Monday, December 28, 2015

After the Deluge

As I discussed in my piece, Turned Out Wet (Again), we need a new approach to flood management.  We've only had about 1°C of average global surface temperature warming so far, the Paris COP21 agreement promises a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2°, INDCs are heading us to 3° and actual actions are currently on track to push us through 4°.  Whatever the outcome of our endeavours, we should be planning for extreme weather events far more serious than the record rainfall in northern England of December 2015.

So first step is to get government to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly. It's a difficult first step.

And then we need a simple prescriptive framework to apply across river basins and adapt to site specific situations.  Here are some principles:

  1. Slow down the rate at which water enters rivers.
  2. Divert water out of rivers on to land where flooding causes relatively little damage.
  3. Prevent water reaching homes and businesses.
  4. Get water into the sea.

Top of the list, if water doesn't get into the river, the river won't flood!  The whole landscape needs to be looked at in terms of water retention.  The hills of northern England offer great potential.  Their natural vegetation is deciduous woodland and vast swathes of upland Britain should be re-afforested.  The grouse shooters would lose out. Tough on them. We need beavers not game-birds.  A new priority for farmers must be a smarter approach to drainage, allowing the appropriate soil water management for cultivations and pasture but restricting the rate of outflow from the farm overall, with ponds and swales an d wetlands so that heavy rain does not reach rivers in minutes and hours but is retained for days.

At number two, rivers should be engineered to not pass water on downstream quickly.  The dredging lobby have it exactly wrong. Except at the river's mouth, moving water faster downstream just shifts the problem. Rivers need to flood onto their floodplains as soon as possible so we need spillways to land where large volumes can be stored safely and then released slowly.  As with the upland farms, appropriate engineering and management incentives must be provided for farmers on floodplains.  The land has to be made available for flooding, not for housing estates!

Thirdly, flood defences for urban areas need to be improved, raised, strengthened and managed effectively.  That's a continuation of policy already under way, but the point to note is that the cost will be lower and the effectiveness greater if the previous two upstream principles have been dealt with seriously.  Without that, urban defences will sooner or later end in tears.

Finally, the rivers need to discharge to sea as speedily as possible.  It is only here, downstream from vulnerable infrastructure, that there may be local conditions that warrant dredging.  As sea level rises over the coming decades, as it surely will no matter what global warming mitigation measures are adopted, the importance of the three earlier areas for action increases. Discharge to sea is the last resort.

This picture has produced wry smiles around cyberspace.  (If you are the copyright owner do let me know.)  I gather it comes from near Clitheroe where the local planning authority is Ribble Valley Borough Council.  Party political point scorers may like to note that this council comprises 33 Tories, 6 LibDems and an Independent.

As I said, the first step is to get government to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

National Parks won't be Fracked.

Fracking for gas in the UK has always been a Ponzi Scheme. The geology is far more complex than in the USA and consequently the productivity and profitablility of ventures here have always been in doubt. There has never been a possibility that the sort of environmental impact seen in the US would be tolerated here.

As I pointed out here. and in other blog-posts in 2013, fracking in the UK has been pursued because inward investment can be spent by the directors of the companies now, and then in a few years when the scheme is abandoned, the investors will find they have lost out. Close relatives of senior government ministers stand to make a lot of money by convincing potential investors that there's money to be made in fracking. The latest farce concerning National Parks is just the latest PR effort to keep the money flowing in by sending a message that the government supports fracking.

Think about it; today's change to the rules allow sideways drilling to expend under National Parks from well-heads outside the boundary. There are only limited places where that would be geologically possible and will make no material difference to the industry.

In the USA the fracking industry is in deep trouble, debts are mounting and profits have gone. Our Paris COP21 Agreement means that these new sources of fossil carbon have to be left underground. To pretend that fracking will take place in the UK on any significant scale is delusional. We should focus our efforts on pointing out the Ponzi nature of the idea, warning gullible investors to find safer homes for their money, such as windfarms.

    Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organization, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned by the operator.

    Ponzi scheme - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Paul Mobbs has updated his Frackogram - the diagram that summarises the vested interests and relationships in the UK fracking industry.  It is well worth close scrutiny.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

After Paris COP21, Stop Shopping.

There's millions of words being written about the Paris COP21, the historic agreement that sets us on a course to a brave new world of sustainability, or a sell-out to the interests of power and greed, promoting the short-term interests of the 1% and leading to mass die-off and the end of civilisation.  You choose.

But first lets have a quick reality check.
  • There's enough greenhouse gas already emitted to send us past the 1.5°C mark whatever we do.
  • The ice caps are no longer in equilibrium with climate so will melt, raising sea level by a great many metres, though the rate of rise is unknown.
  • The pledges made (and they are only words not actions so far) will send global average surface temperature way into the territory of catastrophic climate change for many parts of the world.
  • The poorest people will suffer the most and the soonest, with scant hope for compensation from those who caused the problem
However one interprets the outcome of COP21, it is clear that the real work of change lies ahead of us.  We have to stop burning fossil carbon and we have to change everything to make that possible.
It's easy, and probably justified, to blame 'the leaders'. But that still leaves what each of us can do. Protest, persuade, vote, demonstrate, write, shout, whatever, but we need actions beyond words.
Each of us needs to stop burning fossil carbon and that, roughly speaking, means we have to stop shopping.  We can fill in one of those carbon footprint surveys to indicate (very roughly) what our share of the damage is but there's a pretty close link between what we spend and our climate impact.  Rich people (and I guess that's most of my readers) are far more part of the problem than poor people.
For sure, not all shopping is equal.  There's airline tickets and there's tickets for string quartets.  Every time we buy something we are performing a political and climate-affecting act that is likely to be more influential than all the voting or protesting that we can do.
If we all stop shopping the whole edifice of industrial capitalism collapses, and without all that messy business of the bad guys up against the wall.
If we all stop shopping in a smart way we can engineer the transition to the fossil fuel free future that COP21 promises.  String quartets will survive and we can concentrate on building conviviality in our neighbourhoods. I could be a good life.  We choose.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Turned out Wet (again)

[Update 26th December 2015: It's still raining. Much of northern England has had its wettest December on record.  UK Government still in material denial over significant action on global warming.]

In February 2014, at the time of the Somerset Levels flooding, I wrote a couple of blog-pieces about the weather (well, I am English). They are here: Turned out Wet and here:Turned out Wet (and still raining)

In case you don't want to follow those links I'll repost the first section, which turns out still to be relevant:

Climate scientists talk of extreme weather in terms of 3-sigma or even 5-sigma events. In a distribution of possibilities 3-sigma refers to the probability of something happening that lies at least 3 standard deviations away from the norm. For a normal distribution that’s a chance of some 1 in 370. A 5-sigma event has a probability of about 1 in 1.7 million, so you really should not be holding your breath waiting for it to happen.

A plot of a normal distribution (or bell-shaped curve) where each band has a width of 1 standard deviation Source: Wikipedia

The real world is not quite so simple. The probabilities of weather events are not distributed evenly about the mean – a dry day can’t get any drier but a wet day could be a lot wetter. Skewed or fat-tailed distributions are common. But to get a qualitative handle on things for practical purposes, such as whether it’s worth spending money on a particular flood defence, one might consider a 3-sigma event as very rare, maybe having occurred during the historical record just once or twice or not at all. That’s the sort of probability that the Environment Agency seriously considers planning for and often spends big money on defending against. There will always be some who say the money should not be spent, or should be spent differently, but that’s all part of the normal cut and thrust of public policy making and spending.
A 5-sigma event, even with fat-tailed weather event distributions, is so rare it’s probably never been experienced and may never have happened at least during much of the last few thousand years of the Holocene climate regime. Most people in a democracy would baulk at policies and public spending to protect against 5-sigma events. And if there are downsides to a policy that protects against such an event then it is soon and sensibly ruled out.
However, such thinking presupposes that the climate is stable, that what were 3-sigma events haven’t become a whole lot more common and that the previously 5-sigma events have not now slipped into the 3-sigma category. But that is exactly what climate science tells us to expect in a warming planet. The global warming caused by our emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses is producing climate changes that are shifting the probabilities. For the British Isles more stormy weather with higher rainfall totals falling with greater intensity, interspersed with occasional severe droughts, is the future we need to expect.
The winter of 2013/4 has seen a 5-sigma event in southern Britain. Rainfall has been the highest in the record and the number, frequency and intensity of Atlantic depressions has surpassed previous knowledge. One might justifiably wonder whether there has been a similar period of stormy weather since the Atlantic Period, since the Neolithic settlers built the Sweet Track across the Somerset Levels.
Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, asked, rhetorically, “Was it climate change or incompetence?” and stated, “These floods were predictable”. His opposition to windfarms and poor voting record in Parliament on climate related issues, makes one think that here is a man who does not understand climate science and does not take climate change seriously. But then he is a parliamentarian who, presumably, feels the need to represent the views of his constituents. Opinion surveys have shown that a large proportion of the British public do not accept the scientific consensus on climate change, so perhaps Mr Liddell-Grainger is not unusual. 

Almost two years on and in the light of the rainy weather in Cumbria and elsewhere it's time to re-visit the issue.  We've just seen another extreme rainfall event; the Honister weather station recorded 341mm in 24 hours, a new UK record.  That's certainly a 3-sigma event, maybe a 5-sigma, but that depends on how one does the statistics.  As I suggested in February 1014 (copied above) we should be looking at the dynamic aspect of the weather record; the climate is no longer stable so that which should once have been regarded as so unlikely it can, for practical and policy purposes be regarded as 'won't happen' should now be expected, mitigated against and adapted to.

This is where the weather buffets politics.  Last time I took a passing swipe at the Somerset MP, Ian Liddell-Graingers's grasp of climate science so let's now, in fairness, turn to the Penrith MP, Rory Stewart. What's his Parliamentary record on climate change?

Here's the TheyWorkForYou calculation

Climate Change: There have been votes in Parliament on targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and on increasing the proportion of electricity generated via renewable means as well as on the establishment of a UK Green Investment Bank, to invest in projects which, for example, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rory Stewart generally voted against measures to prevent climate change

Stewart is not just the local MP, he is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), so he was being interviewed for the television news in wellies and hi-viz in front of a flooded street scene.  To his credit, though I don't suppose he realised it, he got it right when he suggested that talking in terms of a one in hundred year event is not helpful. I think, however, he meant helpful as in helping the damp folks piling their carpets on the street, rather than the statistical meaninglessness of 'one in a hundred years' when the climate is changing.

It was only four weeks ago that an up-beat Rory Stewart said: “This is a real model of local river management" while on a visit to a flood management project in his constituency.  Stewart, as befits the 'Floods Minister', has actually involved himself and written quite a lot on the flooding issue, as can be seen from his own blog.  It's good to see, and perhaps surprising from a man more well-known for his writings about walking in the deserts of central Asia.

But, and please help me if I've missed it, he appears to have not noticed the elephant in the room.  He never mentions global warming.  Sorry, Rory, but it's well past time to push your government into serious global warming mitigation and adaptation instead of allowing the UK to be seen in Paris COP21 as the world's laggards.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

David Fleming, five years on.

By coincidence, we've just been in Amsterdam exactly five years since David Fleming died on the 29th of November 2010 there and we made the trip through the snow to his funeral to say our last goodbye.

I thought of him again as we passed through Europort, the planet's greatest agglomeration of stuff in containers and of the oil refineries that are so central to the whole sorry enterprise of industrial capitalism that has brought our planet's ability to sustain civilization to the brink.

Then at the Stedelijk Museum we visited the Isa Genzken exhibition, Mach Dich Hüpsch, in which she shows what happens to all that stuff after it has left the shipping containers, the shop-fronts and our homes. Mach Dich Hüpsch, she says, but there's nothing pretty about the detritus of our consumerism.

David saw the lie of bright plastic and might better have enjoyed the Dutch Masters in the Rijksmuseum nearby (the bookmark I use in my copy of Lean Logic is a postcard of Van Dijck's, Still Life with Cheese, he sent me from the Rijksmuseum) or appreciated Van Gogh's respect for the peasants' lives and feared the anxieties expressed by Edvard Munch and so brilliantly displayed at Munch: Van Gogh.

Meanwhile in Paris the COP21 begins.  David foresaw what he called a climacteric, "A stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune."  He wrote of "...the convergence of events which can be expected in the period 2010-2040.  They include deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains."

While there is no longer serious talk of uncertainty in the anthropogenic origin of global warming, there is a great deal of uncertainty in how the future will play out, but politicians and many other commentators struggle to deal with uncertainty.  David Fleming wrote, "It is unknown how fast the climacteric will develop. One view is that it will unfold as a slow deterioration - a long descent - with periods of respite allowing time for intelligent responses to be worked out and applied. Another view is that, because our civilisation is so connected, urbanised, and dependent on fully-functioning complex energy and distribution systems ... the turndown will be more delayed than expected: there is, as Adam Smith observed, a great deal of ruin in a nation. But when it comes it is likely to be more abrupt than expected."

Lean Logic, was published privately in limited edition shortly after David's death but thanks to the unstinting effort of Shaun Chamberlin to bring the work to a wider audience it will soon be available from Chelsea Green.

Shaun describes the book at greater depth on his blog at Dark Optimism and I commend Lean Logic as an invaluable tool for understanding the uncertain future.