Is scientific objectivity morally wrong? In other words is it a cop out?
I’ve just attended a meeting of The Royal Society and the All Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, at which hugely eminent scientists – Professor this and Lord that – presented the findings of the 5th Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The truth is we’ve heard it all before – and while in scientific circles the evidence has become yet more conclusive: now at 95% for anthropogenic climate change – what it tells us, we already know. The world is warming quickly, rainfall patterns are changing – and the change is probably irreversible. The question is how far we go before we as a world decide to take action?
Talking about Bangladesh, Professor Tim Palmer, professor in climate physics at the University of Oxford, said ‘By any stretch of the imagination this is going to put a major stress on humanity. The impact could be devastating.’
Yet all of the scientists there agreed the need for impartiality – the scientific methodology. Not having opinions beyond the scientific facts.
Lord Oxburgh told a story of going to a meeting a few years ago with 80 ‘captains’ of US industry and how they were turned off from tackling climate change by the scientists’ love of the unknown. The business people wanted to know facts and plan what to do. The scientists wanted to tell them what they needed to explore further. The meeting ended in disarray and no action.
The impact of climate change is close to my heart because I’ve seen how poor communities are already feeling its impact. I’m going to Bangladesh in two weeks, and sitting at the meeting thinking about the people we work with, somehow the impartiality, the studied objectivity seemed wrong. How can we say Bangladesh will be devastated, and not apply moral values to the impact on millions of people? How can we not argue with passion the need for change and start working towards solutions?
I love science, the curiosity and solutions-focus. This studied impartiality is a trend, I understand that it’s in response to the furore that surrounded the last IPCC report and ‘email gate’, but even so in my view, it’s wrong.
Yesterday in the Atlee Suite Lord Oxburgh, referring to the way the IPCC reports are ‘approved’ by government before they are published, dared to use the word appeasement!
It’s probably not a word I’d use – I’d paraphrase Fritz Schumacher and quote Elvis Presley: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action’.
No part of our society is morally neutral – science, for all its stringent processes and methodologies, needs to take a stand. To talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.
By the way, the scientists were a hugely impressive and personable bunch. Lord Oxburgh as the Chair was most outspoken and thought provoking. For all my ‘please take a stand’ demands, they are doing a great job and would be brilliant to work with. I just want such brilliant people to engage more.
And finally from Lord Oxburgh: ‘We have to have more articulate, user friendly speakers who are actually selling the product.’ Exactly!
Did you know that access to science is a human right? I didn’t until very recently. With this in mind, how do you think scientists should behave, and should they focus on the problem (now well understood) or the solution?
Or is that a leading question?6 Comments » | Add your comment
Continuing my series of blogs from the World Energy Congress in Korea, Tuseday’s theme at the confrenece was all about identifying business opportunities in the exploitation of resources and the development of energy technologies. Once again though truly revolutionary thinking to address climate change and energy poverty seemed to be strangely missing. Two examples illustrate this:
Firstly, there is a lot of talk at this conference about the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States and the possibility of it being replicated in other countries, including China. In chemical terms shale gas is similar to that produced from the North Sea. It is liberated from rock strata by a process known as ‘fracking’, where water is injected under high pressure through boreholes to fracture the rock and allow the gas to be released through the cracks formed. It’s a controversial technique that can involve real environmental challenges as it needs vast amounts of water which, once flushed through the well, is itself an environmental hazard that needs careful disposal. Depending on who you talk to here, shale gas is either a revolution that will make the US energy independent in a couple of years and provide it with cheap energy for a century or it’s just another bubble that is about to burst (at the moment shale gas comes with some shale oil attached which keeps costs artificially low; the shale oil production will finish quite quickly though and once that happens the cost of extracting the gas alone will rise dramatically).
A second example would be the session I attended on Tuesday morning called ‘New frontiers: what is the next game changer?’ I was hoping to hear something about renewables, off grid solutions or new applications of smart grid technology. Instead I got a lot of information about ‘unconventional oil’ – shale gas, shale oil, oil exploration in the artic and something called methane hydrates (for more information on the latter see here). Apparently there is 4 times more oil locked in shales alone than there are left in conventional sources, which leads to the frightening (if you are worried about climate change) claim that the idea we might be reaching Peak Oil (the point at which consumption exceeds the rate of new discoveries and oil prices start to spiral) no longer applies. According to many speakers here, Peak Oil no longer an issue as there is at least 100 years left for coal oil and gas when you include unconventional sources.
The problem with all of these ‘solutions’ to the looming global energy crisis is that, apart from the obvious environmental issues associated with each of the extraction and production processes themselves, they are all about extending the life of hydrocarbons and our dependency on fossil fuels. Discussion of renewables is not entirely absent here, but the level of enthusiasm for innovation in renewables doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the level of enthusiasm for innovation in unconventional fossil fuels. The mantra repeated over and over again here is that the world will still be heavily dependent on fossil fuels in 2050, however much we invest in renewables. I can’t help wondering how much this mantra is dependent on the current subsidy regime. As someone pointed out during a session, at the moment the world provides around $500 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuels and only about one tenth as much ($60 billion) on subsidising renewables. What if we reversed this and made subsidies for renewables 10 times greater than those for fossile fuels? Would we still be heavily dependent on oil and gas in 2050 then?
Maybe I’m just not selecting the right sessions but from what I’ve seen in the first two days I do not detect the sort of revolution in energy industry thinking that’s going to be necessary to address climate change or achieve universal access to energy.No Comments » | Add your comment
World Energy Congress: The energy industry’s view of 2050 – no controls on demand and 500 million still without electricity
I’m attending the World Energy Congress in Daegu, Korea this week and I thought it might be interesting to blog on the key themes of this meeting.
The World Energy Congress happens every 3 years and is organised by the World Energy Council (WEC), a network of 3000 member organisations located in 90 countries. Principally members come from the private sector, government or international institutions, although there is some representation from academic institutions. The conference is huge, with more than 5000 delegates and a large trade exhibition running alongside it.
The meeting has a different theme every day. Monday’s was ‘Vision and scenarios for the future’ and to mark this WEC launched a report titled: World Energy Scenarios: Composing energy futures to 2050 that shows 2 different scenarios for the development of the energy sector between now and 2050. The scenarios are artfully named after two styles of music – “Jazz”, where there is little forced direction and reliance is principally on markets to deliver change and “Symphony”, where there is more regulation and direction provided by governments. The scenarios are supposed to represent the two extremes within which actual future energy policy paths are likely to fall. From a development perspective a major problem with both scenarios is that neither eliminates energy poverty by 2050 and so lack ambition when compared to the UN Sustainable Energy for All goal of universal access by 2030. The Jazz scenario does the best – with markets left to their own devices reducing the level of people without electricity in the world from 1.2 billion today to 300 million by 2050. Surprisingly WEC’s more regulated Symphony scenario does worse, leaving 500 million people still without electricity by 2050 – possibly because the government regulation envisaged by the scenario’s authors was focussed on green issues and carbon rather than on energy poverty. I say possibly because the other alarming outcome from both scenarios is a massive predicted rise is global annual energy consumption from 373 EJ in 2010 to between 491 (Symphony) and 629 EJ (Jazz) in 2050.
These two scenarios are supposed to represent extreme alternatives with an expectation that actual development will fall somewhere in-between. But scenarios are only as good as their underlying assumptions and in this case it appears those assumptions are “business as usual” for the energy industry, plus or minus a bit of green regulation. It is disappointing that WEC hasn’t been more radical in its scenario building and had at least one of its scenarios representing what it would take to achieve universal access by 2030.No Comments » | Add your comment
According to the BBC News on Tuesday, black soot-containing smoke from cook stoves is heating the atmosphere and accelerating glacial melt in the Himalayas and elsewhere. Soot (or black carbon) released from the incomplete combustion of biomass and biofuels among other things, enters the atmosphere and eventually is deposited on ice and snow, causing it to attract solar radiation rather than reflecting the sun’s rays. As millions of people in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region rely on the melt water from snow and ice melt, the disappearance of glaciers and the resulting impacts of this, is unimaginable.
The first part of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to be released on Friday 27 September, will provide the most up to date assessment of the physical science basis of climate change (i.e. the man made and natural causes of climate change). The report will include evidence on black carbon and its impacts. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which focuses on addressing short-lived climate pollutants that can have harmful impacts on human health, agriculture and ecosystems, has released literature which provides evidence that while there are several sources of black carbon, a significant one is believed to be from household cooking in developing countries.Practical Action has been addressing the problems associated with indoor smoke from cook stoves for more than twenty years. Currently almost 3 billion people worldwide still cook on open fires using wood, animal dung, crop waste or coal. Every year this results in the death of 4 million people, of which the majority of victims are women and children under five. This is more deaths than malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB combined!
In addition, tackling black carbon releaed from cook stoves, is not as “straightforward” as the BBC suggests, especially if you consider the development as well as environmental challenges. In the 3 years since its inception, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (a partner of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition) has led the drive to promote the uptake of clean cookers, but progress has been slow. Although there are a number of improved cook stoves on the market – the challenge is to persuade women (who invariably do most of the cooking in most developing countries) to purchase and use these improved cook stoves for all their cooking needs.
Improved stoves and smoke hoods are designed to use less wood, so that women spend less time collecting fuel and it burns more efficiently – and healthily. The environmental impact of minimising black carbon from more complete combustion should be considerd a positive co-benefit rather than what motivates us to promote cleaner cook stoves, or the reason for poor women to use them.As part of Practical Action’s programme of work on energy, household energy is a key focus area; delivering clean energy to poor men and women who need it most. As an issue of justice, reducing carbon emissions must be regarded as a secondary issue to people’s health and well-being. Why should those people who have contributed nothing to the warming of the planet be unjustly burdened with lowering their emissions of black carbon or other greenhouse gases? If the International Community is going to start focusing its attention on black carbon, we should rather start with our own activities that contribute to the problem, such as gas flaring and fossil fuel power plants.
If household cooking is found to be responsible for some of the world’s black carbon, this might result in more funding and a higher profile for this serious health problem, but should not be the driving force for taking action.No Comments » | Add your comment
As if it isn`t tough enough being an alpaca farmer in the high plains of Peru, last week 15 cm of snow blanketed the land. It killed thousands of alpacas, which are vital for smallholder farmers, who sell the wool. They don´t make much money, but it´s enough for food, clothes, and schooling for their children.
We drove for two hours over bumpy tracks, many miles from the nearest town, to meet a group of these farmers. They are used to harsh conditions, with scarce water and poor grazing land, but the heavy snow had added an extra burden.
We talked to Victor Hancco, who is 46, has 5 children, and lives in a small two room house, made of mud and straw bricks, with a corrugated iron roof.
Victor has been trained by Practical Action in irrigation, animal care, and wool classification. He uses this knowledge to tend his own herd of 150 alpacas, and shares his skills with neighbouring farmers.
He said that the snow fell over two days, and then froze hard, down to minus 20 degrees. The alpacas became weak as they couldn’t graze through the icy snow. Eight of his animals died in just a few days, mostly the kids. For a farmer with such a small herd, that represents a huge loss. Alpacas have a gestation period of almost a year, so it will take a long time to build up the numbers again.
The people suffered too – some roofs collapsed with the weight of the snow. The only source of fuel is alpaca dung, and there was only enough for cooking, not for heating homes too. Victor said that they all just put on all the clothes they had, and some came down with pneumonia.
But it could have been much, much worse. Victor used his training to tend the weak alpacas, providing medicine and basic animal care for cold conditions. He visited his neighbours too, and worked with them, to save their herds. He said he felt very proud that his skills made such a difference.
As I listened, I was incredibly proud of Victor and of hearing him say,
“I really value working in partnership with Practical Action – my new knowledge has helped me strengthen my community, especially in these times of climate emergency.”
Without Victor, and the training he received from Practical Action, many more alpacas would have died, especially the vulnerable young kids. It would have taken years for them to recover, financially. Victor is a local hero and if we can train more people like him, then when the next heavy snows come, more alpacas can be saved.2 Comments » | Add your comment
Practical Action is working with other agencies in an emergency response following the massive snow storms that have devastated the lives of the poor farmers we work with in Peru.
The emergency situation in the Andes, Peru
Temperatures in the Andean mountains this week plunged to their lowest levels in decades, killing tens of thousands of animals, including alpacas that they depend on to survive. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and crops have been ruined. Around 100,000 people living in the vulnerable mountain communities have been affected.
Practical Action has several projects in these areas and the people we are working with are being affected. You can find out more information on these projects in Peru here.
What Practical Action are doing to respond to the emergency
Practical Action Latin America Director Alfonso Carrasco said: “During the last couple of weeks people and animals in the highlands of Peru have been suffering a disaster situation due to extreme cold and totally unusual big snowfalls. Thousands of people have been affected. Practical Action is member of the group of emergency attention that is commanded by the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), and this group becomes automatically installed when a disaster strikes. All agencies involved are sending ECHO a report of the damages, and a quick plan to try to attend the emergency.”
Regional and central governments and the Disaster Risk Management Secretary have already helped people in areas they can access by providing blankets, clothing, shelter, food, bales of hay for cattle, blankets, beds, mattresses, medicines and clothing.
Practical Action is co-ordinating with a network of Kamayoqs (para-vets) that we have trained, to help channel aid to more remote areas.
We are also helping to intervene directly in the affected areas of Cusco, Puno and Apurimac that we work in. This is what Practical Action’s priorities are for emergency care and rehabilitation:
Helping farmers and livestock owners recover
- Providing technical assistance for livelihood recovery
- Forage storage and handling to ensure animals get the food they need
- Providing drugs to control animal epidemics in affected communities
- Providing shifting cultivation seeds to help recover supply of crops
Improving housing conditions and water service
- Providing technical assistance for homes and schools
- Reinforcing homes affected by the snow
- Building community shelters to ensure the affected communities have a roof over their heads
- Rehabilitating water systems and community water sources
- Providing safe water in affected communities
Coordination and institutional technical support
- Supporting and advising the emergency operations centres
- Providing technical assistance in damage assessment and needs analysis
- Training for local and community teams for the proper handling of the emergency
- Installing risk management disaster working groups and civil defense platforms, for a timely emergency response
- Coordinating and deploying Kamayoqs to isolated areas to distribute aid
- Coordinating with DIPECHO partners and other institutions to coordinate intervention strategies
- Supporting students and academics in technical and social assistance
Winter in the Andes, which runs from May to September, is tough already for vulnerable farming communities – temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees.
Daniel Rodriguez, Practical Action’s Director of Programmes in Peru, said: “It’s impossible to adequately describe the environment in which they live. High in the Andean mountains, some 4,000 feet above sea level, the cold is brutal. The land is barren, capable of producing little more than potatoes. Homes are made of mud with no basic services. Families struggle daily to make enough money from selling the wool from their alpacas. The commitment these families make to their alpaca livelihoods under such difficult circumstances is moving.”
The “Friaje” of recent winters – a phenomenon of intense cold never experienced so extremely before – is challenging highland communities’ abilities to survive. It’s suspected that the extreme weather had been triggered by climate change. These weather emergencies are going to be repeated year after year and we need to support these vulnerable communities to cope with climate change to survive.No Comments » | Add your comment
We’re constantly trying to come up with ways of communicating the issue of climate change in a way that inspires people to take action.
Communications around the issue of climate change have begun more and more to deal with involving people because human stories make it more real and help forge deeper, more emotional connections.
But we’re also experimenting with infographics. Why?
They are attractive and fun to look at. They are insightful and make news look interesting. They help us understand information easily and quickly, and they help us remember things.
Here are some cool infographics that Practical Action have produced on climate change:
This first one has been a huge success and went viral after it was recommended by the data visualisation gurus at Information is Beautiful. It is an alternative tube map that highlights the impact climate change and rising sea levels could have on the London. The “London Underground Map 2100″ highlights those areas that could be underwater if no action on climate change is taken including Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, London Bridge, Embankment, Sloane Square and Canary Wharf.
No Comments » | Add your comment
Someone asked me at a conference recently: “Is climate change real?” I was stunned. “Is that a trick question?”
I’ve seen for myself the real and devastating impact that climate change has on the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. Our staff who work in developing countries across the world see it every day. With more cases coming to our attention all the time we expect to see more people suffer from the adverse effects of climate change over the coming years.
What are the effects of climate change?
As the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases increase, the energy in the atmosphere is changing and that’s causing extreme weather conditions like droughts, floods and severe winters.
Climate change is real for the world’s poorest
I went to Mandera, northern Kenya, at the height of the 2011 drought where I came face-to-face with the terrible reality of climate change and the impact it’s having on families and children.
Practical Action works with agricultural communities to cope with climate change by helping to develop simple farming approaches using drought tolerant crops, protect livestock and provide safe, clean water.
High up in the Andes in Peru, the temperature can drop to as low as -35 degrees centigrade and there is limited vegetation. Practical Action works with communities to develop approaches that enable crops to be grown that will survive in these harsh conditions.
And in flood prone places like Bangladesh where it’s impossible to grow crops, Practical Action has developed a technology to allow farmers to grow food on flooded land.
We believe that as the climate changes, poverty and hunger is likely to increase. Many people in developing countries rely on agriculture for their livelihood, and increasingly erratic weather patterns mean that crops will fail.
Progress on tackling preventable diseases will be severely threatened by climate change as people become more vulnerable to the spread of disease.
Access to clean water will also be threatened as our climate changes. The lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is a major cause of ill health and life threatening disease in developing countries.
Will you be asking if climate change is real when you’re affected by it?
Practical Action see that for many people – businesses, governments and the general public, although it is a concern, it’s not high on their agenda.
Practical Action believes it should be, because climate change will also affect our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren. Take a look at this tube map – is shows how a lot of London will be under water by the end of the century.
The evidence to show that climate change is real
I don’t know all the science behind climate change so I asked Practical Action’s climate change advisor Colin McQuistan.
His response was: “An annoying question and one I was fired up to highlighted in a recent blog.”
This is his blog on how climate change is real.
He added: “All the evidence indicates that temperature is linked to rising GHG emissions with CO2 being the biggest culprit. The sceptics keep saying correlation isn’t causation, even though now 97% of global scientists and the overwhelming literature have disproven all the other options.”
If you are still not convinced, the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (AR5) due out early next year should provide more concrete evidence on this cause and effect linkage.No Comments » | Add your comment
I recently watched Kate Humble’s excellent episode of Wild Shepherdess, focusing on Alpaca farming in the High Andes of Peru.
What was most striking about the programme was the difficulty people face in maintaining their livelihoods with the spectre of modern life looming large.
Certainly, we at Practical Action have been working with communities in the region for many years, supporting them as they try to reconcile their traditional way of life with the demands of the 21st Century.
And while Kate certainly enjoyed, or perhaps endured, a taste of life as a shepherdess in the region, her experiences brought to mind a shepherdess I have worked with over the years.
The story of an alpaca shepherdess
Gabriela lives in the Peruvian Andean community of Negro Mayo, Ayacucho. She’s 27. She has one love in life – her alpacas. She loves them because they are her family, her livelihood, her reason for being.
She said: “My dream is to improve my alpacas, which are everything to me. They clothe me and they are my livelihood. If I treat them well my life will improve even more.”
Practical Action has been working with Gabriela to make her dream come true.
Life in the high Andes of Peru
It is impossible to adequately describe the environment in which Gabriela lives. The living conditions are very hard. High in the Andean mountains, some 3,500 metres above sea level, winters see temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees.
The land is barren, capable of producing little more than potatoes. Homes are made of mud with no basic services. Families struggle daily to make enough money from selling the wool from their alpacas.
The commitment these families make to their alpaca livelihoods under such difficult circumstances is moving.
We have supported a number of alpaca communities in Peru to improve their livelihoods and quality of life by providing appropriate technologies in the production management of alpaca breeding, improving their wool and crops, the grasslands that the alpacas graze on and improving the market access.
We have also worked with them to introduce basic services such as dry composting toilets, bio-sand filters to provide clean water, improved stoves that don’t emit smoke which was polluting their homes and Trombe walls that can heat their homes when the cold weather strikes.
Practical Action has been training people like Gabriela to become Kamayoqs (para-vets). Together, we have helped alpaca farmers learn how to best care for alpacas and how to earn a better living from the sale of their wool.
Gabriela said: “People were selected and invited to join the Kamayoq School so that they could be taught various techniques to improve the food security rate of their families and transmit their knowledge to their people. My community chose me. I suppose they consider me a responsible person.
“I did not know how to look after and maintain our pastures. We were taught to store water, taking more advantage of rain water as there is a shortage of water in this area. With good water and soil management, we Kamayoqs can set an example for our people, who are unaware that they are mistreating or abusing the countryside.
“Part of the teachings at the Kamayoq School is related to alpaca diseases. Now I can tell why alpacas are sick and why they die so quickly and what medicines should apply.
“We have learnt how to improve our breeding, mating white with white, brown with brown. This produces better quality wool.”
She said: “I am very grateful for the arrival of Practical Action because it is the first time anyone has shown concern for us.”No Comments » | Add your comment
June is almost over and like me, I’m sure you are waiting for summer. Winter doesn’t seem that long ago and with the passing of the northern solstice and the celebrations at Stonehenge, summer has begun but not with a blaze of sunshine more an overcast whimper. So what has happened to Global Warming, this massive problem that we were warned against (or rather promised) by climate scientists and widely reported in the media? Why aren’t we all out in our shorts enjoying the sunshine? Unfortunately this scepticism has also reached senior government. On June 7th during the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Any Questions’, the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, the Right Honourable Owen Paterson said “ the climate has not changed – the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years”. Well, it certainly hasn’t changed in the UK I hear you say! This may be true if you look at temperature, but is climate change only about rising temperatures? This is the problem with the phrase ‘Global Warming’, the expectation that it’s going to get hotter.
What we know is that human activities: the combustion of fossil fuels, land use change and deforestation are releasing carbon dioxide and other gases that are changing the composition of the atmosphere. These gases have no effect on the sunlight as it enters the atmosphere, but they are good at capturing the heat energy of the reflected sunlight, therefore the atmosphere is heated as less energy is lost to space. So although the amount of energy entering the atmosphere remains fairly constant (see sunspot activity below), more energy is being retained in the atmosphere as the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases increase. This increasing atmospheric energy is affecting everything. What we noticed first was the increase in temperature with a number of record hot years widely reported by the media in the 1990’s, apparently reaching a peak in the late nineties as recalled by the minister above. However, the hottest global year on record is the 12 month period from June 2009 to May 2010. So globally temperatures have continued to rise despite the fact that here in the UK, this may not seem to be the case.
Moreover it’s not just the atmosphere that has warmed, but also the oceans. Oceans due to their global coverage, size and heat storage capacity are a much better indicator of global temperatures change. Ocean temperatures have steadily risen regardless of El Nino or sunspot activity that can affect atmospheric temperatures in the short term as the diagram below indicates.
So regardless of the fluctuations that have been experienced in the historic past and the error of judging climate change on a seventeen year timeframe, climate scientists are 97% certain that the earth’s climate is changing and the window for action to avoid dangerous climate change is rapidly closing. What is needed is drastic action to stabilise the climate, which demands the return of climate change to the political agenda alongside economic health and energy security.
It’s important to look at climate change as part of our future wellbeing and not isolated as idealised local warming. With human activity changing natural cycles, it’s not just temperature that will rise but with more energy in the atmosphere other things will change. We can expect weather conditions to become more unpredictable and for weather events to become more severe. So it’s not just warmer summers and hazy blue skies, but also more drought, more hosepipe bans, more unseasonal flooding, more extreme winters and more climate induced natural disasters not only in the UK but around the world, with the poorest and those living in the most vulnerable locations the hardest hit. The future looks bleak, not just for the environment, but for us all if politicians don’t wake up soon! Perhaps it’s time to pick up pen and paper and write to Mr. Paterson?
 97% of climate papers (13,950 peer reviewed papers published 1991-2012) stating a position on human caused global warming agree global warming is happening and we are the cause.