climate change

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It isn’t just polar bears being affected by climate change – people all over the world are already being negatively affected by changes to the climate, from droughts, flooding, and ruined harvests. That’s not fair. Particularly as these communities had no role in making the problem in the first place. Fast forward a few years, and the environmental situation for our children’s children is not looking too peachy either… but could it look green?

If we changed the way we thought about climate change instead of it being ‘just a problem for science to solve’ to a problem about social justice, could we come up with a solution that addresses injustice that would help these communities and climate change at the same time? Can fairness create a green future?

As part of the ESRC Social Science Festival, the Climate Justice Scholars from the University of Reading will be hosting an afternoon exploring different climate justice topics through presentation-slams, interactive posters and challenges.

To top it all off, there will be a screening of the thought-provoking film ‘Greedy Lying Bastards’ – which exposes the deceit of the fossil fuel industries affecting vulnerable people – followed by an audience discussion chaired by university academics.

The event is free, and drinks & snacks will be provided to fuel the fun and debate!

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By Professor Keith Shine, Regius Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science

The United Nations Climate Conference

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the principal negotiating forum where countries agree ambitions for limiting greenhouse gas emissions; the aim is to avoid “dangerous human interference with the climate system”.

The UNFCCC meets annually at its “Conference of the Parties” (COPs). Sometimes COPs culminate in headline-grabbing agreements. COP3 led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997; COP21 resulted in the Paris Agreement in 2015. More often, COPs focus on issues of implementation and preparing the way for future agreements. This year, COP23 (https://cop23.unfccc.int/) is being held in Bonn, Germany (6 – 17 November) and is focusing on implementing the Paris Agreement.

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By Lydia Messling, University of Reading

Is it fair that climate change has the worst effects in areas that contributed to the problem the least?

It isn’t just polar bears being affected by climate change – people all over the world are already being negatively affected by changes to the climate, from droughts, flooding, and ruined harvests.

That’s not fair. Particularly as these communities had no role in making the problem in the first place. Fast forward a few years, and the environmental situation for our children’s children is not looking too peachy either… but could it look green?

If we changed the way we thought about climate change instead of it being ‘just a problem for science to solve’ to a problem about social justice, could we come up with a solution that addresses injustice that would help these communities and climate change at the same time? Can fairness create a green future?

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By Dr Martin Lukac, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading

Europe’s forests make a very important contribution to current efforts to decrease EU carbon emissions, as it seeks to satisfy its commitments to the Paris agreement.

Under a new proposal, all carbon lost from forests as a result of harvesting will count towards overall emissions. Some of the most forested EU countries argue that forest harvesting operations should not be included, because the total amount of carbon stored in forests will not change much.

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By Phil Newton, Research Dean for Environment, University of Reading

Science is a global business. Very few truly great advances in science happen these days without some level of international collaboration. A quick look at the list of recent Nobel Laureates for Physics tells that story.

But the organisation of science, like many other things, is influenced by politics. Which is how we should view the offer of French President Emmanuel Macron to recruit foreign climate scientists to French institutions.

Macron is riding the wave of populist politics that also helped sweep Donald Trump to victory in the United States. But Macron’s popularity is based on very different foundations to Trump’s. He has wasted little time in opposing the US administration’s policy on pulling America out of the Paris climate change agreement.

What’s really going on here?

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President Donald Trump has indicated an intention to withdraw the US from the Paris accord on climate change.

His announcement, made on Thursday 1 June, means the US will no longer recognise the collective aim of mitigating the impact of climate change.

The University of Reading is a world leader in climate science and research into the physical, economic and social impacts of climate change, helping to provide the strong scientific evidence upon which the Paris agreement was based.

Here, we look at some of this celebrated research, which remains central to the aims of the 194 countries that remain signed up to the Paris Agreement.

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By Hannah Parker, Walker Institute, University of Reading

During the wet season of 2012 heavy rainfall across West Africa led to flooding with devastating impacts. More than 3 million people were affected, with hundreds of thousands made homeless (Figure 1). When extreme events such as this occur, it is important to question whether climate change had a role to play. At the Walker Institute we have investigated the impact of climate change on this event, by assessing whether the probability of such high precipitation in the 2012 rainy season was affected by anthropogenic emissions.

Impacts of heavy rainfall-induced flooding across West Africa in 2012

Observations show that there was anomalously high rainfall across much of West Africa during the 2012 rainy season. To look at changes in the probability of such high precipitation, we used hundreds of climate model simulations of the year 2012. By comparing simulations with and without anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, we were able to assess whether the probability of the event had been changed.

We found that the probability of such high precipitation in West Africa had been decreased by climate change. This was the case under both general climate conditions (using simulations with the atmosphere coupled to the ocean, therefore including all climate variability), and with conditions specific to 2012 (using atmosphere-only simulations with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs)). Using different model ensembles, the decrease in probability was found to between a factor of 0 and 16.

However we also found some disagreement between the climate model ensembles. When considering the world without anthropogenic emissions, in the atmosphere-only simulations the effect of anthropogenic emissions had to be removed from the SSTs as well as the atmosphere. We estimated the effect on SSTs using coupled climate model simulations, which showed a decrease in the probability of high precipitation in 2012. However we also used an estimate based on the observed trend in SSTs, and in this case the probability of high precipitation was shown to have been decreased by anthropogenic emissions. Further analysis showed that this discrepancy was likely due to the climate models having much greater warming trends than observations did in the Niño3.4 region in the Pacific Ocean.

Understanding how individual events such as this have been affected by climate change is relevant for policymakers to better understand climate change impacts on extremes. In particular, comparing results from different climate model ensembles is important if we are to better understand such attribution results and their uncertainties, to characterise whether or not they are robust. Few event attribution studies have done this to date, but this will be key if results are be used appropriately in climate policy to address the impacts of such events.

 

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By Paul Williams, University of Reading Department of Meteorology

‘As important as political leadership is, individual people and companies will have to make key decisions to deal with the impacts of climate change’

Climate change is never far from the news headlines – but often it’s not because of the science.

As much as I think that complicated mathematical calculations about the circulation of air and water around the globe should make people stop in wonder, I fear my beliefs are not widely shared by most other people.

And they would have a point. Most people don’t talk maths over the water cooler or when down the pub, beyond adding up the cost of their drinks.

So if it’s not the science, what makes climate change so appealing to journalists? Often, it’s the politics.

News media love to observe a good old-fashioned fight, and politics is the arena where disagreements get aired every day. Not only that, but politics tends to have a bearing on how we live our lives, too.

So while the basic facts of human-caused climate change are agreed by just about all scientists working in the field, a handful of doubting politicians often hog the headlines.

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By Professor Catriona McKinnon (Director, Leverhulme Programme in Climate Justice)

Later this week, a climate denier will become the President of the United States. Donald Trump claims that ‘nobody really knows’ whether climate change is happening, and has asserted in the past that climate change is a hoax. To make things worse, Trump has filled his cabinet with several climate deniers, and his transition team have raised fears of a ‘witch hunt’ of climate experts in the Department for Energy.

170116 MCKINNON Trump CNN

Today, a letter to the Prime Minister Theresa May, signed by leading figures in the UK climate research community – including some at the University of Reading – expressed fears about what this could do to the evidence base for global climate policy making. If the new Trump administration follows up on his campaign pledges to tear up existing US climate policies, the future could be bleak for the Paris Agreement, which may be the best and last hope for global action on climate change.

Many people in the climate research community are appalled by the climate denial of Trump and his incoming cabinet. But what, exactly, is wrong with it?

The climate denial of Trump and his cabinet is not bad science: it is not science at all

One thought might be that Trump’s climate denial is outrageously bad science. The essence of science is contestation and disagreement, and science in a state of health makes space for mavericks who strike out with bold new hypotheses, sometimes enabling great leaps forward. Should we be horrified by Trump’s denial because he does not fit this mould? This would be a serious mistake. The climate denial of Trump and his cabinet is not bad science: it is not science at all.

Such views  have grown from a set of organised, well-funded, strategic, deceptive, ideological practices undertaken by a range of conservative think tanks in the US, funded by those with fossil fuel interests, and which have perverted climate legislation in America. The tactics these deniers employ include claims of conspiracy among climate scientists, appeal to fake experts, cherry-picking data, and outright deception.

High stakes of climate risks

So he says he doesn’t believe the experts. So what? To understand why Trump’s climate denial is so heinous we must be alive to the severity of the climate crisis and how little time is left to take meaningful action to contain it.

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On world food day Professor Richard Tiffin from the University’s Centre for Food Security discusses the challenges faced when meeting the global demand for food.

The present debate around how best to meet the global demand for food has a tendency to polarise into two camps.  First there are those who argue that the food system is broken and what is required is a return to more ‘traditional’ ways in which food is produced on labour intensive small farms and distributed locally.  In the opposite corner are technologists who argue that the only way that we will be able to meet the predicted increase in demand for food of between fifty and one hundred per cent, is to continue the process of intensification that characterised the development of agriculture during the twentieth century.  Instead of this polarisation however perhaps some cross fertilisation is necessary.

A return to a more traditional agriculture has some appeal.  There is no denying that small scale production gives a better looking countryside and increased rural employment.  Its diversified products also provide a nice contrast to the commoditised food products that dominate the supermarket shelves.  In a more subtle way the greater diversity of the farming system employed on these units may provide us with a greater degree of resilience in the face of increased risk of extreme weather events which climate change brings.  

This is all logical but the problems arise when attempts are made to scale the approach up to meet a much larger part of our food needs.  Increased labour intensity demands more labour and we have to ask where this will come from.  ‘New-lifers’ can only go so far, farms will need to reverse the reality of the labour market in which non-agricultural jobs have better conditions and therefore draw people out of the sector.  It is sometimes overlooked that farm employment is often dangerous, cold, wet, depressing and poorly paid. 

The argument becomes much more dangerous, however, when we apply it to developing countries.  Here the small scale sector is often vital in ensuring short term food security, but to argue that it should remain so risks consigning these countries to a permanently less developed state.  The process of agricultural intensification must be seen as one component of the process of economic development.  Blocking agricultural development will stop the release of labour (and other resources) from agriculture which drives growth in other sectors of the economy.  Without this, growing populations may or may not have enough food, but they will be without the services that are necessary to support their inevitably more urban lifestyles.

So, we are left with a situation in which ‘intensification’ must continue, but we must also learn from the practitioners of ‘traditional’ agriculture.  These farmers are acutely aware of the fact that food production is not an industrial process.  Food is, at least in part, a product of nature.  This is a fact that seems not have escaped the food consumer, where all the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural’ food is valued.  The implication is that we cannot divorce our food production from the ecosystem which supports it.  Changes in our farming system have implications for the other things which our ecosystem gives us, for example biodiversity and carbon cycling.  Equally changes in the ecosystem, for example reductions in the population of pollinators, have implications for food production.

There are some encouraging signs that a middle way may become our focus.

The concept of sustainable intensification is on the agenda.  This recognises that we must not stop the search for new ways of producing food but that we should do so in ways which work with nature rather than in a box apart from it.  We should learn from our traditions but not harp back to them.  By 2050 there will be 2bn more people in the world, 1.9bn of whom will be in developing countries.  We owe it to them.

Professor Richard Tiffin is Director for the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. Richard is an Agricultural Economist and his current research is focused on diet and health policy, in particular the impacts of fiscal policies with the objective of improving dietary health, such as so-called ‘fat tax’.

 

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