Carbon dioxide emissions from existing energy use (such as power stations which also are the principal source accounting for over a third of these emissions) between 2018 to 2058.  Additionally, currently proposed energy infrastructure (such as fossil fuel power stations planned or under construction) mean that emissions will continue through to 2070.
From: Tong, D., Zhang, Q., Zheng, Y. et al (2019) Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5 °C climate target. Nature, vol 572, p373-377. Reproduced here © in the context of a review.

Concatenation Science Communication News

Summer 2019 Existing fossil fuel power plants and other existing energy infrastructure will generate more greenhouse gas in the coming decades than is needed to keep global warming below 1.5 °C.
          Even if all new electricity production was to be from renewables and nuclear (non-fossil carbon), and all new trains were electric (not, say, diesel) or all new cars made electric (not petrol driven), then the carbon emissions alone from existing fossil fuel plants etc., over the next four decades will still commit us to a warming of over 1.5 °C -- the UN's 2015 COP21 Paris Accord limit.  Add in those fossil fuel power stations, trains etc. currently planned, then we will break the Accord's 2.0 °C fall back, or backstop, limit by 2070.
          This is the conclusion of Dan Tong and colleagues, based in the US and China, in a paper published this week in Nature (see caption to the figure left for the reference).
          I remind you that back in 2009 I said that (scroll down a little here) 'it seems very likely (without a really major change in global human behaviour) that we will exceed our 'safe' 2°C above pre-industrial level (or 1·2°C above the Earth's 2006/7 temperature) warming'.
          Of course, in addition to the fossil fuel power stations currently existing and planned, you can bet your bottom dollar that a decade from now other new proposals for fossil fuel plants will come to be.  So, the question now really is how warm will we continue to drive the planet?
          A decade on from my 2009 essay, this latest Nature research firmly underlines one of my essay's core conclusions.  Of course I do not have a crystal ball but I can hold a number of variables (population, changing energy intensity, fossil fuel consumption, rates of energy system transference etc.) in my mind and calculate the likely near-future broad trends over a few decades.  To my mind, the writing was on the wall back in 2009; today, 2019, it is in Nature.
          This, therefore, will be one of my last posts linking current research to my 2009 essay: over the past decade I have listed subsequent key research that supported my essay's conclusions: matters have almost run to their inevitable conclusion.  However, you do not get off that easily, I will from time to time refer to this essay as we head towards breaking the Paris Accord's limits.
          I am tempted to say, as Sheldon Cooper once did, that I will not repeat that 'I told you so', but from now on I might utter, 'I informed you thusly.'
          I informed you thusly.


Summer 2019 The IPCC has produced a special report, Climate Change and Land, that is garnering news headlines around the world and much comment. The report is rather good but you do need to carefully read the small print including that we do not have a good global figure of agriculture carbon dioxide emissions (the estimates for methane are a little better).  Alas the news headlines (and resulting public debate) are much less robust.  It is impossible to provide a detailed analysis here, but the bottom line is 'yes' we do need to cut down on meat consumption. However this does not necessarily mean that the best option is for everyone to go vegan.
          A few illustrative points in the context of an overcrowded planet:  grassland, permanent pasture animal production produces far less carbon emissions (and grassland itself is a net carbon sink) than grain fed animals;  rugged uplands are not suitable for crop cultivation but can be used for grazing livestock;  sustainable fishing results in few emissions (compared to some forms of intensive fish farming); and, even if you do go vegan, what about your pet dog or cat?  (This last so far is completely missing from the debate, as is the carbon emission heritage people pass on via the number of their offspring.)
          The devil is in the detail.  Whatever else, carefully read the entire report before coming to a policy stance.

This picture (below) took over a quarter of a billion years to prepare.
So I hope you truly appreciate it!

Jonathan Cowie 2019

Interlude.  This is a delta estuary and shallow sea: well, what was an delta or shallow sea some 300 million years ago (mya) in the Carboniferous.  This is Curbar Edge and I'm resting on gritstones or millstone grit (coarse grained sandstones) that were formed in a vast river delta on the edge of the palaeocontinent Euramerica: a delta that once covered much of what is now England.  In the background (Curbar) the valley floor is predominantly limestone formed, even earlier, in a shallow sea some 350 mya and subsequently (300 mya) covered with shales.  The break up of Laurasia, when N. America (Laurentia) began to split from Europe (Fennoscandia), in the late Jurassic (around 150 mya) began some regional uplift which begun to become marked 60 mya. To give you a sense of place in time, this was after the dinosaur K/T (Cretaceous/Tertiary) -- or K/Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) if you prefer the new nomenclature -- extinction.  So the area began to become land in the run up to the Eocene.  On the day this photo was taken, this multi-million year perspective reminded us we still had several hours to go before our sampling, of Anthropocene, microbial excreta of anaerobic respiration waste products from their feeding on squished, vegetative biomass, at a local microbrewery public house.  The things one does for science...

Meanwhile,  back at the plot...


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, yes, I am aware this contrasts with the previous post below.

Summer 2019 The 2019 BP Statistical review of World Energy is now out.  While I have in the past had occasion to interact with the BP Economics Unit who used to produce this annual burst of data, that was a third of a century ago and the way they do things now is a little different.  For very much the most part, there has been an increase in the amount of data they present and this makes this annual guide (along with a number of other separate data sources) even more useful to those with an interest in climate change and the human ecology of energy use.  What's more, it is free to download and very easily located by search engine.

All well and good, but this year I particularly noted BP's Chief Economist's introduction.

"The headline numbers are the rapid growth in energy demand and carbon emissions. Global primary energy grew by 2.9% in 2018 -- the fastest growth since 2010. This occurred despite a modest GDP growth and strengthening energy prices."
At the same time carbon emission from energy grew by 2.0%, again the fastest expansion for many years..."

But it is was this in the context of the Chief Economist's previous introductory section in which he said...

"...there was growing societal awareness and demands for urgent action on climate change, but where the actual energy data continued to move stubbornly in the wrong direction."
A growing mismatch between hopes and reality..."

Two things.  First, this is a fossil fuel company saying this and being very responsible.  Second, I can't help notice how this chimes with my online essay of a decade ago, Can we beat the climate crunch? and its conclusion to the question Can we avoid this threat of serious warming (and carbon dioxide limit)? (having clicked on the afore link you'll need to scroll down to see the conclusions in brown font).

When fossil fuel companies start agreeing with you I move from worrying to the embryonic stages of panic.


Summer 2019 Here is an idea for a science fiction story.  This has been doing the rounds of SF social media and -- as you know I'm into climate change science and also (quite separately) SF -- I thought I'd share in case you don't frequent such places.  (See pic left.)

 

 

 

And remember, Tuesday is Soylent Green day.

 

(Don't worry, got your back Harry)

Jonathan Cowie & Jack Cohen
Jonathan & Jack at the 2005 Worldcon, Glasgow, Scotland.

Summer 2019 Jack Cohen CBiol FIBiol has passed aged 85.  At my 40th birthday bash Jack, unbeknownst to me at the time, decided to take it upon himself to say a few words as the 'only person [there] who knew [me] in both the worlds of biology and that of science fiction'.  And so now, belatedly, I return the favour.  Jack was a bioscientist into reproductive biology including that of humans. And so for a number of years, based at Birmingham University, his work straddled that of biology and working with clinicians assisting people with fertility-fecundity problems.  He was also active within the Institute of Biology (the professional body for British biologists, subsequently rebranded as the Royal Society of Biology).  Among other things, he helped draft the Institute's Royal Charter (recently adopted by the RSB). He served a term on the Institute's Council and at least a couple of stints on the Institute's Biomedical Sciences Committee (which as it happened, as in the 1990s and early 2000s I ended up servicing).  But, if I recall correctly, I first met Jack at Birmingham's science fiction convention, Novacon 8 (though I was also at Novacon 7 as, I'm sure, was Jack).  He had just been on a panel discussing extraterrestrial life, and Jack had been contributing musings on the possible biology thereof.  I do recall that I raised a point of disagreement with him in the panel's Q&A session (I lean towards convergent evolution being a tad more significant than Jack) and that this spilled over into a discussion in the corridor with Jack and I trading biological concepts, scientists' works and finally citing academic papers at each other, before both of us simultaneously asking the other, "who are you?"  Well, Jack, it transpired, was a university lecturer at Birmingham, and I (then) a mere undergraduate at Hatfield.  Anyway, we struck up a friendship and then several years later, when I joined the Institute's secretariat, developed a professional relationship.

          Jack was also known beyond bioscience academia and SF circles, both for his occasional appearances on TV as well as his popular science books and, for biologists, his text books.  These include: Living Embryos (Pergamon, 1963, 1967, 1980), a classic textbook that sold more than 100,000 copies; Spermatozoa, Antibodies and Infertility (with W. F. Hendry, Blackwell 1978); and The Privileged Ape (Parthenon, 1989) that bravely -- we had only been going a couple of years -- name-checks Concatenation.  Jack always (and I truly mean 'always') gave interesting talks and lectures.  But I have to confess I wondered how his students coped? (By the way, one of his students was the Nobel Laureate Prof. Sir Paul Nurse FRS.)  Jack's lectures were invariably an absolute delight to listen to but afterwards one often wondered what was the take-home message: how would his students revise?  As such I always felt that Jack's lectures were a bit like a fireman's hose: providing an extremely powerful delivery but hard to aim.  And so I was delighted when, after over three decades at Birmingham U., Jack moved down the road to Warwick where his occasional collaborator, mathematician Ian Stewart FRS, worked.  Ian, I think it fair to say, helped provide Jack with some focus and together they wrote some remarkable books notably including: The Collapse of Chaos (Viking/Penguin (1994 and 2000) and Evolving the Alien (Ebury, 2002), it has also been released as What Does a Martian Look Like: the science of extra-terrestrial life (Wiley in the US and the Ebury UK paperback also has that title).  (However, Prof. Sir Paul Nurse FRS did send a message, read out at Jack's funeral, saying: 'Jack was an inspirational teacher... Every university department needs one Jack Cohen.')
          Jack and Ian also wrote a couple of SF novels set in the 'Wheelers' universe.  Yet, with regards to the broader genre-reading public Jack and Ian are best known for their series of books with Terry Pratchett on The Science of Discworld. Having said that, Jack did help provide some biology for SF authors' novels including Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern (that also fed into her, and later Todd's, other 'Dragon' books) as well as Harry Harrison's 'Eden' books.
          Jack and I both had an interest in the concept of alien life. It has to be said, as aluded earlier, that here we had our differences: in addition to convergent evolution above, I'm a primacy of water as the principal biological solute man; Jack was more broadminded.  However we did agree about a lot, including that in considering alien biology, we need to divide it into two components: that which is part of the universal rules of life, and that which just happens to be peculiar to the biological evolution on that particular planet.  So in my early days at the Institute of Biology, when I was its Head of Publications, I asked Jack to write an article for Biologist (back then a broad-based academic journal with a reasonably respectable, mid-level citation index a tad above 3.0) and to which I provided a text box. The article is archived here with permission of Rebecca Cohen (Jack's daughter): Cohen, J. (1991) The possibility of life on other planets. Biologist 38 (1), 7 - 10.
          Jack, ever ebullient, always with an interesting take to hand, delightfully quirky and controversial, you were simply a joy.

Jack's obituary is here in Biologist 66 (4), 46. I had referred to Jack as 'Jack' throughout but the editor changed it to his surname.

 

climate change biology   climate change biology

 

climate change biology   climate change biology

 


And I'm not alone.

Spring / Summer 2019 The climate Extinction Rebellion demonstrations take place in London, and the earlier School Strike for Climate in Sweden -- much credit to 16 year-old Greta Thunberg -- as well as Germany, Japan, Britain and Australia and the Extinction Rebellion, all push climate concerns up the political agenda.  This gives me a little optimism.  I am known to colleagues and friends for my pessimism regarding the trajectory of human, global development: the human ecology prognosis has, for over half a century, not been good.  My worries (stemming from school days) were initially brought into greater focus as an undergrad in the 1970s when looking at the methodology of Jay Forrester's World model developed by MIT.  It's output not only works backwards from the 1970s to 1900 (any one can be brilliant with the benefit of hindsight), but (for population, resources (when considered as a proxy for fossil energy) consumption, and agricultural output) we can now see it had successfully forecasted forward for 40 years!

          That's some achievement that no politician or economist or sociology academic that I know of can claim. (Though expect a slow but increasing divergence from the Forrester model's standard run and reality as this century progresses.)

          Meanwhile, my own 1990s examination of the energy-use dimension of human ecology for Climate and Human Change: Disaster or Opportunity? (1998) was not reassuring. Nor was I in the early 2000s for my Cambridge U. Press books which led to my 2009 online essay 'Can we beat the climate crunch?' here on this site.  This essay itself has seen so far a subsequent decade's worth of others' works provide corroboration.

          Our 20th and early 21st century human ecology regimen is simply not sustainable.

          Globally, the political classes have let us down.  But the Ghandi-like Climate Extinction demonstrations and the School Strikes for Climate have helped raise the profile of the issue up the political agenda.

          Now, while I cannot claim to have played a significant role in either Extinction Rebellion or the School Strikes, my works on climate change have been read by thousands including thousands of university lecturers and school teachers.  These lecturers and teachers each in turn have individually taught arguably hundreds of students and school pupils and collectively hundreds of thousands!  I therefore hope it is not too immodest of me to think that perhaps I have played a small positive part in all this, even though I remain pessimistic knowing that much, much more is needed.

Spring 2019 The SF Encyclopaedia now has SF² Concatenation as an entry.  (Which is something of a bigger deal in genre circles than it sounds.)  It was 30 years old as of Easter 2017 SF² Concatenation (our genre arts wing primarily, but not solely, for scientists and technicians who also like science fiction): so it is quite well established and has over the years even picked up a few European SF Society (Eurocon) Awards (most recently here).  All well and good but it has never had an entry in the Hugo Award-winning SF Encyclopaedia.  In fairness to the kind folk at the Encyclopaedia, one of their team did ask us for information a few (several) years ago but none of us got around to it.   Until now, that is.  Now, up on the online (the paper version got too big), SF Encyclopaedia, SF² Concatenation has an entry. You can find it here www.sf-encyclopedia. com/entry/science_fact_and _science_fiction _concatenation.

(Meanwhile, this entry complements an older, shorter one over on the SF Fan Cyclopaedia at fancyclopedia.org/the-science-fact-fiction-concatenation.)

 

 


 

 

Graham Connor & Jonathan Cowie
Graham and Jonathan (2005).

Spring 2019 Graham Connor article now up over at SF² Concatenation.  My longstanding (over four decades) compatriot, co-founding editor of SF² Concatenation, physicist (please don't hold that against him), and fellow the Big Bang Theorist, sadly left us on Boxing DaySF² Concatenation has the article on Graham's life in SF and space (he was a spacecraft microwave communications designer and developer).  (For long-term, future preservation purposes an archive version is here on this site.)  The prospect of next Christmas has little allure.

A farewell (right) to Graham from the science fiction community.

 

 

Graham was included in the 2019 SF Worldcon in memoriam roll to mark those we have lost from the international science fiction community.  As is usual, it took place midway through the Hugo Awards ceremony.

Graham Connor in memoriam 2019 Worldcon
Video here (7 minutes, Graham scrolls at 2 mins, 2 seconds).

 

 


 

 

Winter 2019 Earth System transitions: How resilient is the biosphere?  More continuing professional development (CPD analogous to CME for biomedical visitors) with a two-day symposium on the afore topic.  This sort of ties in with the NERC Biosphere Evolution, Transitions & Resilience research programme and which builds upon the 2012 Neoproterozoic Era: Evolution, Glaciation and Oxygenation Snowball Earth II and the 2011 Life & the Planet symposia, all of which were run by the Earth System Science group of the Geological Society.

          It has to be said that this was a bit of a hotchpotch of papers rather than an exposition of a particular science narrative: this event was really a catch-up on some of the areas of current Earth system science research.  No problem here as it has been seven years (really, that long!) since the last Earth System's Science Group symposium.
          Ground covered included:  a major pulse of carbon dioxide contributed to the end-Permian extinction (this chimed with 2018 Mass Extinctions symposium and the 2017 Royal Society Hyperthermals symposia (which I see I failed to blog about previously));  end-Permian mutations possibly caused by heavy metal release or UV light following ozone depletion;  the use of 7Li as a proxy for silicate weathering;  and that across deep time since the Cambrian the long-term trend in declining extinction rates suggests that the Earth-system is, in long-term terms, becoming increasingly resilient, but that the system is currently in a semi-stable mode (and so now is not a good time to give it a greenhouse kick).
          Tyler Volk, visiting from the US, gave an intriguing narrative talk on the evolutionary progression from prokaryotes, to eukaryotes, to multicellular life, to socio-biological groups and the possible forthcoming planet-wide organisational structures.  Lee Klinger, again from the US, gave examples of traditional native American, as well as early colonist biological management (bio-conservation) strategies, that we seem to have forgotten but which do confer ecosystem-level resilience.
          Sadly President Trump's shutdown of governmental expenditure prevented Douglas Erwin of the Smithsonian giving a plenary on evolution, resilience and stability in the Phanerozoic. (I was looking forward to that.) The Trump-caused uncertainty meant that the symposia's abstract booklet was not produced as a hard copy. Fortunately, meeting secretariat Ruth Davey kindly printed out the PDF for me (a perk of being a Geological Society Fellow?): after all, one needs to make notes annotating the abstracts when attending symposia.

 


Argo float deployment. (© Cheng et al [see bottom of text right for source] reproduced under fair use in the context of a review .)

Winter 2019 New estimates indicate faster ocean warming.  One of the audience questions oft asked in my climate change talks of the early 2010s was how come global warming seems to have stalled?  This is because the Climatic Research Unit and the UK Met Office data for warming showed that since the 1998 peak, through to 2013, there was no extra warming.  This helped fuel climate deniers' arguments in the 2000s.  Actually what was likely happening, as I would point out, was that the aforementioned climate data related to surface temperatures; it ignored the heat within the oceans.  We did have some data but it was not as complete as the data gained from surface monitoring.  The data is still incomplete (especially for waters below 2 km) but as Lijing Cheng, John Abraham, Zeke Hausfather and Kevin E. Trenberth, have just pointed out, in a perspective paper in the journal Science, we are slowly getting a better handle on ocean temperatures.  Part of this improvement in understanding comes from the Argo network of some 3,000 buoys in the early 2000s that measure temperatures in the top 2 km of the oceans.
          These have confirmed that the planet's oceans have absorbed about 250 x 1021 joules (250 zettajoules) between 1990 and 2018.  This figure is in broad agreement with the latest Earth system computer models.  Combining these real-life measurements with the models, suggests that the oceans have absorbed around a third more energy (in terms of watts per square metre) than the IPCC's 2013/4 Assessment Report 5 concluded.  Because of thermal expansion of water, this has a considerable impact on sea-level rise projections, which now have to be revised upwards.
          This is something I have long-time argued given that the glacial to interglacial sea-level rise (20,000 to 15,000 years ago) was at times up to 3 metres a century, which is far greater (four or five times) than the IPCC worse case forecast estimates for the 21st century.  (I mentioned this in my books Climate and Human Change (1998) and Climate Change: Biological & Human Aspects (2013) pages 334-5.)  Of course, the greenhouse kick we have given the Earth system, in the 20th century combined with that estimated for the 21st century, is greater than that which naturally occurred in the last glacial-to-interglacial transition.  The reason I have not given warning of possible, even greater, sea level rise is because of inertia of the Earth system: it takes time for the system to adjust. Also, I do not want to appear alarmist.
          See Cheng, L. et al, 2019, How fast are the oceans warming? Science, vol. 363 (6423), p128-129.

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