Monbiot on target

George Monbiot doesn’t mince words.  The science columnist for The Guardian has been for years in the vanguard of those who have been warning about the scale and potential impacts of climate change.  This week’s column is no exception.  It is entitled “The planet is now so vandalised that only total energy renewal can save us”, with the subtitle “It may be too late.  But without radical action, we will be the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse.”

This sounds like hyperbole.  The problem with Monbiot, however, is that he is well-qualified, well-informed and logical, all of which make his columns uncomfortable reading.

In this column he makes two important points:

The first is that recent evidence indicates that the rate and impacts of global warming are proceeding at a much greater rate than the IPCC models had predicted.  Monbiot points particularly to the melting of the Arctic sea ice, with the effects now being traced up to 1000 miles inland.  In the same direction is the accelerated melting of the Arctic permafrost, which has serious implications for the release of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Evidence of this effect has been recently found by Russian scientists monitoring methane bubbles in the Arctic (see report).

Secondly, Monbiot quotes the funding of a recent study that to avoid more than two degrees of warming the world will need to peak emissions by 2015 and then reduce emissions by 6% to 8% per year.  It is difficult to envisage a scenario under which the world community would be able to develop the institutional structures, national and international, required to oversee a change of this order.

Moreover, Monbiot quotes a second study which points out that strong action on climate change through technology–all the technologies of renewable energy, for example–will require an initial increase in embedded energy which is likely to fuel a surge in emissions.

The chief implication of these findings is that the general population must be asked to make ‘short term, radical sacrifices which would cut global energy consumption, with little technological assistance, in five years’. Again, it is difficult to construct a social and political scenario which would see this accomplished.  Nevertheless, Monbiot concludes, as a global community we have no alternative but to try.

Monbiot’s observations are consistent with other emerging scientific evidence.  Recently a University of Chicago study found that the acidification of the oceans caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide is proceeding ten times more rapidly than predicted by IPCC models.  It has now reached the highest levels for 650,000 years, with serious implications for the world’s shellfish populations, and their associated ecological systems, and for the world’s barrier reefs.

Even the use of a strong word such as ‘vandalised’ by Monbiot is being supported by the evidence.  A 2007 Chinese study reported that severe pollution has made one-third of the Yellow River ususable for drinking aquaculture, industrial use and agriculture.  Only 16% of the river water samples reached standards considered safe for domestic use.

The trenchant challenge of Monbiot’s subtitle is well-taken, it seems.  Serious as the financial crisis is, it is relatively insignificant alongside this emerging evidence.  And since US consumption levels relative to US production is at the heart of the financial crisis, it’s clear that the two are not disconnected.  It is to the moderation of demand that we must look for a solution to both–a point I have been arguing in recent posts.


New study documents further cooling effects of trees

The role of trees and forests as carbon sinks is well known.  Recent research indicates that trees may also have a direct effect in reducing global warming. 

Scientists in the UK and Germany have discovered that some trees release a chemical that thickens clouds above them, thus increasing the action of clouds in reflecting incoming sunlight.

The research was undertaking in the northern hemisphere boreal forests.  These forests cover about 14.4% of the earth’s land surface, about the size of the mainland United States.  They form a circumpolar band through Russia, Northern Europe, Canada and Alaska, and contain over 30% of terrestrial carbon.

The study looked at chemicals called terpenes that are released from boreal forests.  It was found that terpenes react in the air to form aerosols, which promote cloud formation.  Computer models showed that the pine particles doubled the thickness of clouds to 1000 metres above the forests, reflecting an extra 5% sunlight back into space.

This is a significant effect, and given the extent of the boreal forests must exert a powerful influence on global climate.  The research strongly supports the strategy of protecting existing forests and planting new ones worldwide, as proposed by the Flannery/Hansen model discussed in recent posts. 

It also points to two important conclusions about the modelling of climate change: first, that we are still learning about all the natural mechanisms that govern climate change, and are likely to in the early stages of that learning curve; and second, that many of these mechanisms take the form of feedback loops–as does this mechanism, with the cooling effect of terpenes increasing as tree growth increases under rising carbon dioxide levels.