestern Dianchi Lake, endangering local tap water supply.

The local government said on Wednesday water supplies to 200,000 people in Shuyang county in east China's Jiangsu Province had been halted for more than 40 hours after ammonia and azote polluted a local river.

An unending series of water pollution incidents has prompted environmental officials to suddenly become very outspoken.

"In China the environment is facing extremely difficult conditions," Zhou said.

Zhou also revealed that the administration would treat the prevention of pollution in the main rivers and lakes as the priority task in the last six months of the year.

"We will give all the polluted rivers and lakes a rest," he said, admitting that northern China's Liaohe River and Haihe River had been seriously contaminated.

There is still a possibility of a pollution outbreak in Chaohu Lake, Dianchi Lake and drainage area of the Three Gorges offshoot, he added.

Frequent water pollution incidents also increased the Cabinet's concern, as a State Council executive meeting presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday stressed the need to amend the existing law on handling of water pollution, allowing for harsher punishment for illegal practices.

The growth of China's high energy-consuming and polluting industries in the first five months of 2007 far exceeded that of the national economy, "posing great difficulties for environmental protection," said Zhou.

SEPA vice-director Pan Yue said on Tuesday that "traditional ways of development have caused the near breakdown of China's resources and environment and people's lives are in great danger."

Local authorities in six cities, two counties and five industrial zones - all in the vicinity of the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, the Huaihe River and the Haihe River - only have three months to fix their "environmental problems", according to Pan.

He set in motion a plan to tackle water pollution in China's four major rivers, mainly targeting illegal pollution discharge.