Climate change 'the most crucial issue of our time'

Climate change and policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions were put under the spotlight at a lively debate in Durham City. Panellist and Journal Energy writer Peter McCusker reports

Kyle Wong 2014 Jonathan Elmer, Dr Chris Stokes, Professor Antony Long, David Saddington, Dr Arvin Zolfaghari, Peter McCusker
Jonathan Elmer, Dr Chris Stokes, Professor Antony Long, David Saddington, Dr Arvin Zolfaghari, Peter McCusker

In the run up to last Friday’s Climate Change Question Time organisers held two screenings of the film Chasing Ice in Durham Market Place.

The award-winning documentary by former climate change sceptic Jeff Orlowski highlights the melting of Arctic glaciers brought about by global warming.

Panellist Dr Chris Stokes, a glaciologist specialising in ice sheet dynamics at Durham University, elaborated further saying melting glaciers increase sea levels.

Dr Arvin Zolfaghari, of insurance firm Liberty Syndicates explained that Super Storm Sandy in the United States in 2012 caused losses of up to $25bn.

He said: “Flooding due to the storm surge made up a significant part of this value. It has been estimated that the 20 centimetre rise in sea levels at Battery, New York, since the 1950’s increased ground up storm surge losses by 30%.”

Dr Stokes went on to say that if mankind cut carbon emissions sufficiently then temperatures would fall and the retreat of the glaciers would be reversed. In the UK policies to prevent climate change are leading to rising energy prices and may leave us short of electricity in a harsh winter.

Some of the 100-or-so members of the public at the event in Durham Old Town Hall believed this is a price worth paying. However, there are concerns that rising costs will damage UK and North East business and put more families into fuel poverty.

Communicating the complicated science of climate change through the media was raised; with some saying skeptics get too much airtime.

As the sole media representative on the panel I went on to say that while 97% of all scientists accept the science of climate change, the number who support the contention it will have “catastrophic” consequences to the planet is much lower. Some 30,000 scientists have signed the Oregon Petition saying climate change could have “beneficial” effects for plants and animals.

In the UK the most well-known sceptics, including former Chancellor Lord Lawson and Christopher Booker, of the Sunday Telegraph, accept the science that carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas will warm the planet. But as there has been no global warming for the last 15 years they contend the planet is not as sensitive to higher levels of carbon dioxide as models had initially predicted and say the policies introduced to cut emissions are damaging the UK.

County Durham resident and former TV personality David Bellamy has not been seen on TV since he questioned the climate change orthodoxy and it was as late as this year that Lord Lawson was invited on the Today programme to discuss the subject.

Although one audience member made the point you would not invite a climate change scientist on to the radio to talk about economics.

Panellist Jonathan Elmer, of County Durham Green Party, said that addressing the threats caused by climate change represent the biggest challenge to 21st Century society.

He continued: “Real action to address climate change is not just about reducing carbon emissions, but asking the question, how might human societal structures and activities evolve to respect the need to sustain natural systems for perpetuity?

“Greens believe global economies currently drive ever increasing production, which accelerates consumption of finite resources, and results in the generation of waste and pollution.”

The event was run by Durham University Geographical Society and supported by Durham University, Durham County Council, NERC and Liberty Syndicates.

Decline in glaciers a serious threat 

Glaciers cover 10% of the Earth’s surface and constitute around 75% of the Earth’s freshwater. They are one of the most sensitive and visual indicators of climate change.

Put simply, when the air or oceans warm up, glaciers begin to melt. If this additional melt is not compensated for by additional snow-fall, then the glaciers will lose mass overall.

Water stored as ice on land is then transferred to the oceans and sea levels rise. Glaciers occur on every continent, typically in high mountainous regions, but the vast majority is located in the Greenland Ice Sheet and the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet is up to 4km thick in some regions and stores an equivalent of 60m of sea level rise. The Greenland Ice Sheet is much smaller and stores an equivalent of about 6m.

All of the other smaller mountain glaciers and ice caps around the world (about 200,000) only constitute around 50cm of sea level equivalent.

Many mountain glaciers in the world reached a recent maximum around 1850, give or take a few decades – a time known as the Little Ice Age. Since then, they have receded at varying rates, punctuated with some periods of advance.

However, since the 1970s, the vast majority of mountain glaciers have shown a widespread global recession, with numerous studies reporting an acceleration in the rate of retreat in recent decades compared to the long-term average.

Recent measurements have also shown that the outlet glaciers that drain the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets are thinning and retreating.

This recent acceleration is closely linked to warmer air and ocean temperatures; and this phenomenon (often referred to as global warming) is largely a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Although not the only factor, the shrinkage of glaciers is a major contributor to sea-level rise.

From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level increased by 1.7mm per year. Between 1993 and 2010, however, this value had increased to around 3.2mm per year.

Forward modelling predicts that sea levels will continue to rise during the 21st Century, with a probable estimate that global mean sea levels will be around 50cm higher in 2100.

Changes in glaciers will also have knock-on effects on many river systems and millions of people around the world rely on glacial meltwater for domestic and agricultural use. If glaciers disappear, as has been reported in some areas, this otherwise reliable supply of water flow is modified or even lost altogether at some times of the year.

It is clear that the worldwide decline in glaciers is a serious threat, particularly in terms of sea level rise. The good news is that it is not too late to do something.

Because glaciers are so sensitive to changes in temperature, reducing greenhouse gas emissions should see temperatures fall and glacier regrowth.

This will obviously require a transition to low-carbon energy provision and will cost, but it has been calculated that this is still cheaper than the alternative of trying to adapt to a warmer world.

Dr Chris R Stokes, glaciologist, Department of Geography, Durham University

US tops the cheapness chart

Whichever country has the cheapest energy will get the best jobs and at the moment that is the United States as a result of its shale oil and gas revolution.

This has slashed energy bills, will help make the US energy independent, and has created one million new jobs with a further two million expected.

In a recent World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency warned that Europe could lose a third of its global share of exports from energy intensive industries because of price disparities between it and the US.

This is particularly relevant to the North East, which is the only net exporter in the UK, with many of these goods made by the energy intensive process industries on Teesside.

But many of these companies – representing 30% of the region’s industrial base – face energy price rises of up to 30% by 2020 and 50% by 2030, as a result of the UK’s green policies.

There are also concerns over the security of the UK’s energy supplies with businesses facing potential blackouts as early as this winter, due to the loss of significant quantities of baseload, fossil fuel power in place of intermittent renewables.

Steve Holliday, the chief executive of the National Grid, last week warned the UK will have to tailor its energy use to the weather. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph he said that historically, energy users had “expectations that the supply will always be there” to meet maximum demand.

But “with renewables in the world in which we are moving towards” this would no longer be the case as it would make more sense to shift energy demand to times when the wind blows or the sun shines. “We have to get used to a world in which when power is cheap we use it, when power is expensive we find a way of not using it,” he said.

This seems like a backward step in an advanced economy and is one of the reasons why we need to get on fracking for shale gas. The Royal Society, British Geological Survey, WaterUK and Public Health England all says it’s safe.

Gas has 50% fewer carbon emissions than coal and can act as a low carbon bridge to a less carbon intensive future, alongside nuclear power, energy from waste and renewables, in particular solar.

Last month two close environmental and liberal allies of President Obama, former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle, called for the whole treaty framework of mandatory emissions limits to be scrapped in favour of a greater focus on energy innovation and adaption.

This makes sense.

We have to find a way to replace dirty energy technologies with cleaner ones, and develop low carbon technologies that can broadly scale without the need of costly subsidies.

We will have to eventually wean ourselves off fossil fuels but the top-down policies we currently have are out of date.

They were drafted when we thought we had reached peak oil, but that has now been overtaken by the shale revolution and we need to enter a new era of climate pragmatism.

Peter McCusker, Journal Energy

We need to forge a sustainable solution to UK’s energy problem 

We decided to hold this debate on climate change to engage the public on this vitally important issue. Climate change and energy security have dominated UK and global politics in the past few years; despite this spike in publicity not a lot of people understand the issue.

Climate change is a very complex subject and often deeply entrenched within academia that it is hard for the public to grasp what is actually happening. The debate was designed not only to clarify the science of climate change but also to discuss a pragmatic way of tackling the problem.

Climate change is such a broad issue with many impacts which are not only environmental but also economic and social. I feel that this debate neatly summarised the main points of a complex issue and academics on the panel clarified how the UK is likely to be affected. The other panellists and audience had an interesting debate which highlighted that we still have a long way to go to find a cost-effective solution.

The debate raised awareness and engagement in the topic and I hope that the audience in the debate and also viewers of the podcast go out and do a bit of research of their own into climate change.

Climate change is such an important issue for the UK and the North East, not only because of the problems it will cause but for the opportunities it can create.

I strongly support that the North East should be leading the way to develop cheap low carbon ways of generating energy which will not only tackle climate change but help economic recovery in the region.

We need to get over the short-term view within current politics and forge a sustainable solution to the energy problem in the UK.

The first step in doing this is to decrease the strain on the national grid and improve energy efficiency; a win-win situation which will immediately reduce our bills.

David Saddington, vice-president Geographical Society at Durham University and a third-year undergraduate studying geograp

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