Remembering the floods

I wrote about extreme weather events and their connection to global warming two and a half months ago and a small coincidence leads me to revisit the topic. Today has been chosen as the day of remembrance for the disastrous SE Queensland floods a year ago, and a link on RealClimate took me yesterday to a paper by eminent climate scientist James Hansen which touches on something I’ve been thinking about for some  time: the fact that climate change should already be apparent to ordinary people.

First, the floods. Wikipedia has a good overview here with plenty of links to further information and the ABC has put together a terrific gallery of flood photos here. There’s not much point in trying to add to that coverage here. The floods certainly qualify as an ‘extreme weather event’ and were recognised as such in the major global report State of the Climate in 2010 from NOAA and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 

Hansen’s paper, Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice (November 2011) (pdf here) begins thus:

The “climate dice” describing the chance of an unusually warm or cool season, relative to the climatology of 1951-1980, have progressively become more “loaded” during the past 30 years, coincident with increased global warming. The most dramatic and important change of the climate dice is the appearance of a new category of extreme climate outliers. …

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is the natural variability of climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?

This question assumes great practical importance, because of the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming. Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming, mainly CO2, are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public perceives that human-made climate change is underway and will have disastrous consequences if effective actions are not taken to short-circuit the climate change.

He goes on to show two kinds of systematic change in climate: the averages have shifted and, at the same time, the odds of extreme events occurring have increased dramatically. This, of course, is the significance of his title: the climate dice have been loaded (biased) by global warming. He presents details of the changes which have already occurred and notes that, “The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that the perceptive person (old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980) should be able to recognize the existence of climate change.” In particular, people should be noticing that extreme weather is far more common than it ever used to be.

He doesn’t quite ask, “Why don’t they notice?” but the question hovers there, waiting for an answer.

I have been trying to answer it myself since a random conversation a year ago. I was chatting to a youngish, intelligent person with a degree in natural sciences and a job in  GBRMPA, which looks after the Great Barrier Reef. I was quite surprised to find that she had not actually observed the effects of climate change. Then I found that she had spent her first ten years on a Pacific island, her next eight in Sydney, and another eight or so here in Townsville, so she hadn’t actually been anywhere long enough to notice a change in that location.

As I thought about that, I realised that she has lots of company. There are far fewer people who might reasonably be expected to notice climate change than we might at first think. A quick estimate goes like this:

  • Age group really has to be 40+, since anyone under ten in the early 1980s won’t remember the old norms. Change has occurred in the last thirty years, but it is the comparison with the pre-1980 baseline which makes it stand out strongly. That rules out more than 50% of the world’s population and perhaps even more than 50% of the world’s voters.
  • But also, those people have to have been living in the same general area for 40+ years, or have returned to it after some time away, because no-one in California will say, “It wasn’t like this when I was a kid,” if they grew up in Normandy, Queensland or even Virginia. How many Westerners are that stable? 50%?
  • Furthermore, the closer we live to nature, the more likely we are to notice its changes – but more and more of us are urbanised. Europe, Australia and the US are all more than 80% urbanised according to UN stats, while China, India and most of the developing nations are less than 40% urbanised. How many of the 50% of 50% are therefore likely to qualify as “perceptive”? Less than 50% in the West, certainly; perhaps more than 50% in less urbanised countries.
  • That leaves less than 10% of the world’s population in a position to recognise climate change from personal observation. And (unfortunately for the debate) most of those 10% are the rural poor of developing nations, the most frequent victims of climate change not the opinion-makers of industrialised nations.

Of course, Hansen’s statistics show that extreme weather events are going to increase very rapidly in number and severity as global warming continues. More and more of us will notice the effects in our daily lives. But that is not really good news.

A carbon tax at last

A message from GetUp! which I am happy to support and pass on:

Today we woke up knowing that the global conversation on climate change has changed. Yesterday’s passage of the Clean Energy Act into law means we’ve finally taken action to secure our clean energy future. To mark the occasion, Al Gore passed on these kind words:

“This is a historic moment. Australia’s Parliament has put the nation’s first carbon price into law. With this vote, the world has turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis. This success is the result of the tireless work of an unprecedented coalition that came together to support the legislation, the leadership of Prime Minister Gillard, and the courage of legislators to take a vote that helps to safeguard the future of all Australians.

I have spent enough time in Australia to know that their spirit of independence as a people cannot be underestimated. As the world’s leading coal exporter, there’s no doubt that opposition to this legislation was fierce. But through determination and commitment, the voice of the people of Australia has rung out loud and clear.

Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we do everything we can to ensure that this legislation is successful.”

Al Gore, November 2011

Click here to watch a video that tells the story of how we arrived at this day.

Yesterday’s success is yet more evidence of the fact that coordinated community action has the power to lead our Parliamentarians toward just, environmentally sustainable outcomes. But a wider community movement will be needed to protect these laws and grow further investments in clean energy.

As GetUp! and Al Gore say, there is more to be done – firstly to ensure this step is not allowed to slip away and secondly to build on it – but it’s nice to have got this far at last.

Grab bag: Just for (slightly geeky) fun

The web brings me lots of cute and/or entertaining snippets which are worth sharing but don’t really deserve a whole page to themselves. Here’s a selection of recent ‘grabs’, with thanks to those who pointed them out to me.

Tata Develops Car That Can Run On Air

A car that runs on air sounds like an interesting idea that’s too good to be true. I followed it up to the extent of finding more technical details, here, and it is, in fact, both.

It should indeed be cheap to run and reduce pollution in the cities – both good – but it is essentially another ‘long tail pipe’ technology in that the power source is really  mains electricity, since the compressed air, like hydrogen or batteries, is just a way of storing energy. Until the mains electricity is generated from renewable sources the Tata ultimately runs on coal or oil, so there is still a pollution cost. This link points to a way around that problem, but it is some distance into the future.

IgNobel prizes

The Ignobels are awarded annually for ‘achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK,’ as the website says. They do that.

Fate of the World game

Computer strategy game Fate of the World gives gamers the chance to save a virtual world from climate catastrophe.

Using real climatic models, it gives gamers and environmentalists the chance to test policy ideas on a global scale. Its developers intend the game to be fun and to help increase awareness of the complex nature of fighting global warming.

Initial reviews (linked from bottom of this Greenpeace review) are positive in terms of game enjoyment.

Quantum levitation

http://youtu.be/Ws6AAhTw7RA

I sent this link to a young relative (relatively young, anyway) working in quantum physics and he sent me this link by way of explanation. Another knowledgeable friend said, ‘What you are seeing with the superconductor is a result of the diamagnetism and flux pinning of the superconductor,’ and pointed to

Climate change and extreme weather events

For the last few years I, among others, have been looking at the news and wondering to what extent this, that or the other extreme weather event – the 2010 Russian heatwave, the Queensland floods, record flooding in Thailand, etc – was due to climate change. When I asked those who ought to know, the response was always, “There is probably some influence there but it is too hard to disentangle from natural variation, so you can’t just say that it was caused by global warming,” or words to that effect.

This week RealClimate reported on a scientific paper by Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coucou which puts statistically verifiable numbers on the feeling that, yes, global warming is making our weather more extreme. RealClimate’s report is a (relatively) non-technical introduction to the findings and it is linked to the paper itself if you want more.

My really short, really non-technical summary is that the number of record-breaking events increases in proportion to the rate at which the normal (average) conditions are changing. That matches my gut feeling very well, which naturally pleases me. But it simultaneously alarms me because it means that record-breaking events are going to get more and more frequent unless we can quickly and radically reduce our CO2 emissions.

Back to the science: the authors applied their technique to the Russian heatwave and found, “an approximate 80% probability that the 2010 July heat record would not have occurred without climate warming.” That quote is from  the abstract of the paper, meaning that it is in careful scientific language, i.e. there is an approximate 99.9% probability that they can back up every word of it.

The Comments on RealClimate posts are usually well worth reading. Two caught my eye this time:

(1) Comment 36: Ricky Rood looks at other ways in which the 2010 Russian heat wave was extreme:

The winter of 2010 and the spring of 2011 were characterized by very high food prices. An essay by Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo entitled, Global Warming and Arab Spring, draws a convincing line that the pressure on food prices was a contributor to the start of the revolutions of the Arab Spring – the tumultuous uprising against many Arab governments. (also here) To diffuse the arguments that are sure to follow – this was a contributor, along with many other factors that came together to fuel a movement. This is the idea of climate extremes as a threat multiplier.

(2) Pete Dunkelberg says:

For a first approximation, an outlier [i.e. extreme event] in the direction of a trend tells you what’s coming. … Just from the shape of a bell curve (and this is far from original) one can see that you don’t have to move the mean very far in one direction for outliers on that side to become much more frequent. A one hundred year heat wave or flood readily becomes a ten or five year event. The new hundred year flood is going to drown people.

Now, how did that Chinese curse go? “May you live in interesting times” – was that it?

The Hungry Tide

When your home is a coral atoll (see Wikipedia for atolls and other ‘coral islands’) in the middle of the ocean, you live in an exquisite but fragile, vulnerable place. The highest point of your island is only a couple of metres above sea level and the land is composed entirely of coral rubble and sand bound together only by the plants that have taken hold on it. Any particularly big storm knocks palms down and loosens the soil; any particularly high tide surges inland, leaving salt behind and reducing soil fertility even when it doesn’t wash the soil back out to sea; and rising sea levels spell certain disaster.

The Hungry Tide, a documentary by Tom Zubrycki, dramatises the problems facing small island nations in a time of climate change by focusing on Kiribati. It was premiered at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival and also shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Zubrycki tells the story primarily through Maria Tiimon, a young woman from one of Kiribati’s smaller islands who, exceptionally among her community, went to Sydney for her education. There she became involved in the campaign to tell the rest of the world what was happening to her home. She is a sympathetic lead and her courage in travelling to Copenhagen and putting her country’s case on the world stage is inspiring.

Copenhagen is contrasted with her home village: thatched huts under the palm trees, a tremendous sense of community and a way of life which revolves around food gardens and the sea. Zubrycki shows us, through Maria and other locals, what is happening – areas of land already lost to the sea in recent years, houses and land flooded by spring tides as we watch, and brave but under-resourced efforts to save threatened areas by building sea walls.

I saw the 52-minute version broadcast on SBS a week ago and was impressed by it but a friend in Melbourne who had recommended it to me after seeing the full-length film was quite disappointed:

I should have realized when I saw it was under an hour that it had been quite heavily cut. As such it has been reduced to a documentary rather than a film, which may be okay for someone who hadn’t seen the uncut version but for me it had lost its heart. The story of Maria and her family was almost non-existent yet it was the effect of climate change on this family, their village and their daily lives that created the impact.

I think President Tonge was only given a two minute statement but his other conversations were far more inspirational. What a pity they were lost. Also missing was … the story of the islanders in Robinvale picking fruit – a portent of what will become mainstream when many more island people become climate change refugees.

What seems to have happened in cutting the length by almost half is that the human stories that gave the film its emotional impact were first to go because the physical facts had to stay. That’s understandable but so is my friend’s disappointment: I saw the short version and thought ‘good documentary’ but she saw the full version and thought ‘great film.’ On that basis, the short version is recommended and the full version is highly recommended.

The Hungry Tide is also the title of a 2005 novel by Amitav Ghosh. It has no connection to Kiribati but it is a great book set in a fascinating part of the world – read about it here in Wikipedia. We read it some years ago and it is also (independently) highly recommended.