Arctic ice loss could be making Britain's winters colder and snowier

  • 28 Feb 2012, 14:45
  • Verity Payne

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

You've probably heard a lot in recent years about how Arctic sea ice is melting. So what's the big deal? After all, the Arctic's a fair distance away and you're not a polar bear.

Scientists worry that changes in the Arctic will have knock-on effects in other parts of the world, including closer to home. This includes on our winter weather, with three separate scientific studies published this year linking the loss of Arctic sea to cold and snowy winters here in Europe.

The  most recent of these studies, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes from a team of researchers (incidentally including well-known blogging scientist Judith Curry) from Georgia Tech University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Columbia University.

The team used observational data along with climate models to examine whether there was a link between Arctic sea ice loss and the unusually large snowfall in Northern Hemisphere winters over recent years. 


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Green costs on energy bills 101

  • 28 Feb 2012, 09:00
  • Robin Webster

How much of your energy bill pays for government 'green' policies aiming to reduce energy waste and cut carbon emissions? You could be forgiven for being a little confused, given that the media coverage of the issue has been conflicting and at times misleading.

There's a smorgasbord of numbers out there which are often taken from deep within technical-looking documents from organisations like UK energy regulator Ofgem which, if we're honest, is good at knowing a lot about the mechanisms of the electricity market, but not great at having a easy to use website.

In practice there are two main bodies who assess these costs - The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and Ofgem. Reports in the media and produced by other groups are often either based on these figures - or esoteric interpretations of them.

So here's a cut-out-and-keep primer on what the numbers are and where they come from, as clear as we can make it.

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Impact on climate from sinking clouds? Too early to say

  • 27 Feb 2012, 12:48
  • Verity Payne

If the sky seems particularly oppressive and grey today, maybe because it's closing in. Or, to be more precise, clouds actually sank a little over the first decade of this century, according to a new scientific study - a finding that hints at a new mechanism that might cool the climate as it warms.

The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and led by Professor Roger Davies of the University of Auckland, used satellite data to work out global cloud heights between 2000 and 2010. Davies found that the average global height of clouds dropped by around one per cent, or roughly 30 to 40 metres, over that period. Most of this drop in average cloud height was down to fewer clouds occurring at very high altitudes.

Davies suggests that the finding might identify a 'negative climate feedback' - when warming causes a change to climate which counteracts some or all of the warming. Davies does stress, however, that his data is fairly preliminary - it only covers a decade, too short a period to say for certain that such a feedback exists. He  explains:

"This is the first time we have been able to accurately measure changes in global cloud height and, while the record is too short to be definitive, it provides just a hint that something quite important might be going on."

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Energy bills and the PCC: Our submission to the Leveson Inquiry

  • 27 Feb 2012, 11:30
  • Christian Hunt

Last week the Leveson Inquiry published  evidence we submitted. It describes our experience of negotiating with the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the Mail group to obtain three corrections to articles which have given misleading estimates of how much so-called green taxes - or environmental and social policies - are adding to household energy bills. 

Looking back over the process shows how intervention by the PCC -  the UK's press self-regulatory body - was unable to prevent the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday from repeatedly printing errors in its reporting on this issue. These errors always seemed to inflate green policies' contribution to energy bills - neatly dovetailing with the paper's editorial line.

The Mail's articles first claimed in June last year that 'green taxes' were adding £200 to yearly domestic fuel bills, a figure provided by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. It wasn't clear where this figure came from - at the time, this was more than twice the estimate provided by UK utility regulator Ofgem. 

When approached by the PCC, the Mail couldn't produce any research or analysis which supported the figure, and the GWPF didn't respond when we (repeatedly) emailed them about it. The Mail subsequently corrected the figure, but it was  reused twice by the Mail on Sunday.

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Did British Gas really ignore gas when talking about energy bills?

  • 24 Feb 2012, 14:26
  • Christian Hunt

British Gas told the Sun's City desk today that "government eco charges" are to blame for rising bills. But which bills does it mean?

The Sun writes:

Chief executive Sam Laidlaw said Government eco charges and taxes now account for 15 PER CENT of every home's power bills.

Some media outlets have made much of  incorrect claims about the impact of green costs on energy bills, but Laidlaw's comments here are accurate - albeit with one rather important caveat.

Which is: Mr Laidlaw refers to 'power' bills. In energy geek world, this means electricity bills, rather than the combined electricity and gas bills which most people pay. 

The effect of green policies on a combined electricity and gas bill is significantly less than 15% - it's around 7%, according to DECC.

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The Mail is feeling a little horse

  • 24 Feb 2012, 12:45
  • Verity Payne

Here at Carbon Brief we like to keep abreast of new climate science, and we enjoy spotting interesting new studies to write about.

So we were surprised to read in the Mail Online today:  Global warming 'could make us shorter' after horses are found to have shrunk the LAST time the world heated up. How had we missed that one?

As it turns out, we hadn't. You can relax - there has been no major scientific breakthrough linking shrinking humans to climate change.

Instead, published today was research linking the size of horses some 55m years ago to climate change, and the Mail article, which gets a few things slightly wrong.

Let's start with the research: A paper published in the journal Science today finds that as temperatures rose during the Palaeo Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) - a period of warming 55m years ago - horses became smaller. Apparently they started off about the size of a small dog, and 130,000 years and several degrees of warming later were roughly the size of a house cat.

The research might have implications for how modern animals may adapt to a warming planet, but neither the paper nor it's accompanying  press release made any mention of any impact on human height.

So where does the Mail get the idea that:

"Global warming could make us shorter, scientists say."

It looks like a throwaway joke made by one of the authors of the study quoted in the Mail Online article may be the culprit.

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“I’m a policy wonk”: Stern makes the case for change

  • 23 Feb 2012, 16:30
  • Ros Donald

Time is of the essence in creating the necessary response to climate change, Professor Nicholas Stern told the audience at the London School of Economics in the second of a three-lecture series making the case for a new energy-industrial revolution that transforms the way we consume and produce. 

Last night, Stern looked at how public policy and the scope for technological change could create a new industrial revolution, to mirror the "waves of innovation" that have yielded leaps forward like the rapid advances in information technology over recent decades. According to him, the big difference this time round is the need for government input to correct what he famously branded the "market failure" of unchecked greenhouse gas rises. 

Stern couches his vision for the new economy in the ideas of creative destruction and self-creating growth. Revolutions involve plenty of discovery, dislocation and disruption, he says. "If we do this well we'll see two to three decades of greater growth" he argues, as well as explosive change. 

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We need to talk about climate communications

  • 23 Feb 2012, 13:05
  • Bárbara Mendes-Jorge and Ros Donald
  • New communications forum to help climate professionals get their message across
  • Research shows US citizens' concern for climate change is most influenced by the political divide

New developments in the climate communications field are providing deeper insights into how people absorb climate change messaging. How, for example, do you deal with the rather alarming news that most US citizens' level of concern about climate change tracks politicians' rhetoric on the subject? 

With a new initiative, Talking Climate, a group of climate communicators hope to help climate professionals, scientists and policy makers understand public attitudes, and respond effectively. 

While there's a lot of information on climate communications out there, Talking Climate points out that it doesn't often reach climate change practitioners. What's more, researchers rarely have strategies for promoting their work outside the world of academia. 

What's been wrong so far? 

Because climate change is a complex issue, there have been some less-than-adept efforts to describe the link between the realities of climate change and the science behind it. In the media in particular, reporting on killer heatwaves and lethal ice-ages has been pretty common. But as Talking Climate points out in one of several guides to effective communications, appeals to fear - unless accompanied by a positive message - rarely work to inform. Instead, they are likely to make people feel disempowered and less motivated.

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Gloom and doom on energy cuts both ways

  • 22 Feb 2012, 16:00
  • Robin Webster

Following the many predictions of gloom and doom from parts of the media about the future costs of green energy, renewable energy company RES has got in on the act with their own version of the story in Monday's Telegraph.

Unsurprisingly they're not warning about rising costs from green taxes, but rather the potential costs of relying too heavily on gas. The article on page 14 (but not online) says:

"Household energy bills could double without a big increase in the use of wind farms and nuclear power, an energy company has warned"

Growing British dependence on imported gas could cost the country the equivalent of more than £1,200 for every household, according to RES, one of the country's biggest renewable energy firms."

The RES forecast, says the Telegraph, is

"....based on an assumption that Britain will need rising gas imports as coal-fired generators are decommissioned. The price of imported gas has trebled over the last decade. RES calculated that if the trend continued, Britain would need to spend an additional £32billion by 2025, equal to £1,261 per household."


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New Russian heatwave study solves climate conundrum

  • 22 Feb 2012, 15:58
  • Verity Payne

Russia's record-breaking heatwave of summer 2010 was down to both man-made climate change and natural variability according to a new study. In a nuanced conclusion, researchers found that the size of the heatwave was within natural limits, but the heatwave had been made three times more likely because of man-made climate change.

This finding reconciles two previous studies that reached conflicting conclusions as to the cause of the 60-day heatwave, which left tens of thousands of people dead from respiratory illnesses and heat stress, as well as causing numerous wildfires, failed wheat harvests, and an  estimated $15 bn in financial losses.

Meteorologists  seem  to agree on the immediate trigger of the heatwave: a high pressure air mass settled over Russia for July and much of August, diverting the jet stream and the summer storms further north. At the same time warm continental air was able to spread up across the region, bolstering the high pressure air mass, and adding to the heat. 

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