Category Archives: Climate Change

The case for freeganism and flexitarianism

I take the following definitions from the excellent (if containing rather too many exotic ingredients) cookbook ‘V is for Vegan’, by Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms Marmite Lover).

Freegan: a portmanteau word combining ‘free’ and ‘vegan’; freegans do not buy animal products. This is an anti-consumerist, anti-food waste movement, so they will eat animal products if they would otherwise be discarded.

Flexitarian: semi-vegetarians. They occasionally eat meat. These are people who are ‘meat reducers’, that is, trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at the very least, trying to source meat from ethical suppliers.

A DIFFICULT STANDPOINT

The environmental issues relating to the meat industry are numerous and this blog would be incomplete in its approach without addressing them. However, as the nephew of a butcher who consequently worked in my uncle’s butchers shop for over eight years, I hope you understand it is tricky to maintain a position which both avoids hypocrisy and maintains respect for my uncle and his business. Without the experience of working at the butchers I would certainly not be in the position I am in today, and would certainly have far less of a work ethic.

In 2014 I started to become very uneasy about the conflict of interests between my part-time job and having deep concerns for the well-being of the environment. The carbon footprint of the meat industry, largely due to methane emissions from the animals themselves, but also due to CO2 released during transportation of feed, livestock and meat products, accounts for almost 15% of the emissions from the entire world. That is considerably more than the aircraft industry. The energy requirement to make the meat eaten world-over comes with an increased need to grow crops, just to feed the farmed animals. If meat continues to grow in popularity as it has recently, this will require yet larger fields for growing crops. All of this comes at a time when we are failing to sustain millions of poor and hungry people across the world. Much, much more energy is being consumed feeding intensively-bred cattle to feed ourselves than would be required to feed the entire planet on those crops alone.

Aside from the environmental concerns, there are of course many arguments from ecological and animal rights. Deep ecologists recognise that there is value in all living creatures beyond their usefulness for our purposes and, further, animal rights activists insist that farm animals be kept in far better circumstances than the almost industrial ones they frequently find themselves at present. Beyond (but not far from) the meat industry, cows are periodically artificially raped by a farmer so that they become pregnant and can therefore lactate the milk which people enjoy on their cereal world over. This is the real, sickening answer to the commonplace myth that cows somehow need to be milked constantly. They do not, this is very unnatural. And when the cow does have her baby, this calf is stolen away, never for her to see again. Heavy stuff.

For some time I had been happy with the idea of only eating leftover meat I got from the butchers, which was going to be thrown away anyway. But after learning of the things I have mentioned above, the contradictions and excuses were becoming too much. Eventually, in the September of 2015 I put it to my uncle that I was going to become vegetarian (with the consequence of my resignation being somewhat obvious). You can imagine the response I got from that, and who could blame him, as someone whose career is built around the sale of delicious meats? Despite the upset my departure initially caused, along with my transition to veganism (well, freeganism) soon after,  I greatly respect my uncle for his eventual understanding and acceptance of my way of life. This recently included his recommendation to me of a vegetarian restaurant!

On a personal level, I feel the best side-effect of becoming a vegan was completely unexpected. Previously, being a good Northern lad, I enjoyed a meal of meat, carb, veg and some form of gravy for every evening meal (i.e. tea). Consequently, due to the delicious marinated meats I got cheap from the butchers, my cooking skills were somewhat lacking. Ripping up this whole cooking routine involved combining different foods, trying new things and structuring meals in a way which means the plate doesn’t revolve around a piece of meat. This is not only an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but also made me really appreciate what I was eating and the effort which had been made to get it to my plate. Cooking is so much more interesting within (even relatively minor) constraints.

NOTHING WORSE THAN A WHINGY VEGAN, EH?!

Veganism has been traditionally sidelined in public opinion, just like environmentalism. Stereotypes of the former involve vegans being attention seeking, whingy and with a lofty sense of superiority (all of which have been applied to the latter, too). I am not saying no vegans possess these traits, as some certainly do, but by and large the intention behind this particular lifestyle choice is heart-felt, not selfish. As what has been a tiny proportion of the population, little media attention has been paid historically. As I am writing now, I realise that none of ‘veganism’, ‘freeganism’ or ‘flexitarianism’ are words in the WordPress dictionary.

However, with 350% rises in veganism in the UK over the past few years, there has been much new media attention, particularly being drawn by 2014’s highly controversial documentary Cowspiracy and Simon Amstell’s feature length film of this year, Carnage: swallowing the past (currently available on BBC iPlayer). The mockumentary Carnage imagines the overhanging shame of a society which previously relied so heavily on the meat industry, but where in the vegan utopia of 2067 the exploitation of animals for any purposes whatsoever is strictly outlawed. However, as with action on climate change, blaming and shaming is not the way forward. Blaming a person for the worlds ills because they eat meat is unlikely to generate a positive response or reaction. The more likely outcome is the strengthening of the aforementioned stereotypes.

Like environmental movement, vegans and vegetarians are divided. Divided in their reasons, divided in what exactly they will and will not eat and divided on other aspects of animal rights such as whether or not to keep pets or go to zoos. Building upon these issues, my opinion is that the clear way forward is provided by freeganism and flexitarianism. Of course, very few people would ever actually label themselves with these names. In fact, it is suggested in Carnage that it is better to name those who eat meat as carnists than to endow a plethora of confusing titles to those who do not. My sister recently told her boyfriend’s grandma that I was a freegan (for some reason) and apparently she now thinks I only eat free food, following another usage of the term. Whilst dumpster diving can be an attractive prospect, completely consistent with the form of freeganism I refer to, that isn’t really what it is about. I use the names here merely for reference purposes and would not recommend labelling people as one thing or another. (The reputation of veganism in some circles already highlights the damage labelling can do.)

Flexitarianism focuses on reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Given the environmental and ethical problems mentioned above, it is hard to make a case that such a reduction would be a bad thing. By eating meat only a couple of times a week, as a treat, and by avoiding red meats, it is possible to drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, be less at risk to heart disease and save the lives of numerous creatures. I recently met a woman on the tube who, after asking about what I was eating for lunch, remarked “I’d really like to stop eating meat, but I could never give up chicken!”. I feel flexitarianism is exactly what she was looking for, where you can still have a Sunday roast chicken, yet are making an effort to reduce your impact on the world. Besides, things are often more delicious when you only get them once in a while.

Freeganism is somewhat different in motive to flexitarianism, but shares the values of reduced consumption for the aim of a greater goal. As kindly defined by Ms Marmite Lover,  freeganism is a waste-free movement. As a freegan, I will never buy any animal products. However, if I happen to find myself somewhere where animal products are about to be disposed of, I will eat them. This is about efficiency, but also allows the reminiscent vegan the potential to enjoy that spot of blue cheese they found so hard to give up. In addition, situations where the vegan diet has not been accounted for. Those awkward conference lunches with only cheese sandwiches and times when you order chips at a pub and they bring you a little pot of mayonnaise that almost certainly will be thrown away if you leave it, are no longer the drama that some vegans are known to make them. (“What do you mean you don’t have soya milk for my latte?!”)

MOOVING FORWARD

I take much inspiration from John Burnside’s column on nature in New Statesman, which appears every three weeks in between pieces on both food and wine. Many of the things he promotes there remind me of what I feel drives the movements of freeganism and flexitarianism, with efforts made to rebuilt relationships with nature, reduce environmental impact and become more aware as a person. His first column of 2017 urged the reader to start the year by making the most of simple things and reads as follows.

‘As Ronald Reagan said: “just say no”. No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify ourselves. No to roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fat landowners and corporations.’

The environmental problems faced in the world today are most likely not going to be solved by hypothetical quick-fixes like a worldwide switch to nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years coming for decades), widespread application of (also as yet uninvented) geoengineering techniques or the shuttling off of millions of people to live on another planet (at precisely the time when many once space-faring countries’ interest in space exploration is at its lowest). These problems can only truly be faced by a widespread change in attitude towards consumption, collective responsibility and the kind of lives we wish to provide for ourselves and the generations who will follow. For, if there were no attitude and yet a quick-fix was found, we would be left still with a complex of over-consumption and therefore merely postponing an impending climate disaster.

In my opinion, the key lies in virtues such as those supported by Burnside above. That is, the key to solving the grandest of problems posed by climate change is to take time to reconsider the way in which we are living our lives, and thereby find happiness in alternative ways much more harmonious with nature. I believe freeganism and flexitarianism are steps in that direction.

On the tube, after meeting the stranger who was interested in vegetarianism, we arrived at Green Park, said our goodbyes and she went to exit the train. She then ran back and exclaimed “I’m gonna do it!”. What exactly it was is unclear, but whichever branch of vegetarianism she referred to, I am glad she felt so impassioned to act upon it and wish her the best of luck.

[Header image source]

[Originally posted to my personal blog Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)]

Don’t just wait for a movement

A SUPER-WICKED PROBLEM

In my previous blog piece, I referred to climate change as the ‘grandest of all problems’ ever faced by mankind. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute’s briefing paper ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’ states that the problem posed by climate change is an example of a ‘super-wicked’ problem. This relates to four factors which make it such a fiendishly difficult issue: the requirement for a solution is increasingly imminent; a co-ordinated central authority is required, in a neoliberal age where business trumps government; those who continue to cause the problem are the very ones who seek to find a solution; and policy responses often disregard the future in an almost irrational way.

A powerful quote comes from John Ashton of Chatham House and is as follows:

“Humanity has never faced a problem like climate change. Unlike poverty, hunger, disease and terrorism it affects everybody. Climate change is a ticking clock that we cannot stop or slow down… The essence is not what we must do but how quickly we must do it”.

How on Earth to proceed in this minefield situation?

ONE PROBLEM, MANY NARRATIVES

It has been argued – notably by Al Gore – that the science of climate change is well researched enough and that we have the solutions available. Therefore in order to succeed in solving this grandest of problems we face the bigger issue of getting anybody to care and do something about it. Whilst this may well be the case, scientific study and technological innovation remain crucially important in analysing the problem of climate change, assessing our approaches to its solution and improving the technologies we apply to this end. We should be wary, however, in placing too much hope in a ‘techno-fix’ geoengineering-type solution appearing to the problem. Partly because the prospects are somewhat lacking, but mainly because of the consequent feeling of being off the hook with respect to emission reduction. Indeed, most geoengineering solutions which have been proposed merely mask the effects of climate change and do not account for vital factors such as ocean acidification.

In addition to direct gains of the science, the fact there exist (some very high-profile) climate change deniers is proof enough that scientific research into climate change can still be justified. There are plenty of people who are still not convinced either that climate change is happening or it is an issue. Yet many suggest we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, wherein facts count for nothing and emotive statements possess the most power. How is it possible to make a case for action on climate change when such arguments rest mainly on science and often only stir in us emotions of fear and worry?

As was discussed at the Royal Meteorological Society’s February meeting, a major issue for the environmental movement is the lack of consistency of narrative. Previous arguments have left many with the view environmentalists only care about polar bears and (hypothetical) future generations. Peter Wadhams, Arctic scientist and author of the excellent book ‘A Farewell to Ice’, argues what is not being communicated enough is the fact the call for action on climate change is no longer about saving polar bears (not that it ever specifically was). It is about saving the human race. The ‘future generations’ narrative is also unhelpful. Psychologists have long-established that humans (and apes) will always choose a small gain in the short term than a greater gain in the long term –  be it with respect to getting one banana now or five later, or with respect to driving the kids to school in a comfy SUV rather than emitting less in the hope they might have a safer future.

The ‘doomsday is near’ narrative is one which is in vogue in some parts of the scientific community (which should be worrying in itself). Clearly such an approach, seen to be advocated by many ‘whingy environmentalists’, is not the way to proceed, no matter how much truth it may or may not hold. In the face of disparity comes the turn to denial and/or ignorance. Such ignorance is a contributor to the ubiquitous ‘disconnect’ between everyday actions and their environmental impacts. This refers to the disconnect between boiling a kettle and the CO2 emitted to generate the required electricity; between having cute pets and eating emission-heavy meat.

But we should not be too quick to lay blame for CO2 emissions. This has historically been the approach of many environmentalists and the result is highly polarising. It is much more productive to provide solutions than to go around blaming people.

THE MOVEMENT WON’T START ITSELF

Millions of journalists, bloggers and activists have already written about ‘what we must do now’, with a vast spectrum of ideas. This array is a manifestation of the lack of consistent narrative that I refer to. Here lies the Catch 22 of climate change: climate change is a problem requiring action on scales unseen before, but proposing a solution merely adds to the lack of consistent narrative, weakening the argument for action. Is all hope lost?

Of course not, and it is hope and positivity which provide the answer, as alluded to earlier. Hope lies at the heart of the many pieces written about the path forward. Only by aiming toward a better future can a movement ever be built. But don’t wait for the mass movement to emerge. Start it. Regardless of whether you go on big marches or arrange protests, you are part of the movement if you speak to people about the promise of acting on climate change. You are part of the movement if you do things in your everyday life like taking few flights, cutting down waste or eating less animal products. You are part of the movement if you convince just one more person that it is not good enough for the status quo to continue.

But just in case you do like to go to marches, there is one in London soon: https://www.facebook.com/events/747422225425039/.

What’s the Job? Climate change in the media.

This post stems from a recent meeting of the Royal Meteorology Society titled ‘Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication’. This meeting aimed to provide insights into tools for more effectively communicating climate science. In the meeting’s description, they claim that the public are beginning to join the dots between climate change, extreme weather and the impacts on our environment. From my experience, I would consider this to be true. Climate science and global warming is certainly becoming a “hot topic”.

So, what are the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings and how far should you go in talking about climate science? It is these questions that motivated the talks. The talks began with visualizing climate data, then climate science in the era of Trump. Following that, talks moved on to connect academics to business, engaging with government policy and why we need climate science communicators. All very important aspects in taking climate science to the public.

However, I want to look at something I consider more important. I want to ask the question, “what’s the job?” A bit strange you might think. Isn’t the job obvious? Communicate climate science?  But is this really the job …

This idea comes from a book by Clay Christensen, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard. The book is called “Competing against luck”. It seeks to identify what’s the difference between a continuously successful business and a business that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In the early sections of the book he discusses what the job of a milkshake is. Why does someone “hire” a milkshake?

McDonald’s wanted to boost milkshakes sales so they brought in consumers that fitted the profile of a milkshake buyer and asked them how they could make their milkshakes better. Cheaper, chewier, chunkier, chocolatier? Even when the customers told McDonald’s what they thought they would like it was hard to know exactly what to do.  So, McDonald’s tried a whole range of things corresponding to the desires of these milkshake buyers. And what happened? Nothing, the sales increase was negligible.   They didn’t know what the job was. They needed to ask the question: what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to McDonald’s to hire a milkshake?

In the book, Christensen says “What causes us to buy products and services is the stuff that happens to us all day every day”. So, McDonald’s figured out who buys the milkshakes and when. It turned out that one of the main consumers of their milkshake are commuters on the way to work in the morning, almost all to take away. They ask these people, why they “hired” the milkshake. They say it helps with the commute. They hired a milkshake for this boring ride to work and the job was to keep the commute interesting. The milkshake is thick and hard to suck up the straw thus, it lasts the whole commute and is substantial enough to ensure the commuter is full all morning. It works better than a banana, coffee, water, donuts and other on the go breakfast products. With this in mind McDonald’s added berries or chocolate pieces to the milkshake to make it more interesting and moved the milkshake maker to the front making it quick to purchase. Low and behold sales increased!

What this story demonstrates is a paradigm shift. Prior to all this you’d believe that milkshakes compete against chocolate bars, sodas, other milkshakes from other fast food joints. However, this is not the case. People don’t hire the milkshake as deserts for the main part but for breakfast and to keep them occupied for a long commute.

 

Let’s come back to climate science in the media and ask: what’s the job of climate science, from the public’s perspective? Is it to keep them occupied on the tube? Give them material so they can talk to their friend at the pub? I firmly believe that to successfully transfer the results and information generated by scientists we need to understand what job climate science does for the public. I don’t know… yet. Furthermore, we must ask the question of who the competition is. Is it climate deniers or is it celebrity gossip, sport articles, even political news? We must look through the same lens as McDonald’s and seek what purpose the public would hire climate science and use that to our advantage. Answering these questions will accelerate our ability to spread facts and build a wider community who can help tackle climate change.

Before we decide what the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings are and how far we should go in talking about climate science, we first need to know, what the job is.

Zero waste living: Minimising waste in the 21st century

THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS

Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.

Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and  it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.

The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.

There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st  October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.

I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.

 

FOOTNOTES

*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.

***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!

One fine day

I finally got a chance to listen to the new album of Sting, one of my favourite artists: “57th and 9th”. By definition, it’s good – Sting has never recorded any unsuccessful songs! But why am I talking about some CD on a blog about maths and climate science?

Because this album contains a single that drew attention of my inner climate activist. In “One Fine Day”  Sting touches on the problem of the climate change. The artist points out at different types of climate sceptics. So we have optimists, histories, apologists and even scientists, who believe there’s not much we can do.

The singer makes an appeal to political leaders to heal the planet quickly. Some say it’s rather wishful thinking but, come on, we’re talking about a song, not an IPCC report! Although “Three penguins and a bear got drowned” part is a bit too cheesy for me to handle.

The lyrics aren’t the best and I know that Sting can do better. I mean, he’s the author of such jewels as “Englishman in New York” or “Fragile”. So why did I get so excited about this particular song? Because people like Sting and listen to him. This is what we need right now: a casual message about the dire issue of climate change, conveyed via a catchy song. I don’t care how people realise that we have a problem, as long as they DO realise is somehow. Buying a new CD is as good a way as any other.

Some criticise Sting for hypocrisy. Well, the truth is that an owner of eight residences scattered all over the world who travels between them on a private jet does contribute to the climate change quite significantly. However, as I stated before: it’s ok not to be perfect. It might be the case that Sting’s popularity will raise awareness of climate change, which can do more good to the planet than his flights to numerous concerts.

I hope we won’t see the times  “when snakes can talk and pigs will fly”. It’s up to us!

Image from MetroLyrics. Article originally posted here: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/one-fine-day/.

Think grey

Recently someone told me that they believe in the climate change but are not doing anything to help the planet because they do not want to sacrifice everything. That there are things they could not possibly give up. Conclusion? They might as well change nothing.

To prevent the climate change or at least to reduce its negative impact, we have to work together. In an ideal world, every inhabitant of our planet would change their behaviour and live an environment-friendly existence. However, it is not going to happen. We have too many climate sceptics and people who, while accepting that the climate change is a jeopardy, do not believe it is worth it to worry too much. Their main argument is that next generations will suffer most of the consequences – so why should we care?

Explaining to climate sceptics that they might be wrong is one of my main goals. I am not a psychologist but to my mind the other group will be also very hard to persuade. In this article I will focus mostly on the majority of the society: people who believe in climate problems, would like to change something but do not want to sacrifice their whole life to save the world. Please bear in mind that when I say majority, I base it only on my observations, not any data. Even if I am wrong, it is still a large group that should be targeted.

Where does that black and white thinking come from? Why can’t we accept that we do not have to be perfect? Perfectionism has been researched in numerous psychological studies. Yet, still so many people have to deal with consequences of this character trait in many areas of their lives. Instead of helping us to do an amazing job, it hinders all our efforts. Better is the enemy of good. Even when we are saving the planet.

You might think that we, climate scientists, young researchers who care a lot about the dire situation in which the Earth is now, are doing everything right. It is not exactly true. Yes, we are trying to do what we can – but not more. We are still human beings, with all our flaws.

Remember that we work together. This often means commuting quite far, many times even flying. What can I do about the fact that the conference relevant for my research takes place in Philadelphia? I have to use the plane, no matter how badly I want to avoid it. Because planes are one of the worst enemies of our planet, this is the fact. However, in order to do my research, I need to know about results of other scientists all over the world. In principle we could use video conferencing. And we do but it is far less effective than meeting other researchers in person. Because most of the ideas are created when we talk outside the official conference events.

Some universities tried to introduce travel funds not according to the money one spends on the travel but on the carbon footprint produced by the journey. I hope they will forget about such ideas soon. Yes, we should encourage alternative ways of travelling when they are feasible, for example one can get from London to Paris in a reasonable time by train. However, if one is unlucky enough to have a meeting in the U.S., it is just not fair.

Let us assume that we are already in the meeting. We switch on the lights, the computer, the projector, the air condition… There is coffee and water served in plastic cups. There are biscuits prettily wrapped in plastic bags. Another coffee break, another cup (because I managed to lose mine). And it continues…

These little things are what matters. I am not happy that they happen and I think we should change them. However, I still attend these meetings because I find them valuable for the climate research. Also, in my everyday life I try to waste as little as possible, save electricity etc. I know I could carry a mug with me and use it instead of plastic cups. But you know what? I would rather carry my laptop so that I can do some work on the train. Especially now that I cycle to the train station (no greenhouse gases produced!) and I do not want my backpack to be too heavy.

Later we go to the lunch. I do not remember a meal without any conversation about vegetarianism and its impact on the climate. I believe that reducing the meat consumption is an important part of helping the planet. Veganism is even more environment-friendly. Having said that, I do not think that meat eaters are doing something wrong. Especially when they are aware of how much greenhouse gases are released in the process of meat production and they try to reduce the amount of meat they consume. Cultivating the myth that we have to cut everything out in order to make the positive impact does not help our planet. Of course if we all went vegan, the release of CO2 would decrease but a traditional (in some countries) meat-free Friday has a good impact too. Why would we condemn them people for indulging in a favourite steak once a week? Every little step counts!

When it comes to the actual research, there is no weather and climate prediction without computers. Supercomputers. Super-power-hungry-computers. We cannot forget that every weather prediction releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Should we then stop doing our research to prevent it? I doubt it would do us any good. Work is being done to develop more effective and less harmful algorithms but the problem will persist.

Can we be fully environment-friendly then? Yes and no. There are people who take it to the extreme. They eat only unprocessed plant-based foods, they live completely waste-free, do not travel, do not use electricity etc. It seems to be doable and if this lifestyle works for them, then it is great, but… I refuse to live like that. I am sure that we can live quite relaxed and pleasant lives and still do not do too much harm to the planet. The point is that we all have to do that. We all have to make some changes, no matter how small they would be.

You do not have to be perfect. If you feel that you can change something, then go for it! Do not beat yourself up for taking a super long shower because it was so pleasant. Do not feel like a failure for using a car when you were too tired to cycle to work. Just think about what you can do to reduce the harm that we, the whole of society, do to the planet. Listen to Paul McCartney: Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. Do what you can – and enjoy what you do not want to sacrifice.

Article originally published on my personal blog.

What can Machine Learning do for Climate Science ?

Firstly, what is Machine Learning, other than a “sexy” buzzword used by the science community to make statistics sound cool? Well, per Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu Inc. and an associate professor at Stanford it is “The science of getting computers to act without being programmed”. That statement leaves a lot to the imagination. One might start off by thinking of movies like I-Robot, Her and Ex Machina. For this post let’s stay grounded and say that Machine Learning explores the study and construction of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions from data. So, what can such an algorithm do for Climate Science? Turns out a lot.

 

Dr Claire Monteleoni, Assistance Professor at George Washington University, uses Machine Learning to track climate models. She along with many others are building a new field of Climate Informatics, a term she coined, with the aim of encouraging collaborations between climate scientists and Machine Learning researchers in order the bridge the gap between data and understanding. In her paper [1] Tracking Climate Models, she demonstrates the advantage of a Machine Learning approach for combining the predictions of multiple climate models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently use about 20 climate models to make informed decisions and predictions on climate change.  This paper introduces the use of an online learning algorithm called Learn-α to make predictions that match or surpass that of the best climate model.

data_learn_alpha

Machine Learning is also useful in application where there is little data or the data is sparse. For example, global maps of the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2). Observations of sea surface pCO2 are taken mostly by commercial ships and consequently are sparse in both time and space, especially before the 1990s. Knowledge of this pCO2 is essential to investigate the variation of the ocean CO2 sink, from which data comparisons to the Global Carbon Budget can be made. To “fill in the gaps” Dr Peter Landschützer, from ETH Zürich, employed a Forward-Feed Neural Network. Neural Networks are based on the way the biological brain solves problems, using a large cluster of neurons connected by axons.

neurons-440660_1280

Finally, looking a bit closer to home, the Informatics Lab at the Met Office are applying Machine Learning techniques to traffic cameras. They are currently undertaking a project which will use data taken from traffic cameras to train a machine to recognize the weather. This is especially useful when considering snow. Snow is the hardest weather to forecast as it depends on small differences in pressure, temperature and heights of clouds. To know if it’s snowy it’s much easier to look at the ground. From the images on the traffic cameras the amount of white could tell you and furthermore characterise the snowy weather. What’s particularly cool about this project is that all the code and data is freely available on the Informatics Lab website http://www.informaticslab.co.uk

country-road-946436_1920

To conclude, we can see many applications of Machine Learning from combining the strengths of different Climate models to just wondering if it’s snowing.  The field of Climate Informatics is without doubt exciting and becoming more and more important. We might be a long way off a computer feeling cold but until then let’s use it to tell us more about our complicated climate.

 

[1] Monteleoni, C., Saroha, S., Schmidt, G., and Asplund, E.: Tracking Climate Models, Journal of Statistical Analysis and Data Mining, 4, 372–392, 2011.

Fasten your seat belts!

Recently I was flying back from New York to London and as soon as we took off, I heard the magical phrase: “Please keep your seatbelt fastened during the whole flight. We expect a bumpy ride”. The pilot was right – it was so bad that I couldn’t sleep, watch any movies, not to mention complete any work I had planned to do. To be honest, I was sure we would crash, so I’m happy just because I can write this blog post today.

This adventurous trip reminded me of one of seminars I attended during my first year of Mathematics of Planet Earth program. I should have paid more attention to Dr Paul Williams from the University of Reading, who claimed that due to the climate change we can expect more turbulence while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of us associate global warming with increased temperatures on the ground. However, as the above mentioned atmospheric scientist reported, it also makes the jet stream even stronger.

According to the Met Office, jet streams are ribbons of strong winds around 9 to 16 km above the Earth’s surface (so right below the tropopause). They move weather systems with the speed of up to 200 mph. The temperature difference between tropical and polar air masses is their main cause. Meteorologists care about jet streams a lot because waves and ripples formed along them can dramatically deepen Atlantic depressions while moving towards Europe.

Jet streams make flights from America to Europe faster than westbound journeys. Indeed, my flight ticket to the USA states that the journey lasted 8 hours 27 minutes while on the way back it took 7 hours 10 minutes. The pilot could have done even better, because the record on this route belongs to Boeing 777 operated by British Airways that in January 2015 landed at Heathrow after 5 hours and 16 minutes. They took advantage of the jet stream that brought heavy rainfalls and winds to the UK.

While jet streams work in favour of passengers travelling to the capital of the UK, they also make flights towards Big Apple longer. Especially because these winds are getting stronger due to the climate change causing increased differences between temperatures of troposphere and stratosphere. The stronger the jet streams become, the shorter the eastbound and the longer the westbound flights. The problem is that quicker journeys from America won’t compensate for the increased flight time against the wind. Williams estimates that each airplane flying over Atlantic will spend extra 2000 hours in the air, which means millions of gallons of jet fuel burnt. This will lead to the emission of 70 million kilograms of carbon dioxide, about as much as annual emission from 7100 average British households. It’s a vicious cycle: climate change causes more carbon dioxide burnt, which causes climate change, which causes…

The increased time spent in the air isn’t the only unfavourable effect of the climate change on aviation. Research shows that passengers should expect more turbulence incidents. Every year hundreds of people suffer injuries due to unexpected “bumps” during the flight. In 2016 videos such as the one taken on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta went viral. During this flight turbulence was so strong that 31 passengers and crew members had to seek medical help after landing in Indonesia. Such incidents make me think that my flight wasn’t as traumatic as I believed!

Jet stream is one of the common causes of the clear-air turbulence, a turbulence not associated with a cloud. This type of turbulence can be dangerous because radars aren’t able to detect it; this is why it’s usually unexpected not only by passengers, but also by pilots. And Dr Paul Williams with Dr Manoj Joshi (University of East Anglia) pointed out that we have to prepare for more such surprises as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases.

Apart from obvious discomfort and dangers, increased turbulence leads also to considerable financial problems. Williams’ report states that airlines spend millions of dollars to repair damage caused by turbulence. Moreover, sometimes airlines have to find longer routes avoiding places notorious for occurring turbulences, which leads to even more money spent and more pollutants emitted. For us, passengers, it means delays as well as longer flights.

So fasten your seat belts – just in case. And have a safe flight!

Image: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/business/12turbulence.html?_r=0

Article originally published on my personal blog.

Why studying random dynamical systems matters

If I said I was studying multistability in random dynamical systems driven by Brownian motion, why should you care?

Martingales, filtrations, ergodicity, synchronisation, Monte Carlo methods: mathematics is full of words which invoke colorful ephemeral imagery for heavy, abstract concepts. Even if we explained the concepts and brought them to life, it wouldn’t be obvious how they were related to your world. Mathematics is powerful exactly because it exists a few steps away from reality, in a place where anything which obeys its structured rules is possible. But this means that to answer the question of why we study what we study (apart from that it’s beautiful and fun) we have to step out of mathematics and back firmly into the physical.

When we think about the Planet Earth mathematically we often think about understanding and capturing each of its parts, studying technical topics like turbulence, boundary currents, atmospheric waves, sub-gridscale processes or atmospheric chemistry. These are the building blocks of the Earth and investigating them shows us patterns and connections which let us project their behaviour forward a few days into the future by running them artificially faster inside our super-computers, predicting the weather or the dissipation of volcanic ash.

There is another powerful way to think about our Earth, though. For the past decade or so, biologists, for example, have stepped away from the reductionist  approach of looking at the components of their system (protein and DNA) to start looking at the high-level systems behavior. The pieces slot together intricately into such a complex system that some of its behavior (consciousness, for an extreme example, or an ant colony) is nearly impossible to discern by looking at the parts. They find that sometimes it’s better to drop the details and start at the top and work down, characterising as much of the emergent behaviour as possible since it’s part of understanding the animal, even if we can’t quite see where it comes from.

In the study of Planet Earth we’re lucky that we’ve been so driven early on by prediction even while we’ve been studying the pieces. We’ve always had an eye on the whole system, trying to simulate it in weather models since predictability is equivalent to safety and success as we try to flourish as a species. These models do an amazing job of mirroring the massive weather beast, especially as we tweak them year on year, checking them against reality and improving them. But what we don’t often do is explore theoretically the range of behaviour the complicated highly non-linear and multi-dimensional system we live within is capable of. We don’t often look at it from the top without the baggage of the details of the pieces. This is the truly “systems” approach.

Perhaps the simplest example of what you might see if you took a systems perspective is multistability: the idea that the Earth might have different states (or rhythms) it could comfortably fall into which would self-perpetuate themselves, even if in the same conditions another state would have been possible. The mathematical example is always a ball rolling down into a valley with another valley next door; the ball could stop at the bottom of either valley, both are stable states, but it can’t get from one to another easily. Ecosystems exhibit multi-stability – the same patch of land could be a birch forest or a grazed field and stay that way indefinitely. Even bodies exhibit multistability if you look at them from the right perspective: something alive generally keeps itself alive, but dead also stays dead.

A schematic view of bistability, in which the “ball” can be in either “valley” happily, but finds it difficult to transition between the two. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Whether or not our climate has multiple stable states is vitally important because if it does and we start to push it, we could very possibly push it out of one and into another and it might be very hard to return. How would we know if it did? One way (the reductionist way) might be to carefully build a replica of it, to the very best of our ability, then start pushing it around and see if it switches. Not a bad idea, but with obvious drawbacks too: our model might not be quite perfect and it takes a long time to run these pushing experiments on a computer, so it’d be hard to draw solid conclusions. Another way is to think theoretically about what is required of a system to be a jumping system then study whether the Earth satisfies the conditions, looking back at the record we have about our real Earth system to see if we can see signatures of jumping. To do that, however, we need to know what jumping looks like.

That’s why we’re interested in a class of mathematical constructs called random dynamical systems. They’re an abstract construct and could be interpreted into the real world in lots of different ways so, like most everything in mathematics, they’re probably useful in a lot of fields. What they can do for us, though, is to represent the Earth like a point moving between states according to some update rule, complicated or simple, which summarises the evolution of our climate in time. What makes them even more complicated than the dynamical systems people like Ed Lorenz have been studying for decades is that we now allow the update rule to be a little bit random thanks to a Brownian motion term: to send the Earth up the valley when it should have gone down, occasionally. Suddenly, a whole new class of behaviour is exposed: with bistabilitity in the update scheme and additional noise comes stochastic resonance, the seemingly regular jumping of our proverbial ball between valleys depending on which way the wind (which wouldn’t usually be enough to move a ball between valleys!) blows. They also might simplify dynamical systems, with noise-induced synchronisation meaning that even if we don’t know where exactly the point started, it’ll end up in a similar place if it undergoes the same noise.

It’s not that the Earth is a random dynamical system (it’s a planet, not an abstract mathematical concept), it’s that we hope that by trying to represent it as one, we’ll learn more about it. Climate certainly has some random elements: weather provides unpredictable and sometimes large change in local climate, not to mention volcanoes. We also have stochastic resonance-looking jump-like events recorded in the history: the Glacial-Interglacials and maybe Dansgaard-Oeschger events in the past million years. If we find that to some extent our reality fits well into this concept, we will be able to draw conclusions from the concept back out to the real world. It probably won’t be as revealing as complex wave functions were for quantum mechanics, but having a new way to account for the world around us is almost surely a good thing.

When it comes to complex systems that we count on for our survival, no one approach can be relied on. We don’t have a reason to believe that there’s a single bit of mathematics that nature obeys on this scale, but there will be patterns and properties at all scales which fit into mathematical frameworks. Random dynamical systems let us look at the pattern of stability and large changes in the whole system and is, as both a mathematical field and a climate perspective, relatively new and so very exciting.

How Climate Model Uncertainty Should Influence Climate Policy

“All models are wrong; some models are useful” –  George Box

“I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions” – Robert Anton Wilson

Climate models are our primary method for predicting the future state of the Earth, and so are a crucial influence on climate policy.  Politicians often demand firm evidence that climate change is real. Scientific evidence of climate change has been around for decades, however, skeptics still manage to blow any uncertainty in scientists’ models out of proportion. In the following post I will discuss a short article by J. Norman et al. in which the authors argue for action to mitigate climate regardless of whether we have perfect models.

In the article they pose a powerful question which helps us think critically about what factors come into our decisions about climate policy. This question can be phrased as: “what would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?” Thinking carefully about this question allows them to dismantle the assumption that it is only worth acting to combat climate change if you believe in climate scientists predictions. This is important to consider since many climate skeptics arguments rely on pointing out the flaws in scientists models. Furthermore, this question represents an interesting limit case to think about since it encourages us to think about how we should behave given that there are uncertainties in our models.

Their argument is based on the so called precautionary principle which, from a risk management perspective, posits that if something is potentially harmful to the public, the burden of proof on the people who want to carry it out rests on establishing that it isn’t, not the other way round. In short: we shouldn’t dabble with things when we don’t know what the unintended consequences might be. This is especially true when there is even a small risk of a complete catastrophe. Ignore this principle at your own risk in everyday life, but when we alter things that might affect whole ecosystems or planets it is definitely worth being extremely cautious about the consequences of our actions, which may not be reversible.

Any predictive model will have uncertainty in its outcome. In addition to this uncertainty, we must also strive to remember that the model isn’t reality, no matter how hard we try, meaning that there will always be events which are out of the range of our predictive powers. The importance of events which are out of our predictive range was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the 2007 book The Black Swan. “Black Swans” are extreme events that lie out of our predictive range (no matter how good our supercomputer is). In the management of risk, the impact of these events may also be referred to as Knightian Uncertainity, this is a risk that is essentially uncomputable.

Just as an unpredicted market crash will render forecasts produced by economists for the future obsolete, there may also be unexpected events which will have a dramatic effect on current climate predictions. For example, a huge volcanic eruption might occur or some new carbon capturing technology might conceivably allow us to remove a large amount of CO2 from the atmosphere in a matter of months. In fact, we even have examples of relatively sudden changes in atmospheric composition happening in the past, as is the case with the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum”.  Taleb’s message in the Black Swan is not that we should try and predict these events, but that we should instead be aware that, good or bad, unknown unknowns are out there in the future, whether we like it or not.

Figure 1. [3] Forecasting Skill plotted against year for different forecasts. This demonstrates the improvement of our ability to predict weather patterns over relatively short time scales. We shouldn’t naturally assume that this transfers over to the quality of our climate predictions. However, these types of observations provide evidence of the plausibility of physical models in the prediction of future states of the climate system.
That being said, we shouldn’t be totally pessimistic about our ability to predict. Weather and climate models can and have been statistically tested to perform fairly well [2]. In addition, the accuracy of weather forecasts and our ability to “see” longer into the future has indeed improved over the years (see figure 1). Given this, we should be careful not to misinterpret Norman et al.’s article as saying “Policy makers should never use climate models because we simply can’t predict things.” The main point is summarized in the final two sentences of the article:

“The popular belief that uncertainty undermines the case for taking seriously the ’climate crisis’ that scientists tell us we face is the opposite of the truth. Properly understood, as driving the case for precaution, uncertainty radically underscores that case, and may even constitute it.”

There will be plenty more to come on the blog about this difficult situation! For now, the main thing to take away is that we need to keep an open mind about the different possible outcomes which might arise in the future, predicted or not.

In summary:

  • We shouldn’t blame scientists for failing to include the presence of certain rare events in their models. After all, with limited computing power there is only a certain amount one can include in a model of such a massive system.
  • However, we can blame scientists or policy makers if they attempt to implement policies which ignore the possibility of anything that the model doesn’t explicitly predict.
  • Uncertainty is reason to act, not a reason to not act.

“The ancients knew very well that the only way to understand events was to cause them.”  – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Matt

References and Further Reading:

[1] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. Random House, 2007. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to read more about the impact of rare events on the course of history. Taleb goes into detail about the reasons why we should be very careful when transferring predictive models inspired by those in the physical sciences into domains such as the social sciences and economics.

[2] For more on how good climate models and their predictions have been for us so far: https://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-models.htm

[3] Image Reference: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7567/images/nature14956-f1.jpg

[4] Cover Image: http://www.billfrymire.com/gallery/weblarge/global-network-earth-space-night-sky.jpg