Analysis

Education is "top priority" for climate change adaptation, study shows

  • 27 Nov 2014, 19:00
  • Robert McSweeney

Students in Swaziland | Shutterstock

Education does more to reduce deaths from climate-related disasters than economic growth, a new study finds. The researchers say education helps reduce vulnerability to disasters and enhances adaptation to climate change.

Financing adaptation

It's hard to pin down exactly how much money developing countries need to adapt to climate change. But some estimates suggest that it could be as much as $100 billion a year.

Countries have so far pledged $9 billion to the UN Green Climate Fund, which will provide money for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.

Spending on climate change adaptation tends to be focused on large infrastructure projects, such as flood defences and irrigation systems. But new research, published in Science, suggests that investing in education could be a better way to reduce vulnerability to climate-related disasters.

Improving education reduces disaster deaths

The researchers argue that previous studies have concentrated too heavily on how economic development has reduced vulnerability to disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides.

They point to recent case studies that show improvements in education can give people the skills and knowledge to be better prepared for, and better able to recover from, natural hazards. For example, better-educated people in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were faster at responding to hurricane alerts and recuperated more quickly once one had struck.

The researchers compare the influence economic growth and education have on the number of deaths from disasters for 167 countries across the world. They use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person as an indicator of economic growth and the number of women completing at least secondary school education as an indicator for education. They then cross-reference these with a database of climate-related disasters.

The results suggest that rising GDP has not reduced the number of deaths from climate-related disasters in the past four decades, while having a greater number of women in education has.

Better awareness of risk

So how does education reduce vulnerability to climate-related disasters? In an accompanying press release, co-author Dr Raya Muttarak explains:

"Education directly improves knowledge, the ability to understand and process information, and risk perception. It also indirectly enhances socioeconomic status and social capital. These are qualities and skills useful for surviving and coping with disasters."

Educated people have a better awareness of risk, the authors argue, and it gives them the knowledge and skills to adapt flexibly.

This is important because while scientists can make long-term projections of climate change, year-to-year weather variations mean they can't say exactly when a disaster will hit and how severe it will be. So a flexible approach to adaptation gives people and communities more capacity to cope when a disaster occurs.

Projecting future disaster deaths

When the researchers run simulations of future climate-related disasters, they find a similar pattern: improved education significantly reduces the number of deaths from disasters.

The results are shown in the graph below. The researchers use two pathways of how global education might change in the future: rapid expansion (red lines) and limited expansion (blue lines), which indicate, respectively, either substantial or minimal investment in education around the world.

The study models each education pathway against three scenarios of future change in climate-related disasters: no change (solid line), a 10 per cent increase (dashed line) and a 20 per cent increase (dotted line).

You can see that for each scenario of climate-related disasters, the improved education pathway results in fewer deaths.

The results suggest how "education is key in reducing disaster fatalities and enhancing adaptive capacity," says lead author Professor Wolfgang Lutz in the press release.

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Climate change set to increase extreme weather risk to UK population

  • 27 Nov 2014, 00:01
  • Robert McSweeney

Flooding in York | Shutterstock

The risk of heatwaves hitting the UK will increase ten-fold by 2100 if we don't cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study of how climate change will affect extreme weather.  The UK will also be more at risk from flooding and drought says the new report, published by the Royal Society.

But the report also finds there are ways to prepare ourselves for what's to come, with a mix of large-scale engineering and natural measures to adapt to climate change making it possible to manage some climate risks.

Rising risks

The study uses climate models to estimate how the frequency of floods, droughts and heatwaves will change worldwide by the end of the century. It assumes population rises to around nine billion globally by 2100, and overlays projections of population growth to map where in the world the most people will be at risk from extreme weather.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, places with high populations tend to have more people at risk from climate extremes. For the UK, the combined effects of climate and population changes will increase the risk of exposure to heatwaves by a factor of more than 10 by the end of the century, the report says.

If we don't cut emissions, the risk of exposure to floods in the UK will increase four and a half times by the end of the century, and the risk of drought three times.

The risks posed by heatwaves grow particularly rapidly because older people who are more at risk from extreme heat will make up a larger chunk of global population by the end of the century, the report says.

The study produced maps which show how exposure to extreme weather will change. The areas of dark red show the greatest increase in people exposed to risk - in India, southeast Asia, parts of central Africa and western Europe.

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Scientists dig deep into earth's history for clues to El Niño past, present and future

  • 26 Nov 2014, 18:00
  • Roz Pidcock

The Pacific weather phenomenon known as El Niño has attracted a lot of attention this year as forecasters have puzzled over its 'will it or won't it' behaviour.

In May, scientists were confidently predicting a  90 per cent chance of an El Niño materialising by the end of the year. But it's proved elusive, with the odds of even a weak event dropping to 58 per cent earlier this month.

El Niño brings extreme rainfall to some parts of the world and drought to others. So predicting when one will make an appearance and how big the effects will be is important.

A new study just published in Nature uses a diverse array of different data sources, from corals to computer modelling, to unravel what's been driving changes in El Niño over the past 21,000 years.

Pinning down this  enigmatic phenomenon is tricky, the study concludes. But there's reason to believe climate change could lead to stronger El Niño's in the future, say the scientists.

El Niño and climate-readiness

Every five years or so, a change in the winds causes a shift to warmer than normal ocean temperatures in the  equatorial Pacific Ocean - a phenomena known as El Niño.

Together, El Niño and its cooler counterpart La Niña are known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Cycling between the two phases is responsible for much of the variation we see in global climate from one year to the next.

Knowing if and how climate change will affect El Niño and La Niña is an important scientific question, says Professor Kim Cobb, co-author on today's paper. She  told us recently:

"Preparing for large swings in temperature and rainfall is critical to adaptation strategies, especially if such variability will increase in the future."

In theory, human-caused warming could increase the strength of ENSO events, Cobb continues:

"It is important to remember that climate change is much more than "global warming" … Because ENSO involves feedbacks between the wind strength, ocean temperature, and circulation, a change in any related climate parameter would arguably have some effect on ENSO strength".

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Remote-controlled submarines reveal Antarctic sea ice is thicker than previously thought

  • 24 Nov 2014, 16:14
  • Robert McSweeney

WHOI UAV | Guy Williams

New research sees scientists using remote-controlled submarines to create 3D maps of Antarctic sea ice. And the results suggest sea ice is thicker than previously thought.

The area covered by Antarctic sea ice appears to be slightly growing each year, the reasons for which are proving hard to pin down. Today's research adds another dimension to unravelling the complex goings-on around the South Pole.

Measuring ice thickness isn't easy

Scientists have been monitoring changes at Earth's poles for decades now. But the harsh conditions of the Antarctic make it difficult to get good measurements of the sea ice that surrounds the vast continent.

How and why Antarctic sea ice thickness is changing "remains one of the great unknowns in the climate system," says Dr Ted Maksym of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts.

While satellites are very good at measuring the extent, or area, of sea ice covering the ocean, they struggle when it comes to ice thickness. Satellite measurements can't distinguish between ice and the snow lying on top of it, which makes it harder for scientists get accurate readings of its true depth.

Scientists can also make estimates of thickness from visual observations or by drilling into the ice itself. But these approaches are hampered by thick sea ice during winter and spring, which prevents ships from accessing parts of the Antarctic coast.

To overcome these limitations, Dr Maksym and his colleagues deployed 'Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)', which are specially-designed unmanned submarines that measure ice thickness to within 10 centimetres.

The data from these submarines, published in  Nature Geoscience, suggests that Antarctic sea ice is thicker than previously thought.

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Tackle air pollution to kickstart climate action, says new study

  • 19 Nov 2014, 18:00
  • Roz Pidcock

Air pollution is a huge problem worldwide, killing millions of people each year. Further warming will only increase the size of the problem, according to a Nature article today.

It's time efforts to curb soot, ozone and other pollutants in the atmosphere got more attention at an international level, the researchers argue.

Getting serious about air pollution could provide the impetus needed to tackle climate change more effectively.

Airborne killers

Methane, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and soot (or black carbon) all contribute to poor air quality.

Air pollution is already the  leading environmental cause of ill-health, leading to about seven million premature deaths each year from respiratory and circulatory illnesses.

Earlier today, the European Council  ruled the UK must take urgent action to address dangerous levels of air pollution. A number of major cities, including London, are lagging behind targets to reduce nitrogen dioxide to legal limits by the January 2015 deadline.

The burden of ill-health is  likely to increase in cities by mid century, as air pollution interacts with further greenhouse gas warming, research shows.

Compounds Of Concern _Schmale

Impacts of common air pollutants for human health, the climate and agriculture. Source: Schmale et al. (2014)

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How small volcanic eruptions may have slowed surface temperature rise

  • 19 Nov 2014, 17:20
  • Robert McSweeney

Tungurahua eruption | Shutterstock

Scientists have been underestimating the influence of small volcanic eruptions on the climate system, a new study argues.

The findings could help explain why recent warming at the Earth's surface has been slower than in previous decades, the researchers say.

A cataclysmic event

In June 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, sending a cloud of ash, dust and sulphur dioxide 35 kilometers into the atmosphere.

That sulphur dioxide combined with oxygen and water to form sulphuric acid aerosols. These particles reflected sunlight and encouraged clouds to form, cooling parts of the world by up to 0.4°C for two years after the eruption.

Volcanic eruptions are rated from zero to eight on a scale of explosivity, measured by the amount of ash and debris they produce. The Pinatubo eruption was rated as a five, or 'cataclysmic'.

While the world hasn't seen such a huge volcanic eruption since, on average there is one small eruption somewhere in the world every week. A new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, finds that these smaller eruptions may together have a bigger impact on global climate than previously thought.

Pinatubo _ash _plume _910612

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Why feeding more people doesn't have to be at the expense of the climate

  • 18 Nov 2014, 16:14
  • Robert McSweeney

Wheat | Prof. Yantai Gan

The world is on course to produce more wheat this year than ever before. Yet as supply rises to meet demand, so do the carbon emissions from growing and harvesting the crop.

Now a 25-year long field experiment in Canada shows that growing wheat can actually take up more carbon than it releases. Meeting demand for food doesn't have to mean more carbon emissions, the study's lead scientist tells us.

Wheat is in demand

Wheat is the third most-grown cereal crop in the world, after maize and rice. Demand for major cereal crops such as wheat is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2050.

In the UK, around two million hectares of land are used to grow wheat, with the harvested crop worth around £1.2 billion. But wheat accounts for 30 per cent of emissions from growing the crops we eat, estimates WWF.

Fuel burned in tractors used to farm land releases carbon dioxide, as does producing and using fertilisers. These emissions typically outweigh the amount of carbon dioxide the crops absorb as they grow.

Now a new study by Canadian researchers, published in Nature Communications, finds that with some changes to farming practices, growing wheat can actually remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces.

Little field on a prairie

The US and Canada are the third and fifth largest producers of wheat in the world. Between them they harvested around 90 million tons of wheat last year. Most of this is grown in the 'wheat belt', a vast area of the North American prairies that stretches across much of central US and Canada.

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How an IPCC graph linked fossil fuel use to climate change, and why it led to a heated debate

  • 18 Nov 2014, 12:45
  • Roz Pidcock

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major new report, summarising scientific knowledge on climate change.

It contained something of a milestone in IPCC history - a chart linking greenhouse gas concentrations to fossil fuel emissions, rising global temperatures and sea level.

That might sound fairly innocuous. But some countries argued against its inclusion. So why was a figure outlining the well-understood link between carbon dioxide and climate change contentious?

Connecting the dots

The new figure charts the growth of atmospheric greenhouse gases over the industrial period, alongside rising emissions from fossil fuels and changes in global temperature and sea levels.

Synthesis Report _1point 1D

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Imported meat comes with a climate cost, new study warns

  • 17 Nov 2014, 15:03
  • Robert McSweeney

Cow and wind turbines | Shutterstock

A lot of the meat we eat is produced in a different country from the one we live in. A new study finds that greenhouse gas emissions from the beef, pork and chicken traded across borders have risen by 19 per cent in the past 20 years.

Not only might this affect diets of the climate-conscious, but a trend towards eating meat produced in a different country could make monitoring countries' individual emissions a far trickier task, say the researchers.

Livestock emissions

Carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor to climate change, but other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide play a role too. The methane and nitrous oxide produced by livestock, such as cows, pigs and chickens, account for around nine per cent of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide.

When you include methane and nitrous oxide emissions from transporting the animals and producing their feed, this proportion rises to 18 per cent.

A new study, published in Environmental Research Letters, finds that although the majority of meat is eaten in the country where it's produced, more and more meat is being exported.

So which country should be held responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions? The one where the meat is produced or the one where it's consumed?

The researchers say the growing demand for internationally-traded meat makes it harder to regulate emissions from farming.

Emissions from trade slipping through the cracks

All existing national or international policies to limit greenhouse gases take account of emissions from within specific countries only. So if the UK imports a tonne of beef, for example, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing it are not counted in our inventory.

You might think the emissions would be counted by the country producing the beef, but that might not be the case. The researchers say it's increasingly likely that meat is being imported from developing and emerging nations, which often have less stringent accounting of greenhouse emissions.

So the emissions from that tonne of beef may not be counted by either country, and instead may just 'leak' between the gaps in the system, say the researchers.

Beef the worst emitter, but others are catching up

Of the meat traded from one country to another, the study finds beef makes the biggest contribution to emissions, responsible for around three-quarters of the GHGs produced.

The research takes account of methane produced as livestock digest food (yes, farting) and the methane and nitrous oxide released as manure decomposes.

Emissions from traded pork (20 per cent) and chicken (six per cent) production are much lower by comparison, but are growing much more quickly. Between 1990 to 2010, the emissions from traded beef grew by around four per cent, while those from pork and chicken grew by 81 per cent and 360 per cent, respectively. You can see this in the charts below.

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US lightning strikes to increase under climate change

  • 13 Nov 2014, 19:25
  • Robert McSweeney

Lightning over field | Shutterstock

Climate change is likely to increase the number of lightning strikes, according to a study that models the effect of a warmer climate on lighting in the US.

Lightning already strikes the US about 25 million times each year, causing dozens of deaths and millions of dollars' worth of damage from fires. The study finds the number of strikes could increase by around 50 per cent through the 21st century.

Static electricity

When static electricity builds up in large storm clouds it can discharge as lightning, either extending into the air, within the cloud itself, or striking the Earth's surface. The electricity is generated as water droplets and ice crystals bump into each other as they rise and fall within the cloud.

There are around 25 million lightning strikes in the US every year, mostly on the eastern side of the country. The map below plots them.Romps Et Al (2014) Fig1

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