Thursday 29 July 2021

Context and Accuracy in Climate Change Conversation

I have recently been in conversation online with two individuals about the way in which incidents are described in relation to climate change. 

Of course, very few sensible people now doubt the science of climate change and that it is happening. There are online troll and bot accounts, and indeed individuals linked to some of the known lobby groups and polluting industries that do sow doubt or spread denial messages but sites like and are two of my go-to sites for accurate analysis and information on who is often behind such activities. 

There is, perhaps sometimes understandably, a narrative in some environmental circles of "doomism" or "climate alarmism" which can often manifest itself in taking the worst case scenarios in climate predictions and presenting them as a fait accomplit. Michael E. Mann, in his book, "The New Climate War"  looks at how some of these narratives have been sown by some on the denialist side, framing it as being too late to do anything, or a message of fatalism to try and get people to give up taking action against climate change as they claim it is futile. I have had conversations with one of the regular doomist environmental campaigners on Twitter who regularly posts in terms that might just as easily be written as, "THE END" in flashing day-glo letters. I have made the point that if things really are as bad as he is making out, one either would get too depressed to do anything, or would simply think that one might as well do the bucket list while one still can. 

Michael E. Mann talks about urgency and agency. Yes, telling people that we need to do something quickly to tackle climate change but also that one can do something about it, however small or big and also that the sooner we act, the more mitigation can be done. 

This brings me on to the recent conversation about how particular events are described both on and offline. In the UK there is a newspaper, if you can call it that, called the Daily Express that frequently posts headlines taking what might be the extreme end of a storm or snow prediction for some remote corner of Scotland and framing it as being for the whole country. If people believe those predictions they would spend a fair chunk of the year too scared to step outside their front door! 

Also, often in the media and online, one will see headlines such as, "Country x underwater" or "Country y on Fire" when a severe weather or environmental event happens, when actually the event is confined to a particular part of the country. In the bid for the most eye catching headline context can be lost. Is the storm the worst ever? Or just the worst this winter? Has the drought happened before or is it new for the area? Is the wildfire across an entire State or is it localised to a particular area? This isn't downplaying the effects of such events, there can often be loss of life and property and hardship for those involved, but to understand climate change these events need to be put in the context of history and trends and frequency of occurrence, and indeed in the context of the area affected compared to the whole country or region. 

There is of course a fine balance to be struck between the "urgency and agency" as Prof. Mann puts it and ensuring that an accurate portrayal of events is made, one which cannot then be used by the well funded denialists to accuse climate change mitigation advocates in the future of crying wolf or of exaggeration or distortion. Also, we owe it to the wider public to be accurate, to be contextual, to be clear and explain how a particular event may have been affected by the wider climate changes and how the localised effects are creating harm. 

With permission, I have reproduced below a tweet I replied to the other day and will try to analyse this example and rephrase in a more contextual fashion. 

"Germany, Belgium, London, Italy, Pakistan now, floods. USA, Russia, Canada on fire. Any patterns emerging? Anyone? Or maybe it’s just unlucky.  If you want to stop the 50 years of talking and actually be pragmatic and do something, now would be a good time to start."

So, let's start with this. 

"Germany, Belgium, London, Italy, Pakistan now, floods." 

Yes, it is true that the above countries and places are suffering floods, in the case of Germamy and Belgium these are widely recognised as being abnormally severe. However, Germany is a big country, so is Italy and Pakistan, and all of those three have mountainous and other areas that are much less likely, if at all, to flood. Are these floods unprecendented? Are they merely worse than average? Are these a 1 in 25 or 1 in 100 year event, as is calculated by people such as actuaries and insurance agents? 

In London, there's historical record of the Thames flooding on a regular basis into the City, Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his diaries of the 1660s. A severe flood happened in 1928. Is it worse than that? What I do actually know is that the particular events have been caused by surface water flooding from thunderstorms, but here in the UK we get thunderstorms at any time of year, often severe in summer, so heavy intense rain isn't unusual, I've experienced it in York where a number of streets were flooded and buildings hit by lightning. How much has the increase in concreting over of driveways and additional housebuilding and tree cover loss affected the surface water flooding? Is it actually the landscape mitigation of a reasonably frequent event that has changed, rather than climate change making the particular flood worse?

So, from one simple statement there's a whole lot of questions. Can you pin those floods directly to climate change? Would they have happened if the man made climate change wasn't there? Are they made worse by climate change? 

"USA, Russia, Canada on fire." What?! All of them? That's a really big fire and they are really big countries! 

I checked, the wildfires in Canada, dramatic as they seem, are only affecting 0.12% of the country. Still a lot of ground and the smoke is drifting over cities but that is nowhere near the whole country on fire! What is 0.12% of Canada compared to say the size of Wales? (an often used comparision in reporting here in the UK!) Russia is so big that although the Siberian wildfires can be seen from space, most of the country will not be affected in any way by them. 

In 1950, the Chinchaga fire in Canada was the largest single fire in North American recorded history. Was that climate related? Were the 2014 Northwest Territories and 2016 Alberta fires climate change related or made worse from climate change? 

Again, all questions which really don't lend themselves to simplistic reporting. The author of the tweet is right to ask what patterns are emerging, or maybe these are - taken individually - just freak events or indeed are they part of natural cycles of burning and renewal? Is it just that humans have made these events more likely through activities unrelated to putting carbon into the atmosphere - for instance carelessness with littered glass or camping fires or indeed deliberate fire setting, these causes being responsible here in the UK for some wildfires. 

Going on, the author is inaccurate in seeming to imply that people are merely just talking and not doing. I can agree that not enough is being done, there has been inertia, influenced by polluters and denialists, in climate change mitigation, but if you take UK decarbonisation for an example, the switch from coal is nearly complete in power generation and a large amount of renewables capacity, particularly wind, has come on stream with lots more to follow. There's a lot of technical innovation happening, I am invested in a wave power company and also in agricultural robot manufacturer for instance and there's been substantial financial divestment going on as companies manage their risk exposure to climate change and fossil fuels. 

We can say for certain that the incidence and intensity of all substantial climate events, whether drought, floods, hurricane intensity etc is increasing due to climate change. The instability of what did formerly be more predictable weather patterns is increasingly noted and these have effects on land and in nature. There are more "stuck" weather patterns due to variations in the jet stream and heat build up in such as the Arctic is influencing the weather not just in that region but in lower latitudes too. 

However, simplistic headlines do not tell the full story and may even exaggerate or distort the story. Alarmist statements can be used to discredit or dishearten or indeed cause people to give up. However, if events are reported on accurately, the effects are expained and indeed these events are set into the wider historical and geographical contexts then the public can get a better idea of what is going on, how it may affect them and indeed how particular severe events may or may not be related to wider climate trends. 

Wednesday 28 July 2021

Grazing meadow biodiversity

I took this picture this week, near where I live. I was going for a walk anyway with my family, but having had a rather frustrating conversation with a fundamentalist vegan online I wanted to illustrate the point of how this landscape differs from one which is monoculture crops. This blog is based on my Twitter thread. 

(note - everyone makes their own choices as to their own ethical framework, whether around meat or anything else, but I do find statistics quoted by many vegans online to be misleading, inaccurate and unfortunately there's a failure amongst many to look at the implications of what they see as a utopia without livestock farming)

What you are looking at are grazing meadows for cattle and dairy cows. The grassland is full of clover, some dandelions and buttercups. The field margins have numerous wildflower species and on the day of the walk at least 5 butterfly species and various bees, hoverflies, birds etc (my local patch bird list stands at 90 species since 2010), the hedgerows are good cover for them. 

(Wild chicory, one of many plants along the southern field margin)

If this was arable, nearly all the hedgerows wouldn't be there, the fields are too small for the economies of scale needed, machinery etc. 

The clover would not be there, nor many of the other wildflowers (there might be a few under the "set aside/field margin" schemes but nowhere near as many). The grasslands act as a carbon sink, the grazing is an integral part of the lifecycle and maintenance of the meadow.

Whilst the particular landowner really isn't interested in selling, in many other parts of the countryside these fields would be close enough to a town - and a major road - for housing development to be a real danger to this landscape. 

(Burdock, a substantial plant in one corner of the meadow)

There's other fields near us that are part of rotational farming, where crops are grown sometimes and then livestock (mainly sheep) are put out as part of the cycle. There's fields down the slope from where the photographs are taken that flood every year and grazing is the only farming activity that can be done on them.

Again, the biodiversity present on a flood meadow is far greater than that which would be present on a standard monoculture crop field.

(Ragwort - not in the meadow, as it is of course a hazard to livestock, but along the access road nearby)

The local farmers spend money in our town, some of them supply local businesses. Some local arable crop farming is for the local breweries and I know one local farm that leaves stubble which also helps such as migrating geese and other farmland birds such as grey partridge.

Do you think a remote landowner, supplied by huge corporate agribusinesses, selling into a long supply chain, is better than the above?

Fledgling blackbird in the allotment

Today I went up to the allotment before the heavy showers came, the two jobs being to pick more blackcurrants and to thin out grape bunches on the vine we have trained along the fence at the back of the plot. 

However, I noticed that in the hedge were the noises of young blackbirds and shortly afterwards found one sitting in the Falstaff apple tree. 

Can you spot the blackbird? He was sitting very quietly, not yet understanding enough to be afraid of my presence, in the sunshine looking, as they all do at that age, quite unsure of what to do next! 

Over the years we've had many blackbirds nest in the hedges around the allotment, both mistle and song thrushes have nested around the site along with dunnocks, wrens, blue and great tits, woodpigeons, house sparrows and one year some linnets did somewhere around the allotments. 

Wednesday 7 July 2021

Leafcutter Bee

In this post I talked about the Leafcutter Bee that came to visit our back yard the other day. 

In one of the pots we haven't used this year have been some weeds that I have left to grow to see whether they were any good for pollinators. 

Discovered that the Leafcutter bee(s) have been busy! In the photograph there's the semicircular holes where the bee(s) have cut out sections of leaf to take back to their nest. 

Saturday 3 July 2021

A New Normal

Increasingly, the narrative in the media and spoken from the mouths of political and business representatives is of, "Going back to normal". In the UK, the date has been set for this 'normality' as being July 19th. Negotiations with the virus appear to have failed or maybe never got going in the first place. 

Of course, who wouldn't want to be able to go out to the shops or a restaurant or event without having to prebook, take a mask or take a covid test? It is so tempting, that vision of 'normality', going back to life as it was in BC - Before Covid. 

But that normality was wrecking the planet. 

That normality created a society of haves and have nots

Wealthy and untroubled normality for one person was anxiety or hardship for another. 

Taking off the brakes off societal interactions may cause the thing that keeps virologists up at night - vaccine escape.

There have been many people filling up the pages of newspapers or platforming themselves on social media, gathering with other conspiracy theorists and pseudo-science advocates on marches, even some speaking in Parliament, who feel that the restrictions on our lives that were necessary to reduce the awful death rate from Covid-19 were unwarranted, even to the point of denying the virus itself and its effects. 

The TV presenter Andrew Marr recently suffered from Covid-19, catching it at the super-spreader event also known as the G7 Summit in Cornwall (although some dispute this) Whilst he didn't end up in hospital, he wasn't working for several days and felt pretty ill. There's many other accounts on social media of similarly double-vaccinated people catching Covid-19 and being ill at home. In schools, where children are not vaccinated, and indeed in university towns, the virus is widespread, mainly the Delta Variant originally discovered in India and here because of the lax border controls of the UK Government. The case rate is currently skyrocketing again. More cases means more illness, means more hospitalisation, means an increased chance of a mutation that will escape the vaccines and we'll all be back to square one.

Yes, the vaccines have reduced the effects in many people of Covid-19, keeping many out of hospital, no doubt saving many lives in the process. But they don't stop someone from catching the disease, they don't stop someone from passing it onto someone else that is maybe a person who hasn't yet been vaccinated fully, if at all, maybe someone that for health reasons cannot yet have the vaccine, for instance those who are immuno-compromised. 

Some say that because people aren't dying in the numbers they were at the height of the pandemic, that because hospital admissions aren't at the levels they were, that there's no need for any restrictions on our lives. They've forgotten one thing, one major issue, Long Covid. 

Long Covid is the term used to describe symptoms of Covid-19 lasting more than a few weeks or beyond the main symptoms of the virus. Some people can even suffer from Long Covid despite not having the original symptoms. This can encompass chronic fatigue, lung damage, persistant cough and breathlessness, digestive issues and 'brain fog' - concentration issues amongst other things. No one knows how long they can last, although for many people they do, thankfully, appear to lessen over time and there's been some reports of the vaccines giving an immune system boost which has helped people. But no-one yet knows whether these symptoms will disappear completely or whether there's permanent long term effects on health. 

Up to one in twenty people, including children, have or have had Long Covid. The estimate for April was 1.1 million people in the UK in that month with some kind of long term symptoms from Covid-19, with around 376000 at that time estimated to have had Long Covid symptoms for at least a year. The UK population is about 67 million people. That's a lot of people and a lot of demand on the health system and indeed on Government finances. Many people who were asympomatic with Covid-19 have experienced Long Covid issues. Many will also be those people who have had long term hospitalisation from Covid-19 and the damage wrought by the disease, including someone I know about (friend of a friend) who spent several months in hospital, some of which on a ventilator, and now can only function at home with oxygen supply on hand and has been back to hospital since. 

Sure, go back to your parties, go back to the pub, take your mask off and stop giving people space. Stop caring if you so wish. But there's consequences. Can you live with those? Can the State support millions of new long term incapacity benefit claimants? Can the economy support a possibly permanently reduced workforce? Can families manage their finances if the main breadwinner(s) are out of action for months, with the impact of potential poverty on children's life chances, already damaged by the disruption to education? 

Is 'normal' worth that cost to society and to people's lives? Yes, there are costs to society and livelihoods from the lockdown, and there are indeed balances to be struck between restrictions and the economy, but adopting a carefree attitude at a time when the virus is still spreading, particularly amongst unvaccinated people, is asking for trouble. 

Do we want to do 'normal'? Should we do 'normal'?

I would suggest that the present capitalist, consumer, always on, instant gratification and delivery society is not 'normal'. For most of the history of the human race, our comfy lifestyle hasn't been the norm. Even comparing more developed human civilisations, we are in an exceptional, unprecedented age, where our extraction of resources far exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet. In an age where we have the potential to end life as we know it on Earth.

'Normal' has meant overconsumption. Buying stuff we don't need. Cluttering the planet up with plastic. Decimating biodiversity. Polluting the atmosphere. Warming the planet to climate tipping points with the consequences increasingly on our TV screens. Normal means deaths and preventable disease from the pollution in our cities. Normal means over a million people accessing food banks here in the UK. Normal means a chronic shortage of affordable housing and rent-seeking landlords. Normal means the politics of hate and division. 

Why would anyone go back to that?