Event report: Climate change – the evidence and solutions

November 16th meeting with Dr. Frank Baker

Our newsletter editor Frances Lloyd summarises the informative and thought-provoking analysis provided by Dr. Baker at the November meeting of the Ludlow and Marches Humanists.

Dr. Frank Baker is a retired scientist who worked for the UK government on electron physics, surface and materials science. He has managed a US business making on-line devices for the petro-chemical industry and came back to the UK to work with Environmental Electron Microscopes at the University of Cambridge. He has always been interested in matters scientific and has developed an interest in following the debate on Climate Change.

Frank started his talk saying there is confusion between weather and climate. Weather refers to short-term atmospheric conditions whereas climate is the mean seasonal variation in conditions of a specific region, averaged over a long period of time. The climate changes slowly over many years. Superimposed on this, during the existence of the Earth there have been at least five great Ice Ages.

We know that the position and orientation of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun changes on the basis of several long term cycles – these include precession of the pole orientation (26,000 years), obliquity in its elliptical orbit (41,000 years), eccentricity (100,000 and 400,000 year cycles). These were researched over a century ago by the Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovitch.

On top of this, we know that the output of the Sun varies over long periodic cycles. Other factors influencing the climate are the atmosphere, oceans, tectonics, asteroids and massive volcanic eruptions. The Sun warms the Earth but doesn’t do so evenly because of the axial tilt of the earth, its obliquity thus giving us the seasons.

The current climate changes we have seen over the last 50 years or so cannot be explained by known historical cycles but do correlate with a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) atmospheric levels due to human activity. Not only have we seen CO2 increase from around 330 ppm in the 1950s to about 420 ppm now (plus 27%), but long term ice core data shows that it is currently significantly higher than it has been for over at least 800,000 years.

CO2 reflects back infrared radiation emanating from the Earth (the ‘greenhouse effect’), and there is a correlation between the amount of CO2 and the global temperature. When man started farming about 10,000 years ago, he started deforestation, and more recently began burning fossil fuels, which has continued and increased until the present day. It is only very recently that the effect this was having on the climate was realised.

Since 1880 the temperature of Earth has slowly climbed. Frank gave examples of the evidence of recent effects of this abnormal rise in temperature including alarming melting of the Northern ice cap, a ship being able to get through the previously impassable North East passage because the ice has thinned, and flooding in Sudan. In the Tundra, ice wedges are now pools, and in Antarctica ice has started breaking off. Without action, sea levels will rise dramatically (up to 70 metres if Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt), weather extremes become increasingly common, and desert areas expand.

So what can we do about this? Frank said it isn’t all doom and gloom. The most crucial action is to stop burning fossil fuels which is like putting back into the atmosphere ancient sunlight. He gave us some examples of what is being done to address the problems we are facing:

  • The UN Principles for Responsive Investment (PRI) is an international organisation that works to promote the incorporation of environmental, social and corporate governance into investment decision making.
  • In Texas, they are trying to inject carbon dioxide into the Permian Basin but Frank said he’s uneasy about this.
  • Mark Carney and Larry Fink have warned companies will go bankrupt if they don’t go green.
  • The Terraton Initiative launched by the Prince of Wales is about regenerative farming including rotating crops, cover cropping, reducing tillage and integrating livestock.
  • Desertec initiated by Germany was a foundation promoting the production of renewable energy in deserts and feeding into the European grid. However, for political reasons this idea has been abandoned.
  • Solar energy capture. Solar panel’s energy transmission can result in some loss so need to be sited near urban conurbations.
  • Wind turbines now widely used.
  • Tidal energy. Shetland and Orkney now self-sufficient.
  • Batteries – lots of work going on in this field. Trying to recycle the lithium from old batteries. Redox flow batteries could be the answer to grid energy storage needs.
  • Aeroplanes are being developed that can fly using electricity, which uses energy three times less expensive than to use fossil fuels. Currently, the prototypes can only do short flights but there is a lot of work being done.
  • Amazon (the company!) has ordered 200 electric vans.
  • The Energy Observer ship launched in 2017 is the first vessel in the world to both generate and be powered by hydrogen. It is self-sufficient in energy with zero emissions, zero fine particles and zero noise.
  • Globally in 2020 almost 40% of electricity generation came from low carbon sources, 10% nuclear power, almost 10% wind and solar and around 20% hydropower and other renewables.

In answer to a question about the environmental impact of some of the things that are being done to address climate change, Frank agreed that it’s inevitable but if we don’t do anything it is possible that human beings will have no future on Earth.