All guns blazing

I well remember a meeting of the Hamilton group of Amnesty International back in the 1990s, when a visitor who lived in the Maldives turned up, wanting to find out more about how AI worked. It wasn’t long before we found out why he was interested, as he told us the story of repression and out-of-sight political prisoners in his country.

One of those prisoners was Mohamed Nasheed, whose party won an election in 2008, ending the 30 years dictatorship which preceded it. He is now President of the Republic of Maldives. It was no easy path to the presidency. His several imprisonments added up to a total of six years, 18 months of which were spent in solitary confinement. And it’s no easier now that he is there. The Maldives, comprising numerous coral islands, is the lowest country in the world, with a maximum natural ground level of only 2.3 metres, with the average being only 1.5 metres above sea level. Its vulnerability to climate change is obvious. It’s certainly obvious to Nasheed, and he’s not taking it lying down, as he made very clear in his blog written last year before the Copenhagen conference:


“No one in the Maldives is applauding the recent pledge of the G8 nations to try and hold temperature increases to 2 degrees and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to 450 parts per million. A few years ago, those might have been laudable goals, but new science makes clear they’re out of date…

“In January 2008, James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, published a series of papers showing that the actual safe limit for carbon in the atmosphere was at most 350 parts per million. Anything higher than that limit, warns Hansen, could seed ‘irreversible, catastrophic effects’ on a global scale…

“For the Maldives, climate change is no vague or distant irritation but a clear and present danger to our survival. But the Maldives is no special case; simply the canary in the world’s coal mine. Neighboring Asian countries like Bangladesh are already suffering from saltwater intrusion as seas rise; Australia and the American southwest are enduring epic drought; forests across western North America are succumbing to pests multiplying in the growing heat. And all of this is with temperature increases of nearly 1 degree — why on earth would we be aiming for 2 degrees?”

He has recently appeared — via video link — at the Hay Festival in the UK. The Guardian’s accounts here and here were enthusiastic.

Appearing  by live video link, Nasheed showed more life and animation in 2D than any of the politicians currently wandering around the site (there’s a lot of former Labour ministers with time on their hands these days) usually manage in the flesh. Where our MPs duck and dive and try to say as little as possible that might upset anyone, Nasheed went in with all guns blazing.

Ed Miliband interviewed Nasheed.  There were several points where his sense of the urgency of the issue was very apparent. When asked about educating people about climate change he declared it is too late for that.

“What we really need is a huge social 60s-style catalystic, dynamic street action. If the people in the US wish to change, it can happen. In the 60s and 70s, they’ve done that.”

But he also expressed uncertainty about the US, considering China and India actually far more receptive to the concept of climate change.

“My sense of China is that they tend to believe in climate change. My sense of the US is that a fair amount of them simply don’t believe in it.”

He noted how, unlike the developed world, India listened to small countries’ fears over the issue. “The refreshing thing about India is they listen to people, certainly they listen to the Maldives.

Nasheed said countries committed to tackling climate change should press ahead with agreements and emissions reductions regardless of whether they took more recalcitrant nations with them.

“We cannot wait for the lowest common denominator where everyone agrees to doing almost nothing.”

He’s not waiting, like New Zealand, for others to take the lead. The Maldives is embarking on a programme to become the first carbon-neutral country within 10 years. It has three large wind farms under construction and photovoltaic technologies are being developed, although the country is also having to build sea walls to repel the ocean and energy-hungry desalination plants to replace fresh water supplies lost to the sea.

It might look like hoping against hope, but this was his conclusion:

“I believe in human ingenuity. We are not doomed. We can succeed and we must work along those lines.”

Brave words, though there must be times when they become difficult to say.  The Maldives lives on the edge of a slow disaster. We can be grateful for the clarity and persistence with which Nasheed and others like him keep drawing attention to what is happening. But the forces of denial in rich countries are not yet exhausted. Few politicians in power in those countries are willing to speak with like clarity to their populations, and denialist bluster still holds considerable sway among legislators. Nasheed’s concern that the US is not yet ready to face reality is well founded. It is by no means clear that we will act in time to save the Maldives from the ravages of a rising sea.

Note: There’s a short video clip here from the UN Environment Programme in which Nasheed sets out his concerns in very reasonable terms which are his trademark.  This Al Jazeera interview covers more specific ground. I liked his statement in the course of it: “Leaders cannot afford the luxury of ignorance.

Whose lie is it anyway? Easterbrook caught red-handed

Don Easterbrook was forthright in his attempt to rebut my discovery that he had used an edited version of a graph of Holocene temperatures originally prepared by Global Warming Art in his recent Heartland conference presentation. He accused me of telling a “dispicable” lie, amongst other things:

The charge by ‘the truffle grower’ that I used a graph “prepared by Global Warming Art” and that I “altered it to fraudulently bolster his case” is an outright, contemptible lie. I have the entire Greenland oxygen isotope data in my computer and use it extensively to plot data, so why would I use anything else? The data I use has never been altered in any way.

Unfortunately for Easterbrook, his own web site contains material that proves he is the one telling “outright, contemptible” lies, and defaming me in the process. Here’s why…

Continue reading “Whose lie is it anyway? Easterbrook caught red-handed”

It’s as simple as that

As a former English teacher I naturally take pleasure from the presence of literary people in the battle for action on climate change. Andy Revkin’s DotEarth blog drew my attention to one this week.  He’s the Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder, the famed author of the novel Sophie’s World which since publication in 1995 has run to an extraordinary sales figure of 30 million copies worldwide, in 53 different languages. Taking a teenage girl through a discovery of the history of philosophy hardly seems the stuff of best-selling fiction, but it was in his case. And if you’re wondering what an author does with all that money, one of the uses it has been put to is the setting up of an annual US$100,000 international environment and development prize, the Sophie Prize. This year it has been awarded to climatologist James Hansen. “He receives the award for his clear communication of the threat posed by climate change and for his genuine commitment to future generations.”

Gaarder was invited as one of the speakers at a panel on global warming at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, at which Revkin also spoke. The participants were asked to respond to the question “What can we do about climate change?”  Revkin commented that Gaarder stole the show in his “impassioned, humorous and biting talk’.

Continue reading “It’s as simple as that”

Cooling-gate: the 100 years of warming Easterbrook wants you to ignore

Evidence that Don Easterbrook did more than misrepresent and alter a graph in order to remove evidence of recent warming in his presentation to the recent Heartland “climate conference” is beginning to emerge. It now appears that he has been misusing one of the most important paleoclimate temperature data series, compiled from the GISP2 Greenland ice core, effectively hiding a full 100 years of recent warming. His “rebuttal” of my revelations that he had misused a graph from Global Warming Art includes this assertion:

…below is the Greenland data for the past 10,000 years (Holocene) from the published paper by Cuffy and Clow (1997), two distinguished US scientists. Note that temperatures for almost all of the past 10,000 years have been warmer than present.

In my post yesterday, I suggested (on the basis of the notes accompanying the raw δ18O data), that the “present” Easterbrook was referring to was 1950. It now appears I was being far too generous. Thanks to a bit of detective work by MartinM in the comments to that post, the data set used by Easterbrook to draw his version of a Holocene temperature graph turns out to be the temperature series derived from the δ18O data by Richard Alley: Alley, R.B. 2004. GISP2 Ice Core Temperature and Accumulation Data. IGBP PAGES/World Data Center for Paleoclimatology
Data Contribution Series #2004-013. NOAA/NGDC Paleoclimatology Program, Boulder CO, USA
(ftp download here). The most recent temperature data point in that series is 1905, and that’s the point Easterbrook labels as the present. To make his case he has to make a full century’s worth of warming disappear.


I downloaded Alley’s data and plotted it with my new favourite graphing tool. This is what it looks like:


I’ve inset the graph from Easterbrook’s “rebuttal”, and added a couple of helpful lines (click for a bigger version). I think it’s pretty clear that the data behind both graphs is the same. There’s more detail in my plot, but the key features are all in the right places. I’ve added a blue line to represent Easterbrook’s “present temperature”. The green line represents an estimate of current temperatures in central Greenland. I looked at the nearest station with a 100+ year record in the GISS database (Angmagssalik), and used a Mk 1 eyeball to estimate a 2.5ºC increase over the century (I’d welcome a more accurate estimate, if anyone’s prepared to dig one up). The difference between the green and blue lines is the warming that Easterbrook wants to ignore. His statement that temperatures for almost all of the past 10,000 years have been warmer than present is shown to be complete nonsense. There are three points in the last 10,000 years when temperatures high up on the Greenland ice sheet were similar to today, but by no stretch of anyone’s imagination can it be said to have been warmer for most of the time. The incline he’s trying to hide is one of the largest and steepest in the last ten millenia…

The same temperature series also appears to form the basis for Monckton’s famous “Curry & Clow” slide from early 2009:

Monckton credits the wrong people, of course, but adds a helpful “300 years of warming” arrow. Like Easterbrook, he omits the last 100 years of warming. This is what he said at the time:

Seen in the geological perspective of the last 17,000 years, the 300 years of recent warming, nearly all of which must have been natural, for we could not have had any significant influence except in the past 25 years, are manifestly insignificant.

The 300 years of recent warming are of course the 300 years up to 1905. What has happened since then is manifestly significant. This sort of misdirection is par for the course for Monckton, but what about Easterbrook?

If he knowingly misrepresented 1905 as the “present” (and given that he claims to have “the entire Greenland oxygen isotope data in my computer and use it extensively to plot data” that has to be a real possibility), then he is clearly misusing the data and misleading his audience. The intellectual dishonesty involved is breathtaking. His audience may want to be mislead, but that is irrelevant. On the other hand if, as a distinguished academic with a long career studying (amongst other things) glaciers and climate change, he really doesn’t know that the data series stops in 1905, then he is demonstrating ignorance of a sort that would embarrass any student.

So where’s the investigation of this academic fraud? Where are the hordes of bloggers and journalists screaming blue murder about the manipulation of data to tell a convenient story? Here’s Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, writing about the so-called “climategate” affair last November:

Looking at how past disclosures of fraud in the global warming debate have been dismissed or ignored by the mainstream media leads me to suspect they will try to sweep this, too, under the rug. But thanks to the Internet, millions of people will be able to read the emails themselves and make up their own minds. This incident, then, will not be forgotten. The journalists who attempt to spin it away and the politicians who try to ignore it will further damage their own credibility, and perhaps see their careers shortened as a consequence.

How very true. I look forward to Bast issuing a statement apologising for being a party to Easterbrook’s fraud, for providing him with a platform to mislead and misinform, and instituting an in-depth investigation into the background of Cooling-gate. But I suspect he will be doing his best to ignore the whole affair. I leave it to the reader to decide what that does for the credibility of Bast, Heartland, and the scientists who shared a stage with Easterbrook at Heartland’s Chicago conference.

[Update 29/5: My graph revised and improved, see comment below]

In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers


Adapting to climate change is a complex matter for human communities, as Mark Carey makes abundantly clear in his newly published book In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society. Carey is a historian and explores nearly sixty years of disaster response in Peru since the beginning of his story in 1941 when an outburst flood from a glacier lake in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range sent a massive wave of destruction on the city of Huarez, obliterating a third of the city and killing an estimated 5000 people.

There have been further disasters since that one.  Peruvians have, Carey points out, suffered the wrath of melting glaciers like no other society on earth.  Further outburst floods followed in 1945 and 1950, and glacier avalanches in 1962 and 1970 (the latter following an earthquake) killed many thousands.

The Huarez disaster prompted three national government strategies to protect the population from the hazards that the outburst flood had revealed: drain glacial lakes, prohibit urban reconstruction in the flood plain, and build retaining walls in Huarez to contain the glacier-fed Quilcay River. It all sounds quite rational. But only the first was able to proceed. Class and race issues, as Carey sees it, prevailed to counter the plans for hazard zoning and retaining walls. Huarez’s upper and middle classes wished to reconstruct the city in order to re-create the physical characteristics that helped symbolize urban authority and social standing in relation to the rural indigenous population. The socioeconomic order disrupted by the flood was to be restored.  Resistance to hazard zoning and relocation was not confined to Huarez but also occurred in other communities subsequently affected by disastrous outburst floods or glacier avalanches. One local writer reflecting on the triumph of “human will” which led to rebuilding in the same places of destruction concluded: “…[T]hey will be there forever, suffering. stoic, crying through their destiny. And that is the beauty of it, the poetry, the immortality of a people.” Defiant stuff, and part of the complexity Carey’s book explores.

But though people may have been unwilling to move from where they lived, they certainly supported the draining of glacial lakes and other measures to protect them from further disasters. Not that such measures are simple. Peru struggled to get a picture of the extent of the threat from glacial lakes in the Cordillera Blanca.  Indeed it was not until 1953 that an inventory of how many such lakes there were was finally achieved. There were 223. Today there are more than 400. It’s a growing problem. Once identified, lakes need to be assessed for the danger they pose. This is no easy matter. Accessibility is difficult.  The moraines behind which the lakes build vary greatly in their capacity to retain increasing volumes of meltwater. The incline of the glacier and the likelihood of large falls of ice causing large waves has to be taken into account. When drainage is undertaken the logistics of the operation can be daunting for both machinery and manpower.  Carey describes some of the on-site work as well as the difficulties at the national level of offices trying to carry out the task with limited resources and varying levels of support from successive governments.

Hydroelectricity is a complicating factor in the situation. The Santa River flows north through the valley parallel to the Cordillera Blanca. When it turns west and descends steeply to the coastal plain it feeds the large Cañón del Pato hydro-electric facility. The power station was itself the victim of the 1950 outburst flood, which destroyed it when it was nearing completion. It was the flood’s devastation of this facility and of the Chimbote-Huallanca railway line which transformed the piecemeal disaster prevention measures of the 1940s into the more effective and far-reaching response of a new government agency, the Lakes Commission. Carey notes that it was the setback to national industrialisation plans in 1950 rather than the deaths of thousands in the 1940s which led to this much better resourced body. The hydro-electric power station was rebuilt and, following privatisation in 1996 under Fujimori’s neoliberal progammes, is now owned by Duke Energy. Its generating capacity has increased considerably with successive upgrading.

Glaciers are not only hazards but also resources and Carey records a shift in emphasis after the 1980s from the hazard focus to the measurement and management of glaciers as hydrological resources, particularly for electricity generation and for irrigation. He notes that the information gathered has been of benefit to Duke Energy, a private company based in the US and responsible to shareholders rather than the Peruvian public. Duke Energy has been involved in attempts to retain glacial lake waters as reservoirs for regulating the flow of the Santa River and has encountered considerable local resistance. While glacier retreat has enabled expansion of water use in the region, this is a trend which is likely to change if the glaciers continue to diminish.

Hazards haven’t gone away because of the focus on resource, but the neoliberal agenda of the 1990s brought a severe reduction in the public funding of disaster prevention programmes. Neoliberalism exacerbated vulnerability to natural hazards, and although the state disaster prevention agency reopened in 2001 it never regained the status, budget and support it had in previous periods. Carey is even-handed in his treatment of neoliberalism, but sees it as a theory which collided with historical reality. Some of that reality is manifest in the local resistance which has prevented Duke Energy from managing the waterscape uncontested.

Throughout the book Carey devotes much attention to the ways in which various groups in Peruvian society and the relationships between them have played a part in forming the country’s response to melting glaciers. Many interests have had to be — sometimes have insisted on being — consulted and taken into account. Socio-economic divisions have played a part. Increasing international interest has become part of the interaction. Carey the historian has brought a valuable insight into the way a society functions or malfunctions in facing up to the impacts of climate change. He emphasises the need for understanding social relations and power dynamics at the same time as deciphering how much water will flow from a glacier in fifteen years’ time.

As Carey recognises, the acceleration of glacier melt is an issue not just for Peru but worldwide. Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Nepal, India, Russia, Switzerland, the US and scores of other countries have populations which live near or depend on water from melting mountain glaciers. If there is a message to others from the Peruvian experience it is that disaster mitigation is a political and social process as much as it is a matter of science and engineering. Social conflicts, for example, may be more urgent to people than the potential floods or even water-shortage issues that experts see as the most pressing. It’s not only technical and scientific skills that will be needed but also a sense of social relations and of the perceptions of the populations affected.

As history Casey’s book is an engrossing read. What he recounts hardly leaves one sanguine about the ability of societies to navigate the adaptation requirements ahead as climate change begins to bite, but it offers some useful signposts.

[More at: Fishpond (NZ), (US), Book Depository (UK)]