Context-based climate learning

by Meghan Beamish

One of the central tenets of effective climate change communication (actually, any form of communication) is to know your audience. This tenet is centred around the fact that we all have a background that influences who we are and what we choose to believe. Our communities, families, religions, experiences, jobs all play a decisive role in determining how we react to and digest information that is presented to us. We all have a context.

But, if new information does not align with our established contexts, problems arise. Sometimes the information, no matter how scientifically true, is discarded. This is when facts are not enough.

In a recent Perspective in  Nature Climate Change, Elizabeth M. Walsh and Blakely K. Tsurusaki make a case for context-based climate education. I suggest going through and reading the whole thing, especially if you are interested in climate change education (and, even if you aren’t, the ideas and concepts that they present are applicable to wider science communication). It is a well crafted and engaging read. But I’ll paint a bit of a picture for you.

The way that I understand it, context-based climate education uses students’ backgrounds and initial understandings of climate systems as a starting point, and then works from there. Students and teachers explore why conflicting perceptions of climate change exist, while they integrate the scientific facts into lessons. This is an approach that requires deep engagement on both sides of the student-teacher relationship, but it doesn’t seem to require anything too radical:

Something as simple as having a discussion or giving a short survey can reveal not only students’ initial conceptual understandings, but also the interests, values, attitudes and relevant home and community practices that can be leveraged in a classroom to support holistic climate change learning.

Some advice for educators:

Rather than seeing controversies as something to be feared or relegated to a non-science class, we should instead view this as an opportunity to foster deeper science learning and to engage students in exciting, cutting-edge science.

I’ve seen this melding of  the science and social controversy in university level courses – here at UBC in Simon’s Climate Change: Science and Society, and in this recent New York Times article. If you ask me, these courses should be a graduation requirement for all, and the idea of combining scientific and critical-social thinking in high-school classrooms is a challenging but inspiring idea.

While the Walsh and Tsurusaki article focuses primarily on classroom education, the authors also make it clear that by engaging a person’s context into the climate discussion, we can foster deeper understandings of climate systems and the social controversy that exists around anthropogenic climate change.

So my advice to us all: let’s think about context. Start by thinking about your audience’s context. Maybe even take a survey. Then, encourage your audience to think about their own context.


The Vancouver Accord – An International Climate Change Agreement

by Simon Donner

Today, my class completed the “20th” Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Groups of students representing 25 different countries worked feverishly to complete an agreement, submitting the final text with only a minute to spare.

The final product features many creative and detailed solutions to ongoing international climate policy disputes. Perhaps students should replace the delegates to the upcoming COP in Lima this fall!

Without further ado, here is the text of the Vancouver Accord, without the many bilateral side agreements:


1. The parties of this convention agree with the findings of the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that climate change represents a serious threat to the ecological and economic future of the planet.

2. A central goal of long-term collective action is the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at level that will keep global surface warming at minimum of 2°C above the pre-industrial average, contingent on the developed world providing financial and technical support to the developing world. Continue reading


A cooling conundrum: Surviving the heat waves of the future

by Meghan Beamish

If you’ve seen the new IPCC Working Group II report, you’ve probably seen this pretty graphic:

It shows  the observed impacts which published research studies have attributed to climate change in each of seven main regions (and sub regions) of the world. In addition to the observed impacts, the IPCC also published a table of the risks to human and natural systems (Figure SPM.1 if you are following along in the Summary for Policymakers). Risks result from the interaction of climate-related hazards with vulnerability and exposure (of both human and natural systems). Because I live in North America, I honed in on the greatest risks for my continent: wildfire-induced damage, flooding, and heat-related human mortality.

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where summer temperatures push 30-40 °C. So that “heat-related human mortality” risk stood out to me. Here are the adaptation issues and prospects that the IPCC outlines for heat-related human mortality:

Residential air conditions (A/C) can effectively reduce risk. However, availability and usage of A/C is highly variable and is subject to complete loss during power failures. Vulnerable populations include athletes and outdoor workers for whom A/C is not available

Community- and household-scale adaptations have the potential to reduce exposure to heat extremes via family support, early heat warming systems, cooling centers, greening, and high-albedo surfaces.

Arguably, arid, hot cities in the Desert Southwest may already be the best adapted to this heat risk. Well, sort of.

Air conditioning is already a way of life in the Southwest. Most homes have some form of air conditioning; when I first moved to Vancouver, it had – embarrassingly – never really occurred to me that they sold – scratch that, made - cars and had apartments without air conditioning. The easy and logical response to those record-high summer days is to crank the A/C. But, while these cool houses in New Mexico reduce the risk of heat-related mortality, relying on current cooling mechanisms is not the best way to adapt to rising temperatures.

Many homes in the Southwest US, where it’s hot and dry, use evaporative cooling systems, what we call swamp coolers. Swamp coolers are fairly inexpensive to operate, and are low-energy users. They will only cool the air within a restricted range, so, when it gets really hot out, they will only reduce the indoor temperature by a certain amount rather than down to the desired temperature set on a thermostat (this also obviously depends on many other factors as well, like insulation).

Swamp coolers don’t work well when it gets humid during our brief “monsoon” season in the late summer. In addition to this, they use a lot of water – anywhere from 3.5-10.5 gallons per hour depending on the valve type. Taking into account that, according to NOAA, the entire state of New Mexico is currently in a moderate to extreme drought, swamp coolers are not ideal.

NOAA Drought Monitor


The other popular cooling mechanism (and the type that is used in most of the rest of the country) is refrigerated air. The upside of refrigerated air units is that that they don’t use any water and they can cool larger spaces to a more precise temperature range. The downside is that they are expensive and use about three times as much energy as swamp coolers. With the majority of New Mexico’s energy still coming from coal power, using refrigerated air as an adaptation is in direct opposition to the mitigation of climate change.

The IPCC suggests that household cooling and cooling centres are potential adaptations to heat-related mortality risks. There is a significant irony in that suggestion. By turning up the A/C on those record-high summer days, we enter a nasty positive-feedback loop. This cooling conundrum isn’t a new issue: check out Stan Cox’s Cooling a Warming Planet: A Global Air Conditioning Surge from Yale Environment 360 back in 2012. Promoting alternative ways to keep houses cool, such as through building practices and alternative cooling mechanisms – with, of course, alternative energy sources -  is necessary to reduce the risk of heat-related mortalities without contributing to climate change.


The IPCC and finding the balance between science and advocacy

by Simon Donner

Media coverage of the latest Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has followed the usual Goldilocks and the Three Bears pattern. The report, which focuses on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, is either too soft (too conservative), too hard (overstating impacts, veering into advocacy) or just right.

Which is it? One problem is that every scientist or journalist you ask will have a different answer on the “right” IPCC message and the right next steps for the world. The answer depends a bit on the values of the person making the judgement. If the answer comes from a scientist – a profession with respect in society – the judgement will be seen as objective. Scientists, however, are also human beings! So, like the rest of humanity, our judgements can be influenced by our values.

The question of how scientists can choose their place on this continuum between science and advocacy is the subject of my new essay in Climatic Change.  The concept is straight-forward:

Scientists may be best served viewing science and advocacy as different ends of an approximate continuum. On the science-dominant end, judgements are more objective in nature. As scientists proceed towards the advocacy side of the continuum, personal worldview tends to have a greater influence on those judgements. The scientific uncertainty embedded in those judgements tends to increase, as scientists must draw upon additional models or decision-making processes each of which contain some uncertainty. The professional risk of judgements also increases along the continuum due to the cultural norms of science and the public perception of science as objective.

From there, I write about how scientists can be “scientific” about public engagement — make choices based on the available research on communications, advocacy, perception of scientists, and leakage of “normative” judgements into scientific decisions. My hope is that scientists will think carefully about their personal comfort level, whom they represent (in their eyes, and in the audience’s eyes), and the effectiveness of their chosen position:

The only “wrong” position on the continuum is one assigned by others or chosen without careful reflection.

What about the IPCC? Despite what you may read, the IPCC panels themselves are extremely thoughtful about providing an objective reading of the findings, often spending hours, even days, debating about how individual words will be perceived. This is reflected in the careful language the latest IPCC report uses surrounding the definition of “dangerous” climate change:

Human influence on the climate system is clear. Yet determining whether such influence constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference” in the words of Article 2 of the UNFCCC involves both risk assessment and value judgments.

Conservative? Alarmist? You be the judge. That’s the whole point.


Quote of the Week: Time Magazine on climate change, in 1956

“Since the start of the industrial revolution, mankind has been burning fossil fuel (coal, oil, etc.) and adding its carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In 50 years or so this process, says Director Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, may have a violent effect on the earth’s climate…

Dr. Revelle has not reached the stage of warning against this catastrophe, but he and other geophysicists intend to keep watching and recording. During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), teams of scientists will take inventory of the earth’s CO2 and observe how it shifts between air and sea. They will try to find out whether the CO2 blanket has been growing thicker, and what the effect has been. When all their data have been studied, they may be able to predict whether man’s factory chimneys and auto exhausts will eventually cause salt water to flow in the streets of New York and London.”

- “One Big Greenhouse“, Time Magazine, May 28, 1956

As part of the International Geophysical year, Revelle’s post-doctoral associate David Keeling established the CO2 monitoring station atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii (photos taken by an embarrassingly excited S. Donner). The now famous Keeling Curve is the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 measurements.

Funding for the regular measurements at Mauna Loa has long been an issue. You can now donate directly through a crowd-sourcing program to maintain this incredible record of planetary change.


The full range of future sea level rise, and what it means

High tide in Caqelai, Fiji reaches an old table (S. Donner)

by Simon Donner

We have been thinking a lot here about sea level rise, from the effect on tides to the UNESCO heritage sites at risk. If you search the media for the most recent IPCC sea level rise predictions, you’ll read that the 2013 report concluded that sea level was “likely” to increase by 45-82 cm by the “end of the century”. These numbers are misleading for two reasons, as was explained very well in a December letter to Science magazine by the very authors of the IPCC sea level rise chapter. The nuances may be important when making adaptation decisions.

First, what people present as “end of century” from the IPCC is, technically, an average of model-projected values for the year 2081 through the year 2100. Since sea level is expected to be rising rapidly at the end of the century – 8-16 mm/year, up to five times today’s rate – the difference between an average for those last twenty years and the value for actual end of the century is meaningful. The “likely” range for 2100 is actually 52 – 98 cm, not 45-82 cm. Continue reading


What do you get when you cross Art History and climate change?

by Meghan Beamish

People often stop and give me a funny look when I tell them that I am working on a double major in Art History and Geography. After that look, they invariably ask how these two fields relate to each other. To the surprise of many, they can actually complement each other quite nicely at times. Although, I will admit, when it comes to climate change and art history, the overlap is a little more rare. Which is why I get very excited when I come across papers that combine the two topics. Add a little GIS analysis in there and I am thoroughly hooked.

So, what do get when you cross Art History and global climate change?

The caves at Elephanta are at risk to sea-level rise.
(image courtesy of UNESCO, taken by Francesco Bandarin)

Continue reading


Quote of the week: Zadie Smith on Climate Change and memory

by Simon Donner

“And then also it’s important to remember that the necessary conditions of our lives—those things that seem to us unavoidably to be the case—are not only debated by physicists and philosophers but exist, irrationally, in the minds of the rest of us, beneath contempt intellectually, perhaps, but we still experience them as permanent facts. The climate was one of those facts. We did not think it could change. That is, we always knew we could do a great deal of damage to this planet, but even the most hubristic among us had not imagined we would ever be able to fundamentally change its rhythms and character, just as a child who has screamed all day at her father still does not expect to see him lie down on the kitchen floor and weep. Now, do you think that’ll get me off the hook with my (slightly tiresome and judgmental) future granddaughter? I worry.”

The only problem with Zadie Smith’s beautiful New York Review of Books essay Elegy for a Country’s Seasons is choosing just one passage to quote.  Read the whole thing.


Changing tides, by more (or less) than you might think

by Christopher Quick

Unless you are Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, you probably know that rise and fall of the tides are driven by the forces of Sun, Moon and Earth’s rotation. In the time frame of our lives these forces stay pretty much the same.

Recent modelling studies like Pickering et al., 2012, however, have shown that things may not be so simple. There is good reason to believe that the behaviour of the tides will change as the climate continues to warm and the seas continue to rise.

The difference between water levels at the high and low tides is called the tidal amplitude. If the tidal amplitude were to increase then the threat of flooding would also increase. This becomes even more significant when you consider that if a storm hits during a high tide, the storm surge could be very damaging. That was the case with Hurricane Sandy’s large storm surge; Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey / New York City region during a spring tide, when we observe the very highest tides of the month. Sea level rise contributed to Sandy’s large storm surge, although probably only by a few extra centimetres.

The impact of sea level rise on tidal amplitude could be much greater in some locations because of the local bathymetry and water dynamics. In a modelling study of NW Europe, Pickering et al. project increase in tidal amplitude of up to 35 cm in certain areas with 2 meters of global sea level rise. These forecasts are for the “M2 tide”, the tide that varies on a 12 hour cycle and gives us the usual high and low tide levels. The periodic high spring tides would see even greater change in tidal amplitude with rising sea levels.

Other areas would get relief due to changing tides. For example, Newport, UK was modelled to have the range between high and low tides drop by 39 cm under a 2 m sea level rise. The largest change in tidal amplitude was at St. Malo in France, where a 49 cm decrease in amplitude is projected.

The project changes in tidal amplitude is good news for some areas since a reduction in the maximum height of the tide can help reduce the threat of rising seas. On the other hand, some areas would see increases in flood risk if this model is correct. Under a 10 metre sea level rise, tides could change in amplitude by about one metre relative to what we observe today. Granted, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that we will see a 2 metre rise by the end of the century, let alone 10 metres (at the upper-bound of models in the last IPCC report was about 1 metre by 2100). Sea level is likely to rise by 1-3 metres by the end of the 23rd century without any efforts to slow climate change.

Now a little bit of physics…

There are a few reasons why raising the sea level – and changing the water depth – could alter how tides behave. One is the physics of tides, which you can think of as slow, broad waves. Waves curl because the bottom of the moving water is slowed by friction as it enters shallow water while the top continues at the same speed and rolls over. For similar reasons, as you increase sea levels in previously shallow areas, the friction between the water and the ocean bottom is reduced so the waves reach greater heights than they would previously.

Another reason for the change in tidal amplitude is the interaction between the shape of our shoreline and the tide “waves”. In some situations waves achieve resonance, or a state where waves interact in such a way to make the waves bigger. This is why you see the world’s largest tidal amplitude in Canada’s Bay of Fundy. Sea level rise can impact resonance in two ways. First, as sea levels change, the points from which the tide waves appear to be generated from can shift. Second, the speed of waves can change, which alters how waves enter the bay and interact with each other. Both of these reasons lead to a change in resonance and either higher or lower tidal ranges.

So all in all, this is something else to consider when deciding how to respond to or minimize the effects of sea level rise. Pickering et al. point out how this information should be considered when building adaptation infrastructure like sea walls or even in renewable energy projects like tidal power.

Reference: Pickering, M.D., Wells, N.C., Horsburgh, K.J. and Green, J.A.M. 2012. The impact of future sea-level rise on the European Shelf tides. Continental Shelf Research, 35.



Quote of the Week: Inez Fung

By Meghan Beamish

“Uncertainty does not challenge my certainty about the fact the planet will warm.”

Last week the Royal Society and the US Academy of Sciences published an overview of Climate Change Evidence and Causes. It is a short, approachable, and comprehensive publication that addresses key questions about climate change. John Roach pulled out this pithy quote from Inez Fung (one of the co-lead authors of the report and atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Berkley) in his NBC News coverage of the report. If you have an hour and a half to spare, you can check out the published webcast of a discussion with the authors here. Also, some good commentary can be found over at Rabbet Run.