Sand and dust

October 20, 2008
Dust storm, Sahrawi refugee camps

Dust storm, Sahrawi refugee camps

My friend and colleague Bachir sent me this photo of a dust storm engulfing one of the Sahrawi refugee camps (Auserd, to be precise) located around the Algerian town of Tindouf. The event occurred on 9 October between 17:00 and 19:00, and arrived from the northeast, heading southwest.

The storm was very unusual. Apparently large dust storms have never approached from the north, and this event was very unusual in being restricted to low altitude with a well-defined upper limit.

I’ve seen images and footage of similar-looking storms in the Sahel, associated with the passage of large, organised convective disturbances that generate rainfall during the monsoon season. These events are usually followed by heavy monsoon rains.

The event pictured here was followed (the next day) by heavy rains around sunset, which damaged homes in Smara camp.

It is reported that rains have been significant this year in the northern Algerian Sahara and Western Sahara. I’m told to expect Tifariti (in Western Sahara) to be very green in December, when I’m hoping to visit.

Whether or not we can expect more such events in the future is an open question. It’s generally expected that the Mediterranean areas north of the Sahara will become much drier, while there are a number of indications that the southern Sahara and the Sahel will become wetter (although this is by no means certain). The climate change projections in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report suggest extreme drying of the Maghreb and of the most westerly regions of the Sahara south to about 15 degrees north. But again, these are not exactly bankable predictions, particularly towards the Sahelian zone.

Drier conditions may well mean less vegetation cover and more potential for the mobilisation of sand and dust from bare surfaces. On the other hand wetter conditions are likely to mean more powerful atmospheric disturbances that also mobilise dust. So the link between rainfall and dust is complex. Part of my PhD thesis examined the link between atmospheric disturbances and dust mobilisation in the Sahel. It appeared that increases in dust mobilisation were linked with a greater proportion of weak disturbances that were still strong enough to mobilse dust but not sufficiently vigorous to generate rainfall (not othe usual suspects of overgrazing and “inappropriate land use practices”). Stronger disturbances mobilise plenty of dust but the rainfall they subsequently generate behind the area of dust mobilisation washes it out of the atmosphere. Without the rainfall the dust just hangs around. However, that was in a region well to the south of the area in which the event pictured above occurred. When it comes to predicting the behaviour of dust events, things aren’t simply.

For more pictures of the 9 October event, see this photo set on Flickr. All the photos were taken by amateur photographers in the camps, and forwarded to me by Bachir, so credit where it is due.

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Should we censor fake science?

April 28, 2007

I have a confession to make. I do a lot of flying, and I don’t offset my carbon emissions. My hypocrisy is compounded by the fact that most of the flying I do is in the name of understanding climate change and its impacts on human societies, and, even worse, helping developing countries to adapt to the emerging impacts of climate change. Terrible, isn’t it – as I work in the field of climate change I must inevitably go around preaching about how bad it is and how we must all change our ways in order to save the world. And yet I’m not “doing my bit” in the great war against global warming. How can I be the shrill eco-fascist that I must be, being a climate scientist and therefore by definition an “environmentalist” and fully paid up greenie, if I don’t practice what I preach?

There are a number of reasons for my apathy when it comes to offsetting, which I won’t go into now. What I want to address here is the apparently widely held opinion that studying climate change from a scientific perspective makes one an “environmentalist”. A logical extension of this blurring of science and advocacy is the related view that any scientist who is convinced by the evidence before him that human-induced climate change or “global warming” is real has taken a side in a debate about what sort of society we should be living in.

True, many scientists working in the field of climate change do have a sentimental attachment to the planet Earth as we know it, and to the “global civilisation” that we have created, and would rather see both survive. Many, perhaps most, see climate change as a threat to the Earth’s biosphere – or at least to the current configuration of that biosphere – and to human civilisation. However, many of those whose research deals with changes occurring on geological timescales take a rather relaxed attitude to catastrophic change, and lose little sleep over the prospect of large-scale ecosystem collapse and mass extinction. After all, these have happened before as a result of other forces, and in the grand geological scheme of things civilisation and even humanity is rather unimportant. Then there are those who wouldn’t mourn the passing of our ecologically unsustainable consumer civilisation, and who see its collapse as inevitable and indeed necessary before something more sensible can take its place. Finally, there are those who just enjoy doing the science and who aren’t that bothered, or don’t think too much, about what happens in the world at large.

The point here is that scientists who study climate change hold a variety of opinions about it. However, the vast majority (and I mean really vast) are convinced that it is happening. And here we return with a tragic inevitability to Martin Durkin and “The Great Global Warming Swindle”.

Regardless of their personal views on climate change, climate scientists loathe Durkin, not because he has evidence that challenges the prevailing consensus that climate change is real and is currently being driven predominantly by human activity (he doesn’t), but because he has set out to rubbish good science with pseudo-science through the propagation of climate change myths. Most climate scientists suspect that he knows his arguments are weak, and perhaps even realises they are fatally flawed, but believe he is going ahead with his campaign to mislead the public regardless for some other nefarious purpose, whether this be financial, ideological or personal (my money is on ideological).

The kindest thing we can say about Durkin and his supporters is that they don’t understand anything about the scientific process, and even less about the science of climate change. If they did they would know that the arguments in “Swindle” are at best flawed and at worst bogus. However, understanding or lack of it is probably irrelevant, as Durkin appears to be basing his position on belief, in a certain knowledge that he, a non-scientist, is right, and that the scientists are wrong about this complex scientific issue. But Durkin doesn’t care much for the difference between rigorous science and uninformed opinion, and would have the public believe that the motivation and methodology of scientists is the same as that of lobbyists and ideologues such as himself. To Durkin and his supporters we are all yoghurt-weaving eco-loonies – studying climate science and being on what he sees as wrong side in the so-called “scientific debate” is equivalent to chucking bricks through shop windows or forcibly converting people to tree-worshiping.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say it’s good that the alternative opinion about climate change represented in “Swindle” has been aired, as it makes for a healthy debate. And the key word here is “opinion”. Opinions are great when they contribute to an ethical debate relating to how we should approach a particular problem or issue. (I’ve also heard it said that opinions are like arseholes – everybody has one, but very few bear close inspection.) Science, however, is not about opinion and subjective argument, but about evidence. Durkin, while cloaking his arguments in shabby pseudo science, is not a scientist, and has no new scientific evidence to support his claim that our current understanding of climate change is wrong. The “evidence” he presented in “Swindle” is not evidence, but a rehashing of arguments which were put forward years ago and which did not stand up to scrutiny (see the UK Met. Office’s “Climate Change Myths” page).

Since “Swindle” was broadcast, there have been calls for its distribution to be suppressed. Durkin and his chums, including the editor of Spiked (an organ with its roots in the old RCP, of which Durkin was a member – see earlier posts) have cried censorship, and accused the green lobby of trying to suppress dissent and close down debate (see article). Inevitably he has received a lot of sympathy, casting himself as the victim of an intolerant and totalitarian green lobby.

Well, you can see Durkin’s point. We should all be allowed to have our say, and there should be open public debate about important issues. But should this open public debate extend to facilitating the deliberate dissemination of cynical propaganda based on fake science and designed with one purpose – to confuse and mislead the public? I’m posing this as an open question, as I remain undecided. Ultimately the responsibility must lie with broadcasters airing programmes like “Swindle”, and as a rule broadcasters are interested in spectacle and ratings, not accuracy. There is a strong tradition of polemical programme making in the UK, which has produced some important and provocative works. It would be dangerous to start censoring work that contradicted prevailing orthodoxies, perhaps as dangerous as the deliberate spreading of misinformation about one of the most important and urgent problems facing humanity today. The best response from the scientific community might be another documentary taking apart the assertions in “Swindle” point by point (and it wouldn’t be difficult). This could do much to reassure those members of the public who have been confused by “Swindle”, accepting the credibility of the less serious contributors and trusting the honesty of the editing process. The media might like it too – they always love a good scrap. In the meantime we can hope that for the most part “Swindle” was preaching to the converted, and be thankful that nobody in the policy community seems to be taking it seriously.

There has been a bit of a hoo-ha about the impending release of “Swindle” on DVD, with suggestions that its DVD release should be suppressed, that it should be edited, that it should include some sort of counter-argument, and so on. My suggestion is that the DVD be released uncut, but that each case carries a sticker reading “This programme contains lies”.

I’m still angry, and not about the end of the world, but about the perversion of science that this programme represents. If humanity wants to make a collective decision to screw itself and destroy the crappy civilisation it’s constructed on the back of ecological idiocy then fine by me. I just want this decision to be properly informed, and made in the light of real, not fake, science.


The Revolutionary Communists strike again

March 9, 2007

Last night (Thursday 8 March) saw the airing of a television documentary with the title of “The Great Global Warming Swindle” on the UK’s Channel 4. The documentary argued that “global warming” is neither driven by greenhouse gases produced by human activity, nor a threat to society. Rather, the programme argued, the warming of the Earth observed over the past century was simply a manifestation of natural climatic cycles, and would not continue to the extent indicated by climate models and assumed by most climate scientists. Another pillar of the programme’s argument was that global warming was being used to deny development to poor countries, which need to increase their fossil fuel use in order to combat poverty and poor health.

The scientific arguments were those routinely deployed by climate change sceptics, and routinely refuted by mainstream climate scientists. I’m not (for the moment, at least) going to get involved in all these tired old arguments about the science, which have been well rehearsed over and over again elsewhere. I don’t need to go into these in detail, as most if not all of the “scientific” arguments used in the programme are dealt with on the website www.realclimate.org, a website set up by climate scientists to respond to the assertions of climate sceptics and provide information on climate change direct from climate scientists themselves. If anyone reading this is wondering how mainstream climate scientists would respond to the arguments in the documentary, they should take a look at www.realclimate.org, where they will find the answers.

The suggestion that the global warming “industry” (and there certainly is an industry emerging around the issue) is bent on denying development to poor nations turns the reality on its head. In this respect the programme was as misleading as it was about the science. The main concern about the relationship between climate change and poverty is that the impacts of climate change are likely to be devastating in many parts of the developing world, resulting in a reversal of development and reinforcing poverty and ill health in poor countries. Of course if you believe that the science has all been fabricated and that climate scientists, politicians and environmentalists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to deceive the public, you will dismiss this as nonsense – no global warming means no adverse impacts on developing countries. However, if you accept the science (and I’m hoping that a look at realclimate.org will persuade you), it soon becomes apparent that the developing world will suffer hugely if nothing is done to slow or halt global warming.

Here is one very small example. Moroccan scientists have calculated that a 1 degree C increase in temperature is likely to lead to a reduction in surface water runoff of 10 % in the catchment of the Al Wahda dam, Morocco’s largest dam, even if there is no change in rainfall. If this pattern is repeated across the country it is estimated that the effect will be equivalent to losing one dam per year (1). All the evidence from climate models and observations indicates that the Mediterranean region and the coastal areas of North Africa are already becoming drier, and that this drying is likely to continue as a result of human-induced climate change. Climate projections for the 2080s predict decreases in rainfall of over 20% for this region, and increases in temperature of over 3 degrees (2). The consequences of such changes for water resources in Morocco, and in the Maghreb region as a whole, are likely to be catastrophic, and the social, political and security implications are potential very worrying. (Those of you who have read my other posts will know that Morocco is not my favourite country, as a result of its continued occupation of Western Sahara. However, no-one will benefit from chronic water shortages, food insecurity or social breakdown anywhere in the Maghreb).

The suggestion that developing countries are being told they cannot develop is both reprehensible and bogus. One of the most widely applied principles when it comes to discussions of how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is that industrialised countries should bear the brunt of any cuts, at least initially. Developing nations were excluded from the first round of cuts due under the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, this has been used as an excuse for inaction by some in the industrialised world, who maintain that their nations should not have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases if developing countries are not obliged to do the same. The issues of equity and the right to development are at the heart of climate negotiations, and it is generally accepted that developing countries have the right to develop, even if that means their emissions increase in the short term as new, cleaner energy technologies are developed. Ultimately the aim is to develop technologies that can support development without contributing significantly to climate change. In the meantime no serious commentators are suggesting people in poor countries should be denied electricity or clean water. Organisations such as the United Nations are working not to undermine development by denying energy to the poor, but to safeguard the Millennium Development Goals against the impacts of climate change that could make poverty reduction and gains in living standards unachievable for hundreds of millions of poor people. Whatever the drawbacks of solar or wind power, these are technologies that can be used at the micro level without the need for costly distribution networks, and which are therefore particularly appropriate for developing countries with only basic infrastructures. This is not to say that developing nations should not use fossil fuels at all. Unfortunately, successive attempts to get the UN to support investment in renewable micro-generation in order to bring the benefits of electricity directly to the world’s poor have been blocked consistently by both OPEC and certain non-OPEC nations with significant interests in the oil sector (specifically the US, Canada, Australia and Japan) (3).

It’s also worth looking at the history of those behind the Channel 4 documentary. The director, Martin Durkin, was responsible for a series of anti-environmental documentaries on Channel 4 in 1997, with the title “Against Nature”, which attacked environmentalism, denied the existence of global warming, compared environmentalists with Nazis, and made a special effort to promote biotechnology and genetic modification (4).

Durkin is part of the group of like-minded individuals (or sinister conspiracy depending on your point of view) who orbit around the Institute of Ideas, the online Magazine “Spiked” and a cluster of related organisations, and who are often referred to collectively as the “LM Group” (5). These organisations, and the people behind them, grew out of the magazine LM, a reincarnation of Living Marxism, the organ of the UK Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP held anti-environmentalism close to its heart, and its ex-members still believe that environmentalism is anti-progressive and anti-human, aiming to attack and defeat it at every opportunity. One of the bodies in the constellation of RCP-inspired organisations is the Future Cities Project (http://www.futurecities.org.uk/), which “challenges risk-aversion and the precautionary principle”, “believes that environmentalism is driving down social aspirations”, and “fights for development instead of sustainable development” (6). This cocktail of straight-down-the-line RCP positions epitomises the collective approach of Durkin and his ex-RCP fellow travellers such as Claire Fox, director of the IoI, who claimed on BBC Radio 4 that “you can’t be progressive if you believe in the ecological limits to growth” (7).

This then is the legacy of the Revolutionary Communist Party that informed Thursday’s piece of climate propaganda. Driven by an ideology that demands a separation of humanity from the environment in which it exists, and which demands the pursuit of technological innovation at all costs without any consideration of risk, the rabid prometheans from the old RCP are left with no choice but to deny the reality of global warming. To do anything else would be to undermine their faith in industry and technology, which they see as inherently good and incapable of resulting in negative consequences. In order to prop up their own insupportable ideology they are playing politics with the lives of millions, and shamelessly exploiting the world’s poor for their own dubious “revolutionary” agenda.

My guess when it comes to global warming? For what it’s worth, I suspect we’ll carry on increasing our consumption of fossil fuels for some time to come, and this will lead to an increase in global mean temperature of around 2 degrees C by 2050, and 3 degrees by by 2100. If we’re lucky we might avoid warming above 3 degrees, but this will take more action that we’re seeing so far, and quickly. If I lived in Morocco, I’d be thinking about emigrating.

References

1. Agoumie, A. 2003. Vulnerability of North African Countries to Climatic Changes Adaptation and Implementation Strategies for Climate Change. IIED and the Climate Change Knowledge Network.

2. Various sources, synthesized in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, released in April 2007.

3. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0904-04.htm ; http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/17576/story.htm ; http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2002/09/15/fea09.html

4. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/1997/12/18/the-revolution-has-been-televised/ see also http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Against_Nature

5. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=LM_group

6. Future Cities Project home page (www.futurecities.org), accessed on 9 March 2007.

7. Claire Fox, Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 6 January 2006.