Meltdown of Public Opinon on Climate Change

RECENT events are now resulting in more people questioning the validity of the science behind climate change. Could this be the beginning of a meltdown in public opinion on global warming?

RECENT events are now resulting in more people questioning the validity of the science behind climate change. Could this be the beginning of a meltdown in public opinion on global warming?

The recent period of freezing temperatures and the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit to agree legally binding greenhouse gas targets provided the backdrop for two events that have threatened the creditability of climate change science.

The “Climategate” fiasco saw the contents of emails stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit leading to accusations that a number of researchers had manipulated data.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading body for the assessment of the scientific evidence of climate change, admitted it had got it wrong on predicting Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.

Taken all together, it is not surprising that the general public is beginning to question whether climate change is really happening. A recent BBC Poll suggests that scepticism about climate change is on the rise. Of the 1,001 adults polled, 25 per cent did not think global warming was happening.

This is a 10 per cent increase on a similar poll that was conducted last year. Those who said climate change was real had fallen from 83 to 75 per cent. Only 26 per cent believed that climate change was happening and was largely the result of human activities.

Climate change is unlike any other environmental issue. For some, it is seen as a new religion with those sceptical of the evidence labelled “deniers” as if they were questioning the existence of a divine being. Unless you live on a small island state such as Tuvalu, near Fiji, which is slowly sinking due to the rising sea level, it is easy to think climate change is a myth.

There is also public confusion over the difference between weather – atmospheric conditions over hours or days – and climate – changes in the atmosphere over years. This has led some people to think that the recent heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures are sufficient evidence that global warming is not real.

How climate change is communicated plays a powerful role in influencing public attitudes and determining whether people are willing to reduce their carbon footprint. The alarmist language used by the media to describe the potential impact of climate change has been referred to as “climate porn” – offering a thrilling spectacle but ultimately distancing the public from the problem. The use of apocalyptic media images of receding glaciers, scorched land, flooded metropolises and polar bears grappling for survival all foster public apathy.

It is no wonder the public feels disempowered. The issue is portrayed as being so big and multifaceted that it seems unreal and more like science fiction rather than science fact.

Climate sceptics are quick to claim that Climategate and the “Glaciergate” are evidence of “dodgy” climate science. While a few points in the IPCC report may be incorrect, this does not invalidate the last four assessments of the basic science of climate change. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that global warming is due to human activity.

The reality is that climate science is still developing as new evidence comes to light. We are still trying to understand the complexity of the global climate system and the effect and speed of different feedback mechanisms.

For example, a scientific survey of Siberian tundra coastlines has reported methane levels are roughly 100 times above normal. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

More than 10 times the annual global greenhouse emissions are thought to be trapped in tundra across the world. As the tundra thaws will it become a “Methane Bomb”?

Health damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a “cooling” effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution are we lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming?

Many questions such as these require further scientific investigation.

It is too easy to dismiss the whole climate change issue as mass hysteria. Prevention is always much better than cure. It is right that we take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to predicted climate change and move to a low carbon economy.

We need to become more efficient in our energy use and develop renewable energy sources. After all, whether climate change happens or not, we still have to face up to the fact of dwindling oil reserves and our over-consumption of natural resources.

Whatever doubt we may have about climate science, or whether climate change is really happening, a fundamental question remains – are we willing to gamble with our children’s future on this planet?

© Gary Haq 2010
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The End Game In Copenhagen

THE Copenhagen climate talks provide the opportunity for world leaders to move boldly and decisively to tackle climate change. Whatever the outcome, the summit will go down in history as a major turning point that changed the fate of our species on this planet.

THE Copenhagen climate talks provide the opportunity for world leaders to move boldly and decisively to tackle climate change. Whatever the outcome, the summit will go down in history as a major turning point that determined the fate of humankind on earth.

Throughout history there have been a number of key events that have influenced and shaped our relationship with the environment. In 1972 universal concern about the health and sustainable use of the planet and its resources resulted in the United Nations conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Stockholm conference recognised our failure to manage the biosphere as well as the increasing gap between developed and developing countries. For the first time the environment was placed high on the political agenda. The conference led to the foundation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which had a mandate to protect and manage the global environment. After the conference a number of nations established ministries of environment and developed the first wave of policies to reduce environmental pollution. This period also saw the establishment of many leading environmental non-governmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth.

Twenty years later in 1992, nations of the world gathered together once more at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also know as the Earth Summit. The Summit produced Agenda 21 – a blueprint for action to be taken by organisations globally, nationally and locally to implement the concept of sustainable development. It also led to the adoption of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC entered into force in 1994 with the objective to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The Commission on Sustainable Development was created to monitor and report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements.

Twenty years after the Earth Summit in 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was convened by the United Nations to discuss progress towards sustainable development and resulted in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which was intended to build on the achievements made since the 1992 Earth Summit and realise the remaining goals not yet achieved. The plan promoted the integration of the three components of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection.

In 1997 the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC was held in Kyoto, Japan. The meeting led to the adoption of the international agreement on climate change called the Kyoto Protocol. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

All these events have been major milestones in the history of environmentalism and have changed the way we manage our environment from the global to the local level. The fifteenth meeting of COP in Copenhagen (COP 15) will be another such event. However, this event is seen as an end game. The final chance to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol which will prevent runaway climate change. This will mean halting the increase in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to keep the global temperature below two degrees centigrade. Above this level there will be dangerous and irreparable damage to our climate system.

A reduction of 25-40% compared to 1990 levels are needed and these would need to rise to 80-95% by 2050. The Stockholm Environment Institute in partnership with Friends of the Earth Europe shows how European Union can cut domestic emissions by 40% in 2020, and by 90% in 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This is considered the minimum scale and speed of reductions science says is likely to be needed from rich countries to avoid a climate catastrophe. The 40% emissions cuts can be achieved through a combination of radical improvements in energy efficiency, the accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels, a dramatic shift towards renewable energies, and lifestyle changes.

The big issues are whether developing countries such as China and India can continue to grow and achieve their development goals and whether richer nations are willing to pay for poorer countries to achieve a low carbon development.

Whether talks at Copenhagen succeed or fail it will go down in history as a landmark event. We can only hope that all parties can “seal the deal”. If not then they can at least achieve this goal as soon as possible in 2010. The only thing worse than no deal is a false deal – a deal that raises hopes and expectations but ultimately fails due to broken promises and puts human survival on this planet at risk.

© Gary Haq 2009

World’s Worst Polluted Places

A report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?

t767375aA report by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland highlights 12 successful approaches in use today to clean up some of the world’s worst polluted places. But is pollution clean-up too little too late to save lives of the poor and social marginalised?

The 2009 World’s Worst Polluted Places: 12 Cases of Cleanup and Success is the fourth on the state of pollution in some of the world’s worst polluted places published by the Blacksmith Institute. It was compiled from nominations received from around the world. The report includes success stories from Chile, China, Domincan Republic, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Russia and Tanzania.

The success stories come from a range of approaches: old-fashioned techniques (such as the removal and replacement of contaminated soil) and innovative ways to recapture mercury vapours. It also reviews technical methods such as chemical interventions, bioremediation and bioaccumulation, which can involve the use of cow dung, molasses and worms.

dominican_cleanupWhile pollution clean-up needs to be an essential part of an overall framework of environmental management, pollution prevention should be the main objective if the developing world is to deliver the policies for healthy citizens, sustainable development and poverty eradication. It is often the poor and socially marginalised who suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating environmental quality. Therefore the focus should on prevention rather than cure.

There is a growing need in developing countries to determine not only the state of environmental quality but to identify cost-effective measures to protect human health and the environment. Details of success projects such as those highlighted in the report can assist developing countries in achieving better environmental quality. They provide concrete examples of key approaches and mechanisms which have been used to clean-up pollution. They can motivate decision-makers to follow a similar course of action or to adapt a particular approach to local context and circumstances.

However, the efforts to clean-up pollution remains a major problem in the developing world and continues to pose risks to human health. With large numbers of people being affected by traditional sources of pollution such as industrial emissions, poor sanitation, inadequate waste management, contaminated water supplies and exposures to indoor air pollution from biomass fuels. These are particularly severe in large urban areas which have to grapple with simultaneous rapid motorisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, increased population and weak institutional capacity and poor infrastructure. 33777293_1

Risks attributable to environmental pollution in the developing world have been estimated to be 15–35 times greater than in developed countries. The World Health Organization has attempted to assess the global burden of disease as a result of environmental pollution in terms of mortality or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

About 8–9% of the total disease burden may be attributed to pollution, but considerably more in developing countries. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene are seen to be the major sources of exposure, along with indoor air pollution.

Problems of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, for example, account for an estimated 6.6% of DALYs in Africa, and 4.7% in south-east Asia, compared with 0.5% in Europe. Indoor air pollution accounts for 4.4% of DALYs in Africa and 3.6% in south-east Asia, compared to 0.4% in Europe. In absolute terms the differences are even more stark.

The total number of DALYs per head of population attributable to these two risk factors in Africa are 29.1 per thousand for unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene and 19.3 per thousand for indoor air pollution; in south-east Asia they are 12.8 and 9.9 per thousand, respectively; in Europe they are 0.8 and 0.6 per thousand, respectively.

Economic development is often seen as the driving force to improve environmental quality in the developing world. However, a key factor in addressing environmental pollution is political will. While policies on paper may look sophisticated and comprehensive the reality is often different on the ground. That is why ensuring policies are enforced and monitored is paramount to preventing pollution in the first place and protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Briggs, D. (2003) Environmental pollution and the global burden of disease, British Medical Bulletin, 68:1-24

© Gary Haq 2009
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Playing Games with the Global Climate

INTERNATIONAL cooperation is vital if we are to agree a new deal on climate change at the Copenhagen talks in December. But will non-cooperation be the dominant strategy adopted by world leaders?

78981INTERNATIONAL cooperation is vital if we are to agree a new deal on climate change at the Copenhagen talks in December. But will non-cooperation be the dominant strategy adopted by world leaders?

The problem with the atmosphere is that is a free resource with no ownership. As a consequence it has been overused as a dumping ground for polluting gases which have contributed to levels of atmospheric pollution and climate change. China is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions followed by the United States.

International agreements have established an institutional structure for the global communal management of the atmosphere. The United Nation’s Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol attempts to do this with regard to taking actions to reduce greenhouse gases and the effects of global climate change.

In the 1960s Garrett Hardin developed the notion of the ‘Freedom of the Tragedy of the Commons’ where he used the analogy of a common grazing land to illustrate that sharing common resources leads to overuse. Each herdsman as a rational individual seeks to maximise his gain. By adding one more animal to the common land he will gain, however, the overgrazing caused by the additional one will be shared by all herdsmen.

eth_29947 The rational herdsman concludes that he would benefit from adding another animal to the common land. However, this is the conclusion of all the herdsmen which ultimately leads to the ‘tragedy’ as each herdsmen is locked into a system which compels him to increase his herd without limit.

Hardin uses the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ to explain the problem of pollution, which results in emitting polluting emissions into the natural environment. The polluter as a ‘rational man’ will come to the same conclusion as the herdsmen, that the cost of polluting can be less than the treatment or abatement of polluting emissions.

Hardin concludes that “Freedom on the commons brings ruin to all” and that “… we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest” so long as we behave as independent rational, free-enterprises”. His solution was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”.

Hardin’s analogy has been criticised as being a false analogy because it ignores the powerful sense of community obligation which could exist and act as a deterrent for abuse of such a common grazing land.

Communal management can be effective if there is an agreement to cooperate to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the case of climate change. However, there is a risk that one nation will ‘free ride’ and not fulfil its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

International negotiations can be viewed as a game which results in a “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
2nd 100 yrs digTwo suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

In the case of climate change the developed and developing nations are the prisoners. If each co-operate then we would be spared from runaway climate change and global temperatures exceeding 2 degrees centigrade. However, non-cooperation gives one nation a greater payoff.

For non-cooperation would result in one of the nations saving investing billion of dollars in technology to reduce emissions. In this case the nation that does not cooperate would be a free-rider and enjoy any benefits from the other nations which reduce GHGs without having to bear the cost. The dominant strategy for each nation would be one of non-cooperation.

Unlike the Prisoners Dilemma, the climate crisis will means that in the long-term there will be no winners. Europe Is attempting to reassert its international leadership by offering to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95% by 2050 and by 30% by 2020 if a climate change pact is agreed in Copenhagen. However, US, China, and India have yet to unveil targets or specific figures for a new deal on climate change.

We are already perilously close to the brink of climate catastrophe and developing nations have little room to grow out of poverty. If we fail to produce a new deal climate deal then it will truly be a tragedy of the commons.

© Gary Haq 2009
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The True Carbon Cost of Our Consumption

S world Leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen this December to negotiate a new Climate Deal, it is time to acknowledge the true cost of our consumption.

shoppingAS world Leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen this December to negotiate a new Climate Deal, it is time to acknowledge the true carbon cost of our consumption.

UK Government policy has maintained that we are only responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions in our national boundaries. However, this week the government’s new energy scientist, Professor David MacKay, has acknowledged that the reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions since the 1990s are an illusion.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the UK must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per below 1990 levels by 2012. According to official government figures, since the 1990s UK emissions have fallen by about 15 per cent.

However, a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York published in July 2009 calculated the true carbon dioxide emissions associated with UK consumption. Using an approach based on consumption rather than production the study found that UK emissions actually increased by 18 per cent (115 million tonnes) between 1992 and 2004.

Since the 1980s we have transferred our manufacturing base abroad and replaced it with an expanded service sector. We now consume a large amount of goods produced in China and India. We have therefore exported our pollution and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the many goods and services we consume on a daily basis.

power-stationMany of us are shocked by the news that China is building two new coal power stations a week. Yet the polluting coal is being burned to provide energy for Chinese industries that manufacture goods such as electrical equipment and toys for the British market. We are therefore all partly responsible for the carbon cost of the goods we import and consume.

In the current negotiations for a new climate deal developing countries are demanding that developed countries acknowledge their contribution to global carbon emissions. With China calling for countires which consume their products to take the responsibility for the carbon emissions generated in the manufacture of the goods.

copIf a bigger, bolder, wider-ranging and more sophisticated treaty is to replace the Kyoto agreement to stop climate change, we need to own up to the fact that we are polluting much more than official statistics suggest.

When we have acknowledged the full impact of our high consuming lifestyles only then will we be able to do our fair share in cutting our carbon emissions and stoping runaway climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

The Health Cost of Our Techo-industrial Age

OUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

oilpollutionmaskOUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

Human societies have had an affect on the environment since time immemorial. However, the rate and scale at which we have degraded our environment has increased significantly with industrialisation. In the 1960s Rachel Carson’s the Silent Spring documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Since then we have see many products and industrial processes which have had unknown effects on our health and environment from lead additives, radioactive waste, dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, tobacco smoke to CFCs and greenhouse gases.

A recent US study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children whose mothers encountered a large amount of air pollution during pregnancy may end up with lower IQs. The study found that those babies whose mothers were exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution from heavy car, truck and bus traffic had IQ scores four to five points below those whose expecting mothers had breathed less polluted air. The results add to growing evidence of how low-dose exposure to every day pollutants can have an impact on developing children.

112053099_8471013d5dIn Corby, Northamptonshire (UK) sixteen families have successfully proved a link between their children’s deformities and exposure to poisonous waste caused by the clean-up of a steelworks site which had closed in the 1980s. To reclaim the site the local council demolished old buildings and removed waste, steel dust and slag to a quarry. The dirty and dusty operation exposed 18 pregnant mothers to harmful toxins. This resulted in the children being deformed and having missing fingers. The families may now finally be able to claim compensation for having to suffer the unexpected cost of environmental pollution.

_45748842_jex_354946_de27-1While we have used technology to reduce our the impact of our activities on our health and environment (e.g. catalytic converters to reduce vehicle pollution, desulphurisation units to reduce sulphorus emissions from power stations that cause acid rain) we still have a limited understanding of the health effects of certain production processes and chemicals. There is much to learn about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics, cleaning fluids and plastic products. For example, concern over “toxic toys” produced in China resulted in toy producers recalling their products.

Those products which we intuitively think are good for are also sometimes questionable. A report by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventional produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.

Our lack of understanding of the effect of artificial chemicals and substances on complex systems such as nature and the human body requires us to adopt the precautionary principle and to be fully informed about the risks we are taking. Even then there is no guarantee we will get it right.

As we make further developments in nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and create new chemicals and drugs we need to be mindful of the complexity of the issues we are dealing with and should be guided by nature and natural processes. If we had done this at the beginning of our industrial age then perhaps we would have avoided the pain, suffering and death of thousands of people who were sacrificed for the sake of economic and technological progress.

© Gary Haq 2009

The Rise of Stealth Pollution

OUR cities have become noisier and brighter, our streets have become cluttered and our landscape has been blotted. Yet we seem to accept these changes as the norm. It is not time we address the rise in stealth pollution?

noiseOUR cities have become noisier and brighter, our streets have become cluttered and our landscape has been blotted. Yet we seem to accept these changes as the norm. Is it not time we address the rise in stealth pollution?

There is no doubt that we are more environmental aware these days, which means we are likely to question any change in our environment.

Why do we protest against wind turbines but happy to accept electricity pylons? Why does the ticking of a grandfather clock annoy some people but they accept background music, traffic noise and rowing neighbours? Why are we allowing more streets to be cluttered by unnecessary signage, bollards, railings, yellow lines and even traffic lights? Why are we allowing high streets up and down the country to become colonised by homogenous retail outlets?

These changes have tended to occur incrementally over time so much so we are not aware they are happening. These changes are pollution by stealth.

imgArtificial light has become an essential feature in modern society. It has been used to illuminate streets, roads and hazardous areas; to promote security and to increase the hours of usage for outdoor sports and recreation facilities.

However, lighting can be intrusive in the wrong place it can also create Skyglow, which is an orange glow seen over towns and roads from upward light. This has become a serious problem for astronomers as the artificial brightness of the sky overpowers distant stars, especially those low in the night sky. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find areas where the view of the night sky is unaffected by illumination.

The Council for the Protection for Rural England (CPRE) suggests that the land area in the South West which is experiencing severe light pollution grew by 25% between 1993 and 2000. On average, the light shining upwards at night from each square kilometre in the region rose by 17% over a seven year period.

Noise pollution is displeasing to all of us and can disrupts the activity or balance of human or animal life. The source of noise pollution is often from transport, mainly motor vehicles. There is growing evidence to suggest that transport noise can cause sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, elevated hormone levels, psychological problems and even premature death. In addition, studies on children have identified cognitive impairment, worsened behaviour and diminished quality of life.images-4

An assessment by the European Environment Agency of the European Union noise data suggests 55 per cent of those living in urban areas with more than 250, 000 inhabitants in the EU members states (almost 67 million people) suffer daily road noise levels above the lower EU benchmark (55 day-evening-night level (Lden)) for excess exposure.

Save_our_Streets_cartoonStreet clutter is unnecessary signage, bollards, railings, yellow lines and traffic lights which clutter our streets and ruin the visual impact of our surroundings. Street furniture is an essential part of urban life but its proliferation, poor siting and poor design can result in clutter.

It can be visually intrusive and a physical obstruction. Reducing street furniture clutter not only improves the appearance of an area, it is important to help contribute to a socially inclusive environment. A ‘clear zone’ policy prohibits street furniture, including tables and chairs, within a central area so removing barriers and obstructions that present obstacles, particularly for people with disability.

These are just a few examples of stealth pollution and indicate how we have come to accept particular environmental conditions as they develop incrementally over time.

In order to protect our urban environment, we need to remain alert and fight against these incremental changes. If left unchallenged over time they will collectively detract from the overall quality of urban life.

© Gary Haq 2009