The rate of change

by Meghan Beamish

While reading through the latest IPCC reports – Working Groups II and III – one word kept popping out at me: rate. Specifically when I compared this phrase:

The overall risks of climate change impacts can be reduced by limiting the rate and
magnitude of climate change.

To this:

About half of cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred in the last 40 years (high confidence).

With this summary of adaptation plans in North America (I added the emphasis):

In North America, governments are engaging in incremental adaptation assessment and planning, particularly at the municipal level. Some proactive adaptation is occurring to protect longer-term investments in energy and public infrastructure.

And this:

Within this century, magnitudes and rates of climate change associated with medium- to high-emission scenarios (RCP4.5, 6.0, and 8.5) pose high risk of abrupt and irreversible regional-scale change in the composition, structure, and function of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, including wetlands (medium confidence).

And finally:

Greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits (high confidence). Limits to adaptation occur when adaptive actions to avoid intolerable risks for an actor’s objectives or for the needs of a system are not possible or are not currently available. Value-based judgments of what constitutes an intolerable risk may differ. Limits to adaptation emerge from the interaction among climate change and biophysical and/or socioeconomic constraints.

So, I suppose my question is, do our rates of adaptation and mitigation match the rates of climate change?

Beautiful, old things

by Meghan Beamish

From my 81 year old Grandma to rugged old juniper trees, those who have been living for a long time can teach us a lot. Examining the past is critical for understanding our current climate and making projections for the future. Rachel Saussman has been traveling the world to photograph some of the world’s oldest living things. Take a minute (or 2:57, to be exact) and enjoy the beautiful, old things in life.

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.

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.

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)

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