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 pause in public understanding of climate change

by Simon Donner

The latest issue of Nature Climate Change just came out with a special focus on the current slowdown (or “pause”) in surface temperature change. Among the six commentaries published is “Pause for Thought,” which discusses how the subject has been communicated (the commentary has also been blogged on by one of the authors, Tamsin Edwards, here). This is a re-post from the old site in relation to this.

The Fifth IPCC assessment report on the physical science of climate change was released this past September. It is probably the largest, most comprehensive scientific assessment in history.  Not just of climate change, but of any scientific subject. Really. Try to think of any scientific report with more contributors, more citations, more reviewers, more pages, and more preparation time.

Unfortunately, the report was overshadowed somewhat by confusion about a perceived slowdown in the rate of global warming. The graph at right, is based on the GISS estimates of global average surface temperatures since the early 1970s. There is a clear signal of rising temperatures amidst the noise of natural variability.

The slowdown in surface temperature change is part of that natural variability.  The planet is still gaining extra heat due to human enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. As we described in the previous post, the difference is that over the past decade or so, a larger proportion of that heat than normal has gone into the deep ocean. In a few years, the yin of deep ocean heating will give way to the yang of surface temperature warming. When conditions in the Pacific Ocean again allow the development of a strong, traditional El Nino event – a la 1997/8, or 1982/3 – we’ll see new global surface temperature records.

The media noise surrounding the perceived slowdown is part of the  natural variability of public understanding of climate change. Our research has shown that public attitudes about climate change in the United States ebb and flow with the climate. After a cool period, people tend to be less convinced and less concerned about climate change.

It’s worth imagining different labels on the axes of the temperature graph. The public conversation about climate warming follows a similarly noisy trajectory. There is a long-term trend towards greater public understanding, better reporting, and better informed discussion at the political level. There is also variability, due to the natural ups and downs of the climate, current events, etc.

This is the natural process of knowledge acquisition. We’re learning more and more about how the planet works over time. The path, however, is not smooth. There are also periods when the knowledge in the scientific community or the public barely changes, or even goes in the wrong direction before jumping back onto an upward trajectory. There is plenty of evidence for brief periods of “negative learning” in the recent history, including scientific understanding of the causes of ozone destruction.

Years from now, we’ll look back at this temporary slowdown in the rate of surface temperature warming and shake our heads. This is a temporary landing in the middle of the stairwell of rising air temperatures and rising public acceptance of the magnitude of the human role in climate change.

Adapting to climate change, in the real world

by Simon Donner

The world needs to adapt to climate change. Regardless of the level of effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some adaptation will be necessary.

The adaptation challenge is thought to be greatest in the developing world, especially “least developed countries”, which are in the unfair position of being the least prepared to respond to a problem they did not create. In response, developed countries and international institutions like the World Bank are increasingly directing aid towards climate change adaptation. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the developed world has agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change.

New sea wall in Tarawa, Kiribati, with author for reference (2012)

How will this work on the ground? How will adaptation decisions be made, given that the future is uncertain and countries are relying on the highly imperfect international development apparatus for resources and expertise?

There is a lot of terrific theoretical work on the “coulds” and “shoulds” of adaptation, but less forensic analysis of how it happens on the ground.

A new paper by Sophie Webber and I in Sustainability Science attempts to fill that gap, using a case study of preparing for sea level rise in Kiribati. As home to the World Bank’s first climate change adaptation project, Kiribati is an ideal place to learn about the challenges of adaptation on the ground (close to the ocean as that ground may be!).

The paper builds on interviews conducted over the years of field work in Kiribati. We try to trace the many forces influencing decisions,  including the uncertainty about future sea level, the trade-offs between different adaptation options (e.g. sea walls, mangrove planting) and the local cultural, political and economic context. Along the way, we identify some useful lessons from the Kiribati experience, like the value of short planning horizons to reduce trade-offs and scientific uncertainty. The story of the sea wall in that photo helps illustrate what adaptation is often like in the real world: complicated, messy and expensive, no matter how pure the intentions. From the conclusion:

 Visitors to Tarawa can see the office of the Kiribati Adaptation Project, public notices and signs, new seawalls, equipment for the mid-lagoon dredging project, mangrove saplings planted alongside several causeways, new water tanks in certain villages, and construction of new water pipes for the reticulation system. Like all first steps, these initial actions towards adapting to an uncertain future are cautious, unsure and sometimes backwards.

Tips on Science Communication, from CBC Meteorologist Claire Martin

by Meghan Beamish

Science communication is like sex: at first, when you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be pretty terrible for both parties. But, as you do it more and more, you get better and better at it.

This was the slightly risque, but fairly apt metaphor that Claire Martin left us with at a seminar organized by TerreWEB, a program here at UBC that trains graduate students in communicating their studies to a wider audience. Claire is an on-air meteorologist for CBC, but she is no ordinary meteorologist. She has won numerous awards and recognition for her engaging and successful exploits in the world of science communication. Last Friday, she shared with us “How to communicate science and not bore your audience to death.”

Bore us she did not. Claire presented some very useful things to think about when we are communicating science — to any audience.

Something that really stood out to me from the beginning was that “really good communication doesn’t come perfectly packaged.” That is to say, there is no one best way to communicate. It varies from person to person and audience to audience. But there are key components to successful science communication.

Throughout the talk, Claire referred to an imaginary mind map which shows the key components of science communication. It looked a little like this:

The science component is self-explanatory, but absolutely essential. You must know your stuff. She opened with this phrase,  so that if any of us fell asleep or walked out, we still knew that we need to know our science. If you stop reading this post here, remember: know what you are talking about, and know it well! And for those times that you are wrong (and we all have them) own up to it. It makes you personable and keeps you reputable.

The second most important thing that Claire emphasized is to know your audience. This falls under that Social Science bubble. How we engage with an audience – the way we talk, the questions that we ask, the angle from which we approach the topic – should vary from audience to audience. Claire “profiled” us as she was presenting, and from the number of smiles and nods, I’d say that she was pretty dead on. Whenever you are preparing to present, take a minute and think about your audience. Where are they coming from?  Start with a broad sketch and then narrow it down.

And, like Claire emphasized in her closing metaphor, the more thoughtfully you profile, the better and easier engaging with different audiences will become. She talked about the importance of talking to challenging audiences, including places where you and your views may not be wanted.  This really resonated with me.  If we keep communicating within our comfort zones, then it will be impossible to share important messages about science outside our tribe. It is often those people outside your tribe who are most important to reach.

Along those lines, Claire provided some good advice for talking to people who don’t really want to listen to you: Listen to them. Tell them that you understand where they are coming from and engage in a real two-way conversation. And, most importantly, know the arguments that you are – and are not – going to win. I hesitate to even use the word argument here, for arguing is not a sign of effective and constructive communication. So, I’ll rephrase: know which subject can be communicated effectively in that situation, and which ones cannot.

Going back to the idea that there is no one style of effective science communication, Claire ended her presentation by showing us two videos. The first was produced by The Weather Network and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (now the Canadian Climate Forum). The vignette was about climate and the Arctic, and it seamlessly jumped from researcher interview clip to panning across the Arctic tundra. It was sleek, carefully edited, polished, engaging and effective. I couldn’t find the video online, which may be a comment on how well it actually engaged people.

I’ll leave you with the other video, from school teacher Greg Craven. It is not sleek, carefully edited, or polished, but it is brilliantly engaging and effective.



Engaging the Public Without Disengaging from Science

by Simon Donner; this is a re-post from the old site, in light of some discussions, rational and not, that followed Michael Mann’s recent op-ed “If you see something, say something” on scientists’ responsibility to speak up about the impacts of climate change:

A few years ago, I found myself at a retreat with a group of highly accomplished scientists from around the continent. Why, I don’t know. I suspect my invitation came much as it would to a team’s equipment person, who are still needed during practice drills on the road to fetch all the loose balls.

On the penultimate evening, the discussion turned to the challenge of balancing science and outreach. The very unscientific activities of the retreat had wore down the competitive academic armour that most successful scientists wear like second skin, and revealed a surprising vulnerability among the group. Most everyone held an existential fear of this mysterious force, which most often went by the moniker “they”.

You see, this “they” held ultimate power over careers and was adamantly opposed to scientists spending time on outreach, rather than research. At the time, I thought that young scientists starting out their careers should be afraid to do outreach because of judgement by people like those at the retreat. Yet here were some tenured faculty, people with, arguably, the safest jobs in the world, themselves feeling they did not have the freedom to do outreach. It was eye-opening.

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