UKCP09 launches today

June 18, 2009

After several months of delay and some behind the scenes controversy, UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) launches today, June 18th, 2009.

From the press release:

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) are being launched on Thursday 18 June. UKCP09 provides the latest information on how continued emissions of greenhouse gases may change the UK’s climate over 21st century. The information provided by UKCP09 will be valuable to anyone with responsibility for forward planning in the public, private and voluntary sectors. UKCP09 comprises a package of information including, publications, key findings, user support and customisable output. This is primarily available on-line. Please note that the sites will not go live until the Secretary of State has finished his announcement to the House, sometime around 12.30.

* For access to the main technical information about UKCP09, and the full range of information and support, go to http://ukclimateprojections.defra.gov.uk.
* A gentler introduction is available at http://ukcp09.defra.gov.uk.

UKCP09 is accompanied by a training programme – Projections in Practice (PiP) – and more information can be found at www.ukcip.org.uk/training.

What is so interesting about these projections is the background controversy and delay.  They will be some of the world’s most advanced downscaled climate projection available, but the project has been delayed due to methodological criticism and claims of over promising.

The critique, coming mostly from climate modellers and chaos mathematicians, suggests that some of the claims are too ambitious and that the levels of uncertainty are too high to produce such granular predictions.

From a past issue of New Scientist, cited here:

At the Cambridge meeting Lenny Smith, a statistician at the London School of Economics, warned about the “naïve realism” of current climate modelling. “Our models are being over-interpreted and misinterpreted,” he said. “They are getting better; I don’t want to trash them per se. But as we change our predictions, how do we maintain the credibility of the science?” Over-interpretation of models is already leading to poor financial decision-making, Smith says. “We need to drop the pretence that they are nearly perfect.”

He singled out for criticism the British government’s UK Climate Impacts Programme and Met Office. He accused both of making detailed climate projections for regions of the UK when global climate models disagree strongly about how climate change will affect the British Isles.

Smith is co-author, with Dave Stainforth of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Oxford, of a paper published this week on confidence and uncertainty in climate predictions (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society ADOI: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2074*). It is one of several papers on the shortfalls of current climate models.

Some authors say modellers should drop single predictions and instead offer probabilities of different climate futures. But Smith and Stainforth say this approach could be “misleading to the users of climate science in wider society”. Borrowing a phrase from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Smith told his Cambridge audience that there were “too many unknown unknowns” for such probabilities to be useful.

Policy-makers, he said, “think we know much more than we actually know. We need to be more open about our uncertainties.” Meanwhile, the tipping points loom.

From issue 2617 of New Scientist magazine, 16 August 2007, page 13

There is no doubt that such projections will be welcomed by the scientific and policy communities.  One hopes that an adequate understanding of the uncertainties involved will also be appreciated.


Cyber-attacks on an American city

April 24, 2009
Photo: Damien Cox, Flickr

Photo: Damien Cox, Flickr

 

Slashdot reports on a mysterious case of high tech urban sabotage in California, with lessons for first responders in complex urban environments.

Software innovator Bruce Perens writes,

Just after midnight on Thursday, April 9, unidentified attackers climbed down four manholes serving the Northern California city of Morgan Hill and cut eight fiber cables in what appears to have been an organized attack on the electronic infrastructure of an American city. Its implications, though startling, have gone almost un-reported.

“That attack demonstrated a severe fault in American infrastructure: its centralization. The city of Morgan Hill and parts of three counties lost 911 service, cellular mobile telephone communications, land-line telephone, DSL internet and private networks, central station fire and burglar alarms, ATMs, credit card terminals, and monitoring of critical utilities. In addition, resources that should not have failed, like the local hospital’s internal computer network, proved to be dependent on external resources, leaving the hospital with a “paper system” for the day”

This is an interesting example of emerging threats to urban centres in the future, along the lines of previous posts on attacking the electric grid system.   The entire article, found here, is well worth reading.  

In particular, Bruce has a discussion of the lessons learned from this mysterious attack:

The first lesson is what stayed up: stand-alone radio systems and not much else. Cell phones failed. Cellular towers can not, in general, connect phone calls on their own, even if both phones are near the same tower. They communicate with a central switching computer to operate, and when that system doesn’t respond, they’re useless. But police and fire authorities still had internal communications via two-way radio.

Very rich food for thought about the future of complex urban emergencies.


US electric grid has been penetrated by spies

April 23, 2009

The Wall Street Journal reports on vulnerabilities in the US electric and infrastructure grids.  Another emerging threat facing complex, interconnected urban environments.

From the article:

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” said a senior intelligence official. “So have the Russians.”

The espionage appeared pervasive across the U.S. and doesn’t target a particular company or region, said a former Department of Homeland Security official. “There are intrusions, and they are growing,” the former official said, referring to electrical systems. “There were a lot last year.”

Many of the intrusions were detected not by the companies in charge of the infrastructure but by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said. Intelligence officials worry about cyber attackers taking control of electrical facilities, a nuclear power plant or financial networks via the Internet.

Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, the senior intelligence official said. He added, “If we go to war with them, they will try to turn them on.”

Officials said water, sewage and other infrastructure systems also were at risk.

It doesn’t take much imagination to forecast such an attack may occur in any major first world city, potentially in combination with other forms of sabotage or terrorist action.  Full article here.


Stockholm Whiteboard Seminars – excellent informal talks on resilience

April 13, 2009

The Stockholm Resilience Centre  has posted a series of simple and inspiring “back to basics” lectures about resiliency on its website.

From the creator of the project:

The idea is to get away from seminars loaded with lengthy and flashy PowerPoints and go back to basics. So, take the opportunity to get a short and close encounter with a top scientist in the field of sustainable development, who uses the whiteboard to explain an important concept or recent research insight just for you! 

The first video is from  Brian Walker, an Australian ecologist who delightfully explains what forest management, resilience theory and trauma surgery have in common.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The second is from Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist from Indiana University, who explains the concepts of commong pool resources and how to avoid the “tragedy of the commons”.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Thanks to the Resilience Science blog for the great tip!


Kim Stanley Robinson on valuing the future to avoid catastrophic collapse

March 31, 2009

future

“Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.”

Author Kim Stanley Robinson argues here that capitalism is a “multi-generational Ponzi scheme” that is ruining the planet and has to change if human civilization is to survive.  

Taking a futures perspective, Robinson writes, “the main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future.”  On the longer scale, resources (including carbon) are underpriced, causing us to charge less for them than what they cost (an argument presented well by Buckminster Fuller, who calculated the true cost of oil based on the time of production at over a billion dollars per barrel).  “When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor,” he writes, “it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.”

…the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. 

Robinson argues that instead of trying to produce a “pyramid of wealth”, we should aim for a more broad-based economy of productivity that reduces inequality and accurately prices the cost of materials based on their unavailability to future generations.

Believe in science.”

Robinson’s first recommendation for change include actually believing, and valuing, what our scientists are telling us.  

“We need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness…  Science is telling us that if we keep living the way we do, we will trigger an unstoppable and irreversible climate change that may de-ice the planet and acidify the oceans, causing mass extinction.

His main point is that the we are talking about the end of the world here.  There can be nothing more serious.

“It took tens of millions of years for Earth to recover from previous mass extinctions,” he argues, and despite our technological power and ever increasing intelligence, we are rapidly approaching the point where human society could be destroyed by climate change.  We need to start acting like it.

Seeing in a new way

Robinson’s point is well presented.  He concludes with a firmly futures-oriented question.  “Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future.”  This is the core message of scenario planning and futures work.  You can’t see the future because you don’t want to see it; your beliefs and morals prohibit you from seeing what you don’t want to see, leaving your surprised and disturbed when things don’t go the way you expect.

Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial…  We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

Well said KSR.  The future is in our hands, but only if we look beyond what we want to see, acknowledge that we are creating our own grave, and that in order to survive we must change the system; belief systems, social systems, economic systems, and organisational systems.  Otherwise we are well and truly doomed.

Full article here.


Climate: 1, Geoengineering: 0, Ocean iron fertilization experiment doesn’t work as planned

March 29, 2009
Satellitenaufnahme der Chlorophyllkonzentrationen

Satellite image of sea-surface chlorophyll concentrations with our bloom encircled. Note much larger natural bloom on the upper right and the generally higher values in the southeast than elsewhere. Graphic: NASA (http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov)

The verdict from one of the first real world geoengineering experiments?  It didn’t work (but they learned a lot).

A team of scientists from the German National Institute of Oceaonography and the Alfred Wegener Institute recently attempted one of the first large scale experiments in oceanic geoengineering.  

The team fertilized a 300 square kilometre patch of ocean with six tonnes of dissolved iron in an effort to sequester excess CO2.  The idea was that certain kinds of plankton eat the iron, die, then sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking tonnes of CO2 with them.  Unfortunately it didn’t work as expected.

From the press release:

The cooperative project Lohafex has yielded new insights on how ocean ecosystems function. But it has dampened hopes on the potential of the Southern Ocean to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and thus mitigate global warming.

Why did it dampen hopes?  Christine Lepisto has an excellent summary over at Treehugger.  She writes:

The experiment started out following scientists’ predictions. After the addition of the iron source to the swirling current, phytoplankton biomass doubled, as can be seen by the orange-reddish swirl in the NASA image above. But the growth was mainly a soft and tasty algae called Phaeocystis. Other little creatures, known as copepods, moved in quickly to gobble up the algae, soon followed by shrimp-like amphipods which lunched on the copepods. Ultimately, these amphipods end up in the bellies of squid and fin whales, so maybe iron fertilization could be a geo-engineering solution for supporting these top-of-the-food-chain species. But certainly, the experiment did not result in tons of CO2 safely sequestered on the ocean floor, proving the iron fertilization hypothesis not yet ripe for geo-engineering scale games with mother nature.

The experiments were not a failure from a scientific point of view, the press release notes that a tremendous amount of new data and information was gained.  But it does suggest that iron fertilisation is unlikely to be a solution to our climate change concerns.

This experimental data confirms many of the anxieties of commentators writing about geoengineering, which we have previously covered here (“Irreversible Climate Change, Meet Unstoppable Political Force”).


Thomas Homer Dixon reviews, “Global Catastrophes and Trends, the next 50 years”

March 28, 2009

five-minutes-to-midnight

One of HFP’s favourite thinkers, Thomas Homer-Dixon, publishes a review of two books on catastrophe in this week’s Nature.

In his review of two catastrophe-oriented books, Dixon argues that, “opinion-makers must demonstrate a better grasp of how societies rise and fall if they are to steer nations successfully through many of this century’s major crises.”

In Global Catastrophes and Trends, Smil, a Canadian scientist of prodigious productivity and extraordinary disciplinary breadth, basically says “get used to it”. Many of the vital natural and social systems around us are so complex that deep uncertainty characterizes their behaviour, and predicting this behaviour is near impossible. Thankfully, many of the threats to our wellbeing highlighted by the media are exaggerated — often wildly so. Although there are reasons for concern about where humankind is going, we need to remember that insecurity is part of the human condition. Catastrophe is too, but it is less likely than we imagine. Overall, given the admirable human capacity to adapt and change, the human prospect is far brighter than many assume.

Alex Steffan argues a similar point in his post, “Collapse Forward“.  He writes,

We certainly could blow it badly enough to trigger irrecoverable collapse (for instance, by triggering climate tipping points), but I’m dubious that most of the collapses we fear will in fact occur, or, even if they occur, that they will last as long or be quite as catastrophic as we think.

That doesn’t mean that big shake-ups aren’t coming. They are. The question is, how do communities and regions prepare themselves to sail as gracefully through that turbulence as possible?

Steffan suggests that investing in green infrastructure both lessens the stress on the system now, and decreases chances of systemic failure in the future.  This kind of “no regrets” planning is wise; both in the short term and as a long term development strategy.  

Are there any parallels between “no regrets” approaches to human vulnerability and the on-going aid vs. development debates?