Science, seas and saving the world.

No, no, it’s me that needs to apologise for lateness! It was my turn to blog, but life rather caught up with me over the last few weeks. Anyhow, you get two this week both related to events that we have attended.

Although not in New York, last night I attended the inaugural professorial lecture by Professor Camille Parmesan, who has just started working at Plymouth University, having come from the University of Texas where her work has concentrated on the evidence and impact of climate change, particularly in marine environments. She was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won the Nobel Prize a few years back.

Her lecture was fascinating, but exceptionally worrying. She initially concentrated on marine ecosystems about which we don’t have too much long-term data but the more recent stuff is far more robust and detailed. The news is not good to put it mildly.  The maps she showed of fish population collapses in the North Atlantic where startling. Current density maps would not even register on the scales used on such maps from 30 years ago. Populations have declined by orders of magnitude. As she pointed out this has far more to do with over-fishing, but she went on to show that removing fish ‘weakens’ the ecology of the system making it less resilient to climate change. Fish have a vital role in helping systems adapt to change, without them the seas are far more vulnerable to algal blooms, eutrophic enrichment and eventual ecological collapse.

Well. OK, that’s bad news for the fish (oh and marine mammals, crustacean, corals etc etc) but we had the good sense to get out of the seas millions of years ago. We live on the land, we’ll be alright. Well, unfortunately not. As in the second half of the lecture she presented some of the up to date data from the IPCC. She started with the famous IPCC graph of the range of predicted global temperature changes.  Of course we’re a good 10 to 15 years into those predictions now and she showed that based on data from the last decade we can now abandon the lower ranges. The mid range prediction of a 2oC rise in temperature by 2100 is now the lower.  The upper of 4oC is now the mid, and so on.

So, what does a 2oC temperature change (remember, the lowest prediction now) look like? Well, this would mean we’d lose 30% of species presently on the planet (even higher in marine ecosystems.)  This is not through the direct increase in temperature, but a complex range of biogeographical factors such as shifts in food chains, disruption to breeding cycles and simply being unable to move to where they could survive, because of immobility or geographical barriers (such as deserts, oceans or mountain ranges). Well, OK, so a few things I’ve never seen before die out, big deal. Oh, by the way sea level would rise by 1 metre threatening most coastal, or low lying cities (New York, London, Paris etc) and countries (Holland, Bangladesh, to name a couple of the most densely populated countries in the world).

The 4oC change (mid-range prediction) is even more profound. At this point we look to lose 70 – 80% of all species on the planet (all corals become extinct – the sea becomes too warm). To her credit, she resisted ‘painting futures’ but rather looked back at the geological record. There have been a few times in the geologically recent (say 500,000 years) where temperatures have been 2oC higher than today. To find temperatures 4oC higher, you have to go back 4 million years. A time at which a good deal of life present today hadn’t even evolved. The phrase she used to describe a 4oC increase in temperature has stayed with me; “At this point we have a different world”.

Now Professor Parmesan was only talking about the ecology of the planet, not the social, economic and political implications for humankind, which of course are equally, if not more, profound.

She did however, briefly put some data up concerning present consumption, the most intriguing being the ‘Day in the Life of a German” (not sure why a German). This was a graph of energy usage across the day. It starts with them getting up and putting the kettle on, making breakfast, turning on the radio, all of which are small peaks. Then the central heating comes on and the graph spikes. Not all that unexpected, but there is a second even bigger spike in the afternoon. This is the point when they ate a bowl of strawberries. The energy consumption of growing ‘out of season’ fruit (and salad leaves) is huge. Heating a double glazed, insulated house is one thing; heating 1000 kms of polythene-covered greenhouses is something else.

Of course science has a huge role to play. Accurate and increasingly precise data has been collected, collated and analysed by the international scientific community. The minority of dissenting voices is so small now (even on the political right) that they can be ignored. Predictions are only that, but monitoring the change provides irrefutable data and allows us to evaluate our detrimental or remedial actions.

David Orr has argued that so bad has the crisis become that Universities should exclusively teach courses that can contribute directly to overcoming these huge global issues. Any thing else is irrelevant. It’s hard to disagree. Education is a key point, but individual responsibility isn’t far behind. I don’t mean just recycling paper, or turning lights off (although that’s useful) but rather in the scientific community we really need to look at what we’re using our training for? Why did we become scientists in the first place? I doubt if it was to help destroy the world. Perhaps each night on the bus home, we should ask ourselves “What have I done as part of my work today to help save the world?” With all our rational understanding of climate change and its implications for our children, I wonder what your answer would be.