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Why conferences like Warsaw won’t save the Arctic!

Save the Arctic protest lantern in Bonn (pic: I. Quaile)

Greenpeace are protesting around the world to save the Arctic

No wonder the ngos walked out in disgust. The latest UN climate conference has strengthened my feeling that these mega-events are not going to lead to the emissions reductions we need to protect the polar ice and the world climate.

Typhoon Haiyan and its devasting effects on the Philippines was a fine warning of what the world could be facing if we are not able to put the brakes on climate change. The newest IPCC report provides impressive evidence of the need for swift and effective action to combat climate change. Otherwise, the world will have to cope with more frequent and severe extreme weather events, rising seas, floods and droughts. The World Bank and the UN have set the alarm bells ringing. We have to reduce emissions by around 85% by 2050 to keep global temperature rise to the two-degree Celsius limit. The International Energy Agency says that would mean leaving 80% of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

Climate sinners hosting

Unfortunately the track laid out for the conference in Poland was heading in another direction from the start. Fossil energy providers and huge energy consumers like the steel and car industry were sponsoring the event. The host country Poland is and plans to remain a coal country. So far, Warsaw has blocked more ambitious emissions targets in the EU. The fact that a coal summit was held in Poland during the climate negotiations was clearly demonstrative – and verges on the cynical. The sacking of the Polish environment minister who was chairing the talks shows a lack of respect for the meeting and the issue of climate change itself.

Climate politics: no leadership in sight

But the failure of the conference was not just Poland’s fault. CO2 emissions are continuing to rise globally, and the conference delegates did not have much in their luggage to do anything about it. It was far too little in the way of commitment to binding emissions reductions or to creating an effective and well-funded  compensation mechanism for developing countries. The poorest countries, which are already struggling to cope with unpredictable climate patterns, droughts and flooding, went home disappointed and frustrated – once again.

The EU was unable to agree on tighter emissions targets ahead of the conference. Germany, long considered a leader in the field, is currently putting the brakes on its own renewable energy revolution by shifting financial incentives. Japan, Canada and Australia, all took a step backwards. And in spite of some progress at home, the major emitters China and the USA were unlikely to make any substantial announcements.

 No progress on a new climate agreement

The Warsaw conference was supposed to come up with an effective timetable to lead to a new international climate agreement, scheduled to be set up in 2015 and implemented in 2020. Instead, it seems countries are playing for time and putting off any binding commitments. The vague document agreed at the very last minute contains no firm deadline for emissions pledges – which will not be binding anyway. The window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Decades of negotiations have produced little in the way of results. Every year without a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions reduces the prospect of keeping to the “two degree” target. Existing pledges fall way short of what is required. The “business as usual” trajectory is heading for a temperature rise of at least four degrees Celsius.

Once more, the UN climate conference has shown its inability to protect the world from the dangers of rapidly progressing climate change. Aside from the annual mega-meetings, which are in danger of disintegrating into mere token events, there are still signs of hope. China, for instance, is making considerable progress on energy issues, although the country refuses to accept internationally binding targets. Climate protection has to become part of daily politics and business in industrialised and emerging countries. Politicians must be prepared to abandon short-term advantages in favour of a long-term perspective, which would guarantee the future for coming generations through a sustainable low-carbon economy. The means turning away from oil and coal, developing renewable energies, ensuring a high price for carbon and providing adequate finance to protect developing nations from climate change caused by past emissions of the industrialised world.

… And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile, Greenland)



November 23, 2013 | 5:53 pm



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Climate Reality in Istanbul


As promised in the last blog posting, climate activist Cara Augustenborg has written up some impressions from her meeting with “Climate Reality Leaders” from around the globe in Istanbul. Thank you Cara! Over to you:

At the Istanbul protest site between climate sessions

This week I had the honour of becoming a part of former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s global action on climate change, the Climate Reality Project. I now join over 5,000 other Climate Leaders from around the world in presenting the Climate Reality message, an updated version of Mr. Gore’s presentation from the 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth , to my community and anyone else who will listen.

Over 600 of us from 94 countries gathered in Taksim, Istanbul last weekend to receive training from Mr. Gore and the Climate Reality team and develop the necessary skills to bring a real understanding of the climate crisis to the world. It was a fitting location for so many environmental activists and educators to gather, given its proximity to the ongoing Occupy Gezi movement. As we equipped ourselves with the skills necessary to create action on climate change, Turkish protesters in nearby Gezi Park fought to win their own environment and democracy struggles. Many of us were caught in the middle of that struggle during the worst police clash last Saturday night. I’ll describe that frightening experience in an upcoming blog post on my own site.

Al Gore talking to us, thanks to fellow climate leader Hassan Abbas for the pic!

Our Climate Reality training lasted 2.5 days and covered everything from communication skills, climate impacts, and social media, but of course the highlight of the weekend was the chance to spend ten hours in Al Gore’s presence soaking up every morsel of knowledge he could give us in that time. As Vice President of the United States, Mr. Gore was often referred to as wooden and robotic in his speaking style, but when it comes to climate-related issues, he is far from either and his style sometimes resembles that of a Baptist preacher when he gets really passionate about a topic. The audience could not get enough of Mr. Gore’s enthusiasm and motivational words, and at times, I was moved to tears as he inspired me to do more to win the conversation” on climate change.

The scale of The Climate Reality Project is impressive. In a 2006 Today Show interview, Al Gore said he aimed to teach 100 people to give his slideshow presentation and spread the word on climate change. Seven years later, he has trained over 5,000 of us to help our communities to understand the connection between over-reliance on fossil fuels and our changing climate. By the end of this summer, we will be nearly 6,000 strong. Given the financial resources of the climate change denial industry, the unique grassroots approach of the Climate Reality Project is embracing a philosophy that the number of people fighting for a cause will win over the number of euros invested in fighting against that cause. In our own group of 600+ delegates, we certainly felt more empowered to enact change now, with our new support of a worldwide climate change “family”, than we did before we arrived.

If you have seen “Inconvenient Truth”, you already know a lot of the background to Al Gore’s presentation, but there was lots of new information he presented over the weekend that surprised me, particularly regarding new evidence on the impacts of climate change and some exciting ways that countries (particularly developing countries) are both mitigating  and adapting to climate change. I will be blogging about these issues on my own site  over the coming weeks and thousands of us are available to present the new Climate Reality message in person by booking a presentation in your own area through the Climate Reality website

“Occupy” site in Istanbul



June 20, 2013 | 7:42 am



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Climate Impacts World in Potsdam

Artist in residence makes a visual summary of the discussion.


Potsdam, around half an hour from Berlin, is the home of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), which has become one of the world’s leaders in its field. This week , the Institute is co-hosting “Impacts World 2013”, an “International Conference on Climate Change Effects”, along with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

I suppose you could describe climate impact research as a kind of bridge between climate science and what it means for the rest of us.

Droughts, floods, health risks, crop failures – there seem to be few areas of our lives where climate change does not have an impact.

There is a whole myriad of climate models, using different parameters and scenarios and focussing on different sectors. The ambitious aim of this gathering is to bring scientists and decision-makers together to try to understand how different sectors relate to each other and find ways of “joining the dots”..

Let me just share a couple of insights or thoughts with you that I picked up in the course of the day.

We need to bring the mass of information together in ways that make it possible for society to be prepared for extreme events and to cope with changing availability of water, different growing conditions, coastal erosion, sea-level rise.

Global trends in temperature rise are one thing – the impacts on the ground will be very different in different parts of the globe. Fitting the parts of the jigsaw together is a huge challenge.

Scientists themselves (this is based not only on the official sessions but conversations in the coffee breaks) are often confused by the differences in climate models and predictions. Slight changes to parameters can lead to hugely different results.

Feeding information from impact researchers “on the ground” back into models seems highly desirable but does not always happen.

There has been a lot of talk about communication. Some scientists think their job is to “do science”, not communicate with politicians or the public. Others want to communicate but are not very good at it. Some are very good at it and appear frequently in the media. My colleague Fiona Harvey from the Guardian, who chaired a debate on “Are the products of climate impact research really useful?” argued that all scientists should communicate their knowledge and not leave it up to a talented few. Otherwise, those who make the headlines may not be the ones who represent the consensus view. Indeed!

The media came in for a lot of stick as usual. We do have a huge influence and with it, a huge responsibility to get things right. My appeal to the scientific community  – please do not put us all in the same boat. Not all of us are out to find sensations and just headlines that will attract the most attention whether they are accurate or not.

That is why I will head back into the conference and listen to more talk of the “Inter-sectoral impact model intercomparison project”, “Community-driven syntheses of climate change impact analyses”, “projection of global soil carbon dynamics”, “global multi-model perspectives on the potential and limitations of irrigation…” with the ultimate aim of finding out more about the impacts of climate change on or societies today and tomorrow. Then I will continue to try to explain it to those who rely on the media for relevant information in words they can understand…



May 29, 2013 | 7:05 am



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Canada poised to head Arctic Council

Melting Ice – No going back for the Arctic?

The Arctic Council is meeting in Kiruna in northern Sweden tomorrow (after a record summer sea ice melt and with CO2 emissions breaking the 400 ppm barrier). Canada will be taking over the Chair from Sweden. China, India, South Korea and Singapore are amongst the countries applying for permanent observer status. The EU wants the same, although some of its members are already represented either as members or permanent observers. Everybody wants a piece of the Arctic cake as climate change opens the once pristine ice desert to commercial exploitation.

Canada doesn’t have the reputation of being a top climate protector. I talked to Eilis Quinn, a journalist with Radio Canada International’s  Eye on the Arctic about the feeling in Canada and some of the options on the table. Thanks for sharing those insights Eilis. There will be an article on the website soon. Meanwhile, please have a listen to Eilis’ perspective.

Eye on the Arctic Eilis Quinn



May 14, 2013 | 12:00 pm



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A greener Arctic in a warming climate

Students collecting samples on the Alaskan tundra.

A new study of thirty years of satellite data shows considerable changes to the Arctic tundra. The difference between the seasons is diminishing, resulting in increasing plant growth and a less clear distinction between North and South. Vegetation is moving northwards as climatic conditions shift.

The study, conducted by an international team of 21 researchers from 17 institutions in 7 countries and funded by NASA is published in Nature Climate Change. Professor Bruce Forbes from the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, one of the authors, says  indigenous reindeer nomads in northern Russia are already experiencing increases in the height of deciduous shrubs.

Although conditions differ in different parts of the region, overall the growing season is beginning earlier and the autumn freeze starting later.

Climate News Network quotes Professor Forbes as saying “we are seeing more frequent and longer-lasting high pressure systems. In winter, the snow cover comes later, is deeper on average than in the 1960s, but is melting out earlier in spring”.  Forbes and his research team used dendrochronology, the science of tree-ring measurement to confirm the findings.

“In a few decades, if the current trends continue, much more of the existing low shrub tundra will start to resemble woodlands as the shrubs become tree-sized”, says Forbes.

The warming will change ecoystems considerably and also result in “feedback” effects. Melting permafrost means peat and vegetation will decompose, releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Let me close with “food for thought” from Tim Radford, the author of the Climate News Network report on the study:

“Climate is a complicated business, and there is always legitimate room for argument about the validity of one selected set of measurements, a potential bias in the observations, or the reliability of comparison data collected two generations earlier. But vegetables can’t be fooled. Plants grow where they can. If deciduous shrubs are growing taller, and colonizing sites ever further north, then conditions must be getting warmer, and staying warmer.”

It’s hard to argue with that.



March 11, 2013 | 4:00 pm



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