Whatever the Weather …

WITH snowfall, sub-zero temperatures, ice, fog and treacherous conditions on the roads bringing the UK and other European countries to a halt, its hard to believe that global warming is really happening.

Yet 2010 has seen global temperature rise to near record levels. According to the UK Met Office, provisional global temperature figures have put 2010 on track to become the first or second warmest on record. This is despite a declining El Niño, a climatic phenomenon that is characterised by unusually warm temperatures, being replaced La Niña that has had a strong cooling effect. Climate sceptics are quick to point to the recent big freeze as evidence to suggest that climate change is a load of baloney.

However, many people fail to make the distinction between climate – the average weather patterns over years – and weather, which is a series of short-term events that can change dramatically from one day to the next. The big freeze is a mere blip in the overall long-term trend that has seen global temperatures rise. So what has been the cause of the recent cold weather?

A study by the University of Reading (UK) has linked the unusual cold winters in northern Europe to periods of low sunspot activity and atmospheric conditions that “block” warm westerly winds. Changes in the fast moving winds in the upper atmosphere, known as jet streams, can have a major influence on weather. Jet streams normally bring mild, wet and westerly winds that cause the winter weather we have come to expect.

However, when the jet stream is blocked it forms an “s” shape over the northeastern Atlantic, causing the wind to fold back on itself. This pushes the jet stream further northwards allowing cold, dry easterly winds to flow over Europe which results in a sharp fall in temperature. The phenomenon of “blocking” only affects a limited geographical area and its impact is dependent on a number of conditions being met before it occurs. Allowing for climate change, European winters have been 0.5 degrees Celsius colder than average during years of low solar activity.

The winter of 2009 was England’s eighteenth coldest in 350 years even though the global temperatures were the fifth highest. It still unclear why changes in solar activity affects weather patterns, which indicates that we still have a lot to learn about the complex interactions and feedback loops that characterise the climate system. Throughout history we have feared and revered the weather and have tried to make sense of this natural phenomenon that has such a powerful influence on our way of life.

The weather has not only played a role in shaping our physical environment such as our landscape and coastline, it has fashioned our cultural identity. It influences how we feel, how we spend our leisure time, how we socialise, how we work and what we wear. We have become notorious throughout the world for our obsession with the weather. British weather is so variable and unpredictable throughout the year; it is not surprising that we talk so much about it.

Unlike climate change that remains a controversial issue, the weather is a safe topic of conversation which we happily discuss with total strangers and use to avoid sensitive or personal matters.

There was a time when we use to look to the skies and believed that the weather was determined by some higher being, a time when we tried to predict the weather by observing changes in the natural environment. Today we look down to the latest application on our mobile phone to get weather forecasts based on observations using instruments analysed with the aid of computers. Yet despite advances in science and technology that has allowed us to control nature, we still remain vulnerable to extreme weather events.

In early December 2010 190 nations met in Cancun, Mexico to discuss the international response to the challenge of climate change. The meeting was successful in producing an agreement which outlines a near global consensus to take urgent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Acknowledging the rich world’s historical responsibility for climate change, the Cancun Agreement establishes mechanisms for transferring funds from rich countries to poor counties to spend on climate protection.

However, it does not provide legally binding emission targets and only urges rich nations to do more. While the Agreement has saved the negotiation process it has yet to save the climate. Nevertheless campaigners believe the foundation has now been set to provide a more comprehensive agreement at the next round of climate talks.

If we are to avoid any disruption of the climate system on which we are so naturally dependent, we need to take action sooner rather than later. The lessons from the last few weeks should have taught us that the weather is King and has the ability to bring the whole country to its knees in a matter of hours – we ignore its power at our peril.

© Gary Haq 2010

Photo credits: www.shutterstock.com

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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

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”.
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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?
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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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