the latest in climate science and policy
Target chains and independents known for their sustainable practices
For example in Oxford Jericho Coffee Traders (their beans are sourced directly from farms via a specialised coffee trader, ensuring farmers are paid a fair wage. Take the time to look around your local area and online for such institutions!
1. Recycle Christmas Cards
It is estimated that 1 billion cards are thrown away in the UK every year and so an easy way to reduce your waste over Christmas could simply be to recycle. You could even have a positive impact by taking your cards to be recycled at M&S, who plant a tree for every 1000 cards that are returned to them.
Harry Holmes and Lucy Fellingham
Recently Phillip Hammond the Chancellor released the UK Autumn Budget, the outline of the government’s spending plan. As ever, the green agenda didn’t register as high as the NHS and housing, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to talk about. So, without further ado, let’s look at the environmental side of the budget document.
Rupert Stuart-Smith, Oxford Climate Society President 2017/18
The Paris Agreement (Article 2) seeks to restrict climate change to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’, with the ethically imperative goal of ‘pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’. An important question, discussed in greater detail in my previous article, is whether the more ambitious of these two goals was merely aspirational, or if this is indeed an achievable target.
By some measures, global temperature rise is already knocking on the door of 1.5 degrees. Some studies have argued that we could have emitted enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to reach that level of warming as soon as 2021. But these numbers rely on different assumptions than were made when the goals of the Paris Agreement were devised in 2015, at which time delegates were advised that global temperatures had risen by ‘only’ 0.85 degrees. With this in mind, the 1.5 degree goal in the Paris Agreement should be seen as a very real possibility, with recent studies indicating that net-zero greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved by 2045 (figure 1) or 2055 (partly dependent on our ability to reduce emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases). In other words, achieving the 1.5-degree goal will be extremely difficult and require rapid decarbonisation of every part of every economy in the world, but it is possible.
Figure 1: Future emission trajectories under business as usual (baseline), the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement (NDC), uniform pricing on all greenhouse gas emissions to deliver a 50% probability of staying within the 2°C target (default 3.4), as with default 3.4 but with a probability of at least 66% of staying below 2°C of warming (default 2.6), as with default 2.6 but minimising the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage as a means of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere (No BECCS 2.6), and delivering a 50-66% probability of remaining below the 1.5°C target (van Vuuren et al. 2017)
If we can understand the 1.5-degree target as being achievable and set with the intention of it being fulfilled, rather than a meaningless phrase added to placate many of the world’s countries at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, who may otherwise have walked out of the discussions at Paris, the implications are huge. No longer will the biggest emitting countries and companies be able to drive global temperatures up beyond safe levels and then be able to claim that by the time we understood the science of climate change and came to a global consensus on its prevention, it was too late to do anything about it. We know it will be tough, and that we must be fully determined in our ambition to achieve rapid decarbonisation, but the knowledge that this trajectory is possible will greatly strengthen future claims of responsibility for causing climate change.
With this in mind, any future, not prevented impacts of climate change, including forced movement of people due to sea level rise, economic losses from extreme weather attributed to climate change, loss of life, and non-economic losses should be subject to ‘loss and damage’ claims. Those failing to play their part in preventing further climate change now, and pushing warming beyond global targets are responsible for its impacts. The fact they now know they can do something about it will simply add to their responsibility, should they fail to act now. And if they don’t, they should be liable to compensate those affected by conscious decisions to contribute to the devastation resulting from climate change – stories of which can be heard from delegates throughout COP23.
Despite the apparent logic of this, much of the developed world (perhaps unsurprisingly, given their large historical emissions and responsibility for climate change) remain unmovably opposed to developing mechanisms through the UN climate process to facilitate loss and damage claims. The latest attempts to block this process has been led at COP23 by the US, EU, Canada and Australia, whose contention that financing should be excluded from negotiations on loss and damage is apparently grounded in the fact that not every natural disaster can be attributed to climate change. The absurdity of this argument is underlined by recent and rapid advances in the science of attributing (probabilistically) extreme weather events to climate change. Since we can now model to what extent climate change influenced a particular event, we can determine with ever growing certainty how responsible for climate-related losses are those who contributed most to climate change.
If we can formalise a regime for loss and damage, and render the biggest emitters liable for the impacts of their actions, this would be a small but significant step towards addressing the vast injustices of climate change. For the developed world to continue to ignore their moral duty on this matter is simply unacceptable.
This article follows Oxford Climate Society’s side event at this year’s UN Climate Conference, on 12 November 2017, and is in part inspired by the talks given by the speakers, Professor Myles Allen and Kya Raina Lal.
Author: Felix Heilmann, Oxford Climate Society Vice President 2017/18 and Convenor of the Oxford School of Climate Change
The facts are clear. The most existential threat to our common future comes in the form of emissions created by what our economy runs on at the moment – fossil fuels that heat up the world’s climate. This is the astounding simplicity at the heart of what seems to be one of the world’s most complex problems. It is important to recall this as the climate negotiations make headlines over the course of these two weeks.
It is also worth recalling that there is, all in all, a surprisingly broad agreement from corporate boardrooms to civil society marches on the most fundamental principle on how a liveable future should look like – it is a future in which all major sectors of the society and economy have been successfully decarbonised, e.g. through the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy, increases in efficiency, and the like.
Naturally, there are disagreements on what exactly such a future should look like, and even more disagreement on how to get there – should governments take political action, or should we just trust market forces? Should some countries move first when others are not doing their fair share? The fact that there’s disagreement on these topics, however, is just a sign of a healthy democratic debate.
This cannot be said about a fundamental issue at the heart of climate politics: Far too often are highly necessary points about making today’s policy decisions future-proof dismissed as being “ideological”, and categorically rejected. Too often is climate action seen as a bargaining chip in political negotiations when it is, in fact, in our greatest common interest. Diverse groups within politics still showcase a categorical opposition to climate action, which they claim is an ideological issue – at a time when even companies such as Shell and Siemens have acknowledged its importance. It’s wrong and dangerous that silencing the debate about climate solutions and the necessity for action, or treating them as a bargaining chip, is still a workable political strategy for many parties across the industrialized world. In a healthy democratic culture, problems should be acknowledged, the best solutions debated, and then subsequently implemented. It is time that we close the gap between the pressing importance of the climate challenge and its representation and discussion in politics.
When it comes to life-or-death issues such as the climate crisis, it is not words but actions that matter. Every scientist will confirm that inaction is not an option in this case – we have to get our heads out of the sand, and face down this issue. That’s why it’s time to bridge across political divisions and build powerful coalitions that can create the future we want. This requires action on all sides of the political spectrum, and it can only be hoped that this is – finally – realized universally. In the meantime, we can work on what is crucial for a healthy democratic debate: having a good informational basis and getting the facts right. This is the spirit behind the latest addition to the Oxford Climate Society’s portfolio: The Oxford School of Climate Change. A select group of students will get the opportunity to hear about some of the most important issues in the climate debate from leading academics in the field, and there will also be ample opportunity to discuss solutions for the challenges ahead.
Words won’t safeguard our future – actions will. But words can lead to actions, and that’s why it’s crucial that we lead wide-ranging, expedient discussions on how to get into a safe future. The School of Climate Change will be a part of this effort.
As humans we are pretty good at living at a range of temperatures, adapting to life at most latitudes and able to find insulation and shelter or cool ourselves in the shade, as and when we get uncomfortable. Of course, the targeted maximum of a 2°C increase of global average temperature set down in the Paris Climate Agreement isn’t an attempt to limit the risk to the structural integrity of ice-creams on July afternoons. Preventing a global temperature increase of this kind is about avoiding human tragedies on a massive scale, from whole islands and cities being engulfed by rising seas, droughts that destroy vital crops year after year, and extreme weather events that flatten homes and lives. The 2°C mark, despite being an objective and quantifiable change, is therefore largely symbolic. Stepping away from global increase to a more local, less apocalyptic scale – in the city of Oxford for example – I imagine people would probably welcome such a modest increase in temperature when braving the wind and rain on their daily commutes.
Localised warming, however, even to the tune of just a few degrees, can be bad news for other less generalist species than humans. Although many species are capable of adapting their behaviour and physiology to new temperature ranges, many more require very specific conditions to survive. Such species typically live in high biodiversity areas, like rainforests, where each species fulfils a very particular ecological niche – eating specific species, foraging or hunting using a very specific method, living in specific places, and so on. This means that small changes, if they occur too quickly for a population to adapt, can have profound consequences.
In Queensland, Australia, for example, the rainforests are home to a great diversity of possum species. One of these species, the green ringtail possum, P. archeri, (pictured) is found only at elevations above 300m limited by its inability to successfully regulate its body temperature at warmer lower altitudes. This is because it has ‘adaptive heterothermy’, meaning that as temperatures rise above and beyond 30°C it ceases to increase its rate of perspiration, in an attempt to avoid severe dehydration. The narrow ecological niche of the green ringtail possum restricts it to the forest canopy, where it obtains most of its fluid from eating foliage. Poisonous compounds in the leaves it eats – a defence against overgrazing – stop the possum from quickly rehydrating itself, eating less often so it has time to break down the harmful compounds it ingests. These possums evolved over many millennia to take advantage of a highly stable ecosystem and climate, which favoured adaptive heterothermy. But with localised warming in the Queensland region, this fine balance is being disturbed, and the green ringtail possum and other species are being constrained to smaller and smaller territories at higher altitudes, which can’t support the same number of possums.
Proving the influence of climate change on ecosystems is a relentlessly difficult task, especially when there are other major forms of human disturbance at work. The complex web of interactions between living and non-living factors in an area often produces chains of effect that can magnify the effect of localised warming. In Hawaii, the destruction of lowland habitats to make way for agriculture has forced most native bird species uphill to habitats on the mountain slopes. However, the current threat to the birds is no longer agriculture, but avian malaria carried by an introduced species of mosquito, C. quinquefasciatus. As the malarial parasite can only successfully infect new hosts at temperatures above 13°C, the native birds are only contracting malaria at middle elevations, preserving refuges in the highest areas. Incremental localised warming, however, is already robbing them of this sanctuary, and famous birds such as the Hawaii creeper (pictured) are becoming endangered. The retreat of specialist species uphill to cope with rising temperatures is doomed to be a losing game. Although for some of them are still able to expand upwards, at some point their islands in the sky will shrink to nothing and their retreat will be halted once and for all.
Relevant studies: Krockenberger et al. (2012) ‘The limit to the distribution of a rainforest marsupial folivore is consistent with the thermal intolerance hypthesis’; Benning et al. (2002) ‘Interactions of climate change with biological invasions and land use in the Hawaiian Islands: Modeling the fate of endemic birds using a geographic information system.’
British waters are home to a diverse array of marine biodiversity, providing a variety of habitats for species from sheltered sea locks to deep-water coral. Importantly, the marine life populations these habitats support are vital for local livelihoods and industries, from fishing and trade to tourism. Yet these valuable waters have become increasingly under threat from unsustainable economic and harvesting activity, and, critically, challenges presented by climate change.
How are British waters valuable ecologically?
British waters, from inland estuaries to the deeper waters offshore, are home to over 330 different types of fish, from species occupying fundamental roles at the base of the food chain to wonders such as basking sharks, dolphins and Atlantic grey seals and a diverse array of birdlife.
Where does climate change come into this?
As greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, climate change is accelerating, having serious effects on the world’s weather systems and conditions and putting the delicate balance of many of the world’s natural ecosystems and habitats, including those of British marine life, at risk.
Home to a diverse range of marine and dependent terrestrial species, it is vital that we keep our oceans healthy, both to support the species they are home to and the industries and livelihood that depend on them. The ocean performs a variety of invaluable- and, crucially, irreplaceable- ecosystem services: for instance, around half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the sea, or specifically by phytoplankton, and absorbs around half of manmade CO2.
However, due to the complexity and scale of the problem of climate change, and the fact that we still know so little about our planet’s oceans, there is no quick solution. Despite covering 71% of the Earth's surface, our knowledge of the effects of climate change in oceans is limited compared to terrestrial ecosystems, making the problem harder to tackle and the scale of the impacts harder to predict. Attempts to address climate change need to work with related issues such as overfishing and pollution of the seas- the WWF, for instance, has already developed initiatives to bring together actors from governments, science, industry, and stakeholders to find sustainable ways of managing our shared marine environment. In this way, it is important to understand the threats the world’s oceans are facing as a problem that cannot solely be addressed by tackling climate change- if our world’s oceans are to remain sustainable for future generations and marine biodiversity, the issue needs to be tackled in all its complexity.
Climate change continues to pose a significant threat to British marine life, whether directly as a result of changing marine conditions of indirectly through adverse effects on prey distribution. Atlantic Grey seals, for instance, often sighted in colonies around UK waters, are experiencing threats as a result of changing distributions of their prey, particularly sand eels, for which they will come into increasing competition with fishermen and other predators as prey availability dwindles.
Other terrestrial species reliant on marine environments and ecosystems are also expected to be affected: coastal erosion and flooding are already posing threats for species such as the Atlantic Grey seal, where rising sea levels are seeing the the isolated shingle beaches that grey seals favour to give birth to their pups in the autumn become narrower, increasingly the likelihood of pups being washed away. Internationally important breeding colonies of terns that nest close to the sea edge are also at risk from rising sea levels and increasing stormy weather. Wetland birds are also at risk: species such as the redshank will find their habitats inundated by the sea while moors and wet grasslands will dry up during hot summers, all of which carry wider implications for the food web and are expected to see changes in migration patterns in response to the stresses brought by habitat change in response to global warming.
The vast effects of climate change in these areas has been observed in particular in the Orkney islands. Warming of British waters offshore is thought to have completely altered the plankton regime, meaning dependent species such as sand-eels have nothing to feed on. As a result, sand-eel numbers have dropped dramatically and seabirds are struggling to find food.
Our oceans remain a vital resource for both livelihoods, economic activity and, crucially, biodiversity, and exist in a complex relationship with our atmosphere and natural ecosystems. Attempts to address climate change therefore need to take into account how changes implemented at one site carry repercussions for the rest of the ocean system. While this is by no means an easy undertaking, it remains crucial that our world’s oceans are healthy and protected from overexploitation and pollution, the effects of which will only become more severe in light of climate change and continue affect wildlife in British waters.
When travelling in South-East Asia, you learn to expect the unexpected. But residents, authorities and tourists are beginning to expect stronger natural disasters more frequently, a trend related to climate change. Typhoons are tropical hurricanes common in South East Asia, storms that form over oceans with a temperature of at least 26.5°. Evaporation occurs and winds near the surface bring this warm, moist air towards the centre of the storm, which rises rapidly in its ‘eye’. Greater pressure differences in the upper atmosphere and increased water vapour concentration result in stronger winds and intense rain, the characteristics of a typhoon. Typhoons have varying strengths, which are categorised and responded to differently in each nation.
But how is climate change affecting typhoons and their consequences on society? Rising ocean temperatures associated with climate change provide the storms with more energy, meaning that wind speeds increase and precipitation intensifies. This can generally be associated with greater destruction and risk, problematic in South East Asia particularly in terms of structural preparation, response time and life insurance. Yet the effect of increasing severity of typhoons in this region must be considered with regard to the inequality of wealth across its nations.
I recognised this when travelling in Hong Kong and Vietnam, countries both hit by typhoons during my visit. In Hong Kong, the typhoon was the third in two weeks, and by far the least significant. Hong Kong categorises the typhoon by wind speed, and has associated warning signals; T1, T3, T5, T8, T9 and T10 in order of threat. Typhoon Hato struck Hong Kong on the 23rd August, and although it killed 12 people, these were in different regions of southern China. This can be attributed to the T10 warning being raised for the first time in 5 years. The preparation that this enabled with a foresight of the typhoon’s severity meant that government buildings, offices, schools and transport shut down, reducing the possibility for death.
Comparatively, Vietnams's preparation is unbelievably different. While there was some evacuation of mainland villages, while staying on Cat Ba Island I wasn’t made aware of the imminent Typhoon Doksuri, classified as a ‘severe typhoon’, until its arrival. Boat services were stopped, stranding me on the island for another day. When it made landfall, Doksuri killed 4, cut power across the nation and destroyed many buildings that were without structures designed to withstand the effects of a typhoon. The lack of widespread durability for storms in a nation experiencing them frequently is particularly concerning given their increasing intensities as a result of climate change, as well as the tourism that is growing in popularity in Vietnam.
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team