Tag Archives: david attenborough

Change is coming whether they like it or not

[This post is dedicated to the 100s of  MPs who  chose not to attend a debate in parliament on climate change in a week when the UK experienced its hottest ever winter’s day.]

 

Blizzards, strong winds, drifting snow, bitter cold – that was the story in early March last year when the “Beast from the East” collided with storm Emma bringing extreme weather and disruption to life across large parts of the UK.  Towards the end of June, by contrast, the sun began to shine and daytime temperatures climbed into the thirties and stayed that way across much of the country until August (the picture at the top of this post shows the effect of the long hot summer on the UK countryside).  Elsewhere across the globe, reports came in of flooding, wildfires, severe tropical storms and unusually high and low temperatures.  Many of these weather extremes can be attributed to climate change and there is considerable concern that the planet is heading for climate catastrophe.  David Attenborough expressed this fear at a climate change conference in Poland:  “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

 

Heavy snow falling in early March while a great tit continues to feed

 

In the UK, it was the long, hot summer, the joint hottest on record, that made people think most about a changing climate.  The weather here is, of course, notoriously fickle and some will remember that in 1976, we experienced a similar long, hot, dry summer, so how can we disentangle normal weather variation from climate change?  One way of looking at this was shown by Simon Lee, a PhD student at the University of Reading, who shared graphs on Twitter of the global temperature anomalies in June 1976 and in June 2018 (see pictures below).  These show that in 1976 the UK was one of a few unusually hot spots in an otherwise cooler than average world whereas in 2018 much of the world, including the UK, was hotter than the average.   The 2018 picture shows climate change in action: the planet is warmer making heatwaves more likely.

 

The pictures show temperatures across the world in June 1976 (upper panel) and in June 2018 (lower panel) compared to the average across the period 1951-1980. Red and yellow mean higher, blue means lower. Kindly supplied by Simon Lee who generated the images from NASA/GISS data.

Careful measurements of the average surface temperature of the planet show that it is currently about 1oC hotter than in pre-industrial times.  This may not seem very much but it is enough to disturb the complex systems that create our weather.  As a result, heatwaves may be more frequent in summer and, in winter, polar air may be directed southwards bringing abnormal, freezing temperatures.  Also, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that rain and snow may be more severe.  Climate breakdown might be an apt description of these changes.

This global heating is a result of human activity.  The emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, oil and petrol, traps heat in the atmosphere so the temperature of the world increases.  We have known this for some time and we have also known that the solution is to reduce carbon emissions. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have, however, continued to climb because no government has had the will to introduce the extreme lifestyle changes required to curb emissions.  Some governments, including our own, have even encouraged the continuing extraction of fossil fuels.

It is, therefore, significant that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report containing a dire warning: we must make urgent and unprecedented changes to the way we live if we are to limit heating to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.  To achieve this target, we must reduce net global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050 – fossil fuel use must be drastically reduced by the middle of the 21st century but we must start the reduction now.  Should we fail to achieve this 1.5oC target, the risks of drought, flooding, extreme heat, poverty and displacement of people leading to wars will increase significantly.  The world will no longer be the place we know and love and parts of it will become uninhabitable for humans and the rest of nature.

How do we achieve this reduction in carbon emissions? Voluntary measures such as suggesting people fly or drive less will not work.  The only way this reduction can be achieved is through coordinated government action based on recommendations made in the IPCC report.  These include the planting of more forests and the chemical capture of carbon dioxide to reduce atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.  There must also be a drastic shift in energy production and in transport away from fossil fuels and this can be driven in part by investment and subsidies directed towards clean technologies.  A carbon tax can also help drive this shift but the tax will need to be high enough to force change, for example by taxing energy companies who burn fossil fuels so that they invest in cleaner technologies.  In the short term, costs to consumers may rise, so politicians would need to keep the public on side, for example, through tax incentives.  If we grasp the opportunity, the scale of change may have the unexpected bonus of allowing us to design more sustainable and equitable societies.

The IPCC report set out very clearly the changes required to avoid damaging global climate change so there was great anticipation when the UN Climate Change Conference convened in Katowice in Poland just before Christmas.  Astonishingly, given the gravity of the situation, the 200 countries represented there failed to agree new ambitious targets for greater reductions in carbon emissions. Four countries (USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait) would not even sign a document welcoming the IPCC report; these countries are of course all oil producers.

It was at this conference that David Attenborough issued his warning about the collapse of civilisations but there was another hugely impressive intervention.  This came from 15-year old activist Greta Thunberg from Sweden.  She had already achieved some notoriety through her weekly climate strikes where she missed one day of school to protest about climate change.  Her actions have stimulated many thousands of young people around the world to do likewise.  Thunberg also spoke in London at the launch of the new grass-roots movement, Extinction Rebellion, which intends to use peaceful protest to force governments to protect the climate.  These new trends offer some hope for the future since it is the young of today that will bear the climate of tomorrow.

Greta Thunberg, 2018 (cropped)
Greta Thunberg

Here is part of Greta Thunberg’s speech given at the Katowice conference:

“For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So, I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future, I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”

“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago. We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.”

I am grateful to Simon Lee for generously supplying the temperature anomaly graphs.

This article was published in the March 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The great Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace 1862 - Project Gutenberg eText 15997Alfred Russel Wallace in 1862 (from Wikipedia)

Alfred Russel Wallace was one of the great naturalists of the 19th century.  He was also co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of the the theory of evolution by natural selection.  Wallace died one hundred years ago and his work is now largely forgotten.  When I started reading about Wallace, I was surprised to find that for the last 14 years of his life he lived near Poole in Dorset.  This is a part of the country I know well as it is where I grew up.

To mark Wallace’s centenary year and his contributions, I have written a piece in the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine and a different post on another blogging network.

Here is the piece from the Marshwood Vale Magazine where I go in  search of Wallace’s Dorset connections:

On a warm afternoon in early May, I fought my way out of Poole through chaotic Fleetsbridge traffic to find the small cemetery in Broadstone. Surrounded by Dorset heath and mature houses, this is a place for quiet contemplation, the only noise being the murmur of the wind in the pine trees and the song of the birds. I had come in search of the grave of Alfred Russel Wallace, who lived in Dorset for the last 14 years of his life.

grave of Alfred Russel Wallace

You can’t miss the grave with its massive fossilised tree trunk (from Portland). The plaque on the base of the grave informs me that Wallace was “Co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of evolution by natural selection”. Natural selection is arguably the greatest idea ever and when Wallace died, a century ago, he was one of the leading scientists and thinkers in this country, probably as well known as David Attenborough is nowadays. It is Darwin’s name, however, that is indelibly linked with natural selection and Wallace is now largely forgotten; to understand this paradox we need to look at his life and work.
Wallace was born in Monmouthshire in 1823. His family were never prosperous and Wallace had little formal education. He trained as a surveyor and for a time he was a teacher but in his spare time he began to study and collect wildlife. A seminal influence on Wallace was the controversial but highly popular book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published anonymously by Robert Chambers in 1844. Wallace wanted to understand why there were so many species of plants, animals, insects etc and this book lead him to consider evolution as the answer. At the time the prevailing religious view was that the number of species and their form was fixed when the universe was created. Evolution proposes that species can change or evolve.
Wanting to find evidence for these ideas, Wallace went on two major expeditions where he studied and collected numerous native animals, birds, and insects. Some of these he kept for himself and some were sold to wealthy collectors back in England. The proceeds of these sales went to finance the expeditions but here we see the darker side of Victorian naturalism. Although Wallace was overawed by the species he discovered, he was not averse to killing them in large numbers to make money.
His first expedition, in 1848, was to the Amazon and ended in disaster; Wallace lost most of his specimens and nearly died. In 1854, undeterred, he embarked a more ambitious expedition. This was an eight year voyage of discovery through the jungles of the Malay Archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia). Here he suffered many privations including illness and shortage of money.
Despite these problems, it was on this expedition that Wallace had his key insight. This occurred in 1858 when he was on the island of Halmahera recovering from malarial fever. He had mapped the distribution of species on different islands and found good evidence for evolution but he had been unable to work out the mechanism. As an avid collector, however, he noticed that there was considerable variation even between examples of the same species. He realised that when species reproduce, many of the offspring die because of this variation. The offspring that survive will be those best fitted to the particular circumstances of food, habitat etc. and fitter individuals will leave more descendents. Gradually, over time, species will adapt to their surroundings and new forms may appear. This is the basis of Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
When he was strong enough, Wallace wrote an essay summarising his theory and sent it to Charles Darwin in England for comment, completely unaware that Darwin had been working on the same theory for 20 years. Darwin had been very reticent about publishing his own ideas because of the religious implications; natural selection effectively does away with a creator. Darwin was horrified when he read Wallace’s essay as it contained most of the ideas he had been incubating for so long and he was concerned that he might lose the credit for natural selection. Darwin consulted his influential friends and a presentation was made at a meeting of the Linnean society in 1858 outlining the idea of natural selection and crediting both men. 15 months later, Darwin published his famous book, “On the Origin of Species” which captured public imagination and began the association between Darwin and natural selection.
In his lifetime, however, Wallace was lauded for his ideas on natural selection and for his explorations. He was showered with honours including the Order of Merit; he became one of the best known scientists in the world. So why has he been forgotten? Towards the end of the nineteenth century, natural selection became unfashionable and both men fell from prominence. In the 1930s, however, the idea was revived but largely because of his famous book, only Darwin’s name was now associated with the theory. In this centenary year, it is fitting to recognise Wallace’s true contribution.
But what about Wallace’s Dorset connections? Wallace moved to the county in 1889, living at Corfe View in Sandringham Road, Parkstone. When developers began to build near his house he decided to move and found land in Broadstone, near the present Wallace Road, with “a view right across Poole Harbour to the Purbeck Hills”. Here he built a house called “Old Orchard” where he lived from 1902 until he died. Although there was pressure to have him buried next to Darwin in Westminster Abbey, it was Wallace’s wish to be buried in Broadstone.