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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Climate change, part 2

Happy bank holiday weekend, everyone! Below is the second half of my interview with Tony Grayling, Head of Climate Change and Sustainability at the Environment Agency:

Have the Environment Agency got a clear plan for cultural change?

The EA is a regulator and adviser of other organisations, primarily industry, commercial organisations and public sector organisations. We deal in institutional change, not individuals, so we aim for cultural programme changes directed at public changes. We implement policy rather than create it. We deliver a carbon plan and aim to achieve an emission reduction plan, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34% (c.f. 1990 level) by 2020. The UK is on track, because of the global economic downturn and we’ve also done quite a lot towards the target. However, we’re not on track for 2050 for 80% reduction. There are long lead times, e.g. for electricity reduction, so we need to act now not to lock ourselves into a high carbon future.

West Antarctic Ice Sheet highlighted in red - picture credit: EJ Steig/NASA

How can the government integrate climate change challenges with other environmental issues such as sustainability?
We need to see all as a seamless whole as the environment is indivisible. Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions is only one aspect of protecting the environment that we all enjoy. Environmental solutions can contribute to each other. A good policy framework, fiscal incentives and behavioural signals will mean that people don’t have to think about making the right choices so much. For example, make it part of the normal course of behaviour for people to buy energy efficient bulbs. So it comes down to packaging the whole system; that public policy promotes the common good.

Can you tell me about some climate change research coming out of Antarctica?

We’re keeping a close eye on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet. The prospect of their melting and disintegrating into the oceans is frightening because this would add many metres to the sea level. Many populated parts of the world would be underwater. This process would take time, but as the average global surface temperature rises, we creep towards the point of no return beyond which it’s impossible to reverse the melting of the ice caps. We urgently need to respond to the accelerating rate of climate change and adapt our behaviour domestically and internationally.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Captain Scott's living legacy - 100 moments

Under the Scott Memorial Statue, Waterloo Place. From left to right: Sarah, Julia, Fleur, Christina and Tom. I'm at the front.

Last Saturday, five of my friends and I based ourselves at the Scott Memorial Statue on Waterloo Place, London. We stopped passersby and had conversations about Captain Scott and his men and about the ISCE 2012.

People were wonderfully generous with their time, and shared their insights, memories and interpretations of the explorers’ bequests to us. We wanted to capture our conversations; to show that there is lively ongoing interest in Captain Scott’s story, so we photographed each person in front of the statue and filmed clips of their thoughts on the Discovery and Terra Nova missions. The photos are on my Facebook page, and I’m releasing the videos on my YouTube channel: one a day for the next hundred days, i.e. one for each year since their deaths.

The end-result is a document of Captain Scott’s living legacy. I’m delighted that we managed to speak with 100 people in English, French, German, Spanish and pidgin everything else. My friend Julia also sweet-talked a passing walking tour party to take us in, which was a fun, soap-box moment.

We asked people what leapt out at them about Captain Scott’s endeavours; what captured their imagination. The answers took in bravery, bloody-mindedness, stoicism, scientific and aesthetic concerns and other points of interest. The responses were various and uniformly un-bland. We met a lot of extremely well-informed people, including ex-adventurers, who passed on fascinating tips and facts. I was tickled to learn from a cabbie-in-training that the Scott Memorial Statue is a testable marker on ‘The Knowledge’.

Looking over the footage again, I find it touching how each person has a particular slant or inflection to their memory of Captain Scott’s story. There were comments on the recent riots, one man remembered that an account of Scott’s story was the first book he took out from a library, and others had very keen personal associations with different aspects of the adventure. It makes me reflect that none of us can ever know what impact we’re having on the people around us.


The bronze memorial statue was sculpted by Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen.  She’d trained in Paris with Rodin. The material was paid for by public donations, after a memorial service was held at St Paul’s. It was erected in 1915, and a copy was commissioned by the residents of Christchurch, New Zealand that year. (Scott had based his New Zealand operations in Christchurch on both of his Antarctic expeditions.) Due to the short supply of metal following the First World War, the New Zealand replica is made of marble, instead.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Climate change - interview

Although Captain Scott and his crew ventured into unmapped territory with the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, theirs wasn’t an aimless wanderlust. The scientific programme was ambitious and phenomenally fruitful: the Discovery expedition alone gave reams of scientific data and analysis that were published in six volumes, running to hundreds of pages each. The findings spanned meteorology, magnetology, ecology, physiology and atmospheric chemistry. The data gives calibration points for longitudinal studies, for example into climate change. This week, I’ve spoken with Tony Grayling, Head of Climate Change and Sustainable Communities for the Environment Agency (EA). Here’s the first half of the interview:

What’s the ‘best case scenario’ for climate change?

That the average global temperature rise peaks at 2°C above the pre-industrial average. This would still not be great. There’s significant climate change that we can see with just a 1°C rise above the pre-industrial era average: too much water (storminess) in some places and too little in others (affecting agricultural production), but overall deleterious effects on human society due to water shortages and impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. We’re seeing loss of whole species and the endangering of complete ecosystems. But this is nothing compared with letting climate change go unchecked to an increase of 4.5°C above pre-industrial averages – there we would see severe agricultural trouble, water stress and possible collapse of whole ecosystems. We can already see danger hitting the Amazon and warm water coral reefs, our two most biodiverse habitats.

Carrot or stick?

We need both. This is not a problem that is going to be addressed purely by voluntary action. We need regulation and incentives. Global problems require international cooperation and legally binding international agreements, e.g. for global emission checks. We need for carbon emissions to peak in the next decade and then to reduce by half by 2050 globally – a tall order. The distribution of effort needs to be fair, so wealthier countries with higher emissions per capita and more wherewithal to do something about it should reduce their emissions the most. Poorer countries have a right to emit. The Environment Agency are a regulator of government policy, but do not create policy. There’s a need to reward both right technologies and behaviours. Collective action is needed on a level playing field. Technological solutions are going to play a vital role because I cannot see how you’re going to persuade people who are used to a level of material prosperity to just give it up. So we need technologies that can enable people to enjoy benefits they’re used to without greenhouse emissions – core is converting energy generation from fossil fuel base and moving towards low carbon electricity generation, e.g. with carbon catch storage. There are alternative pathways. We can decarbonise electricity generation then convert surface transport to an electricity base and heating to an electricity base. There’s biomass for heat pumps. A whole range.

Melting iceberg on the Ross Sea. Picture credit: Mila Zinkova, Fogshadow

Do you consider knowledge transfer and the distribution of UK insight as tools to combat climate change? If so, how does the EA support this?

Well, this problem is fundamentally at the international scale. Wealthier nations historically are more responsible and have the capacity to do something about it. They do have a responsibility to transfer knowledge to less industrialised countries who will need to take a different path to development. We’ll all need to adapt to inertia in the global energy system, that is we have already stored up an amount of climate change that we’ll have to adapt to. The most vulnerable are usually the poorest and the least able to adapt. We also need large financial transfers, e.g. direct aid and creation of global carbon markets. Wealthy nations could pay for pollution rights and the money would go to poorer countries to adapt.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

HMS Discovery

HMS Discovery in Discovery Port, Dundee

Captain Scott cut his polar exploration teeth as the leader of the Discovery expedition (1901 – 4), which had a vast surveying and scientific programme. The HMS Discovery was built specially for this expedition and after decades of subsequent, various use as a cargo ship, a Royal Research Ship and a Scouts training ship, it has been conserved in Dundee as a museum piece (restored to its 1924 incarnation). I visited it yesterday.

The first thing that struck me was how small the ship is (52 metres long, 10 metres wide), and how much smaller it must have felt with a crew of 47, a dog and a cat on board. This compactness gave rise to idiosyncrasies in the design, e.g. coal had to pass through the ward room on the way to the bunker. Although it was the first survey ship of its kind to be built, it followed in a long line of wooden Arctic whalers to come out of Dundee. It wasn’t actually the first HMS Discovery, but the sixth, after Discoverys that had been led by celebrated explorers, including William Baffin, James Cook and George Vancouver.

An enfilade of 'ankle bashers' at deck level

Only two tenders were received once the naval architect William E. Smith had finished his draft, and the Dundee shipbuilders won outright, not least because they charged less. They used 10 kinds of timber, which were collectively thought to be stronger than iron and steel against the pressure of pack ice. The hull was made with three layers of planking totalling 65 cm in thickness, with extra shoring in the bow, and horizontal panting beams for reinforcement.

Every feature of the ship was designed with rolling, icy water in mind. Portholes would have compromised hull strength, so the ship was fitted with mushroom vents or ‘ankle bashers’, i.e. light wells, which were being polished at deck level when I visited: a crew of three keep it ship-shape today. The interior of the hull was fitted with small boxes filled with salt to preserve the wood from water damage. The stern overhangs the propeller and rudder much further than usual, to keep the helmsman dry in far southerly high seas and for shielding from ice damage. The propeller and rudder are retractable – a substantial innovation for the time.

The rigging

Although it’s a sailing ship, it was fitted with a triple expansion steam engine for when the wind failed, for ramming through pack ice and for emergency reversals. The steam was ingeniously circulated to keep the propeller grease from freezing. The engine cost a third as much as the rest of the ship combined and was coal-hungry.

It was interesting to try to imagine what ship life was like for Scott and his crew. On the one hand, Edwardian dining etiquette was observed to the letter, so officers ate off specially commissioned Royal Doulton porcelain ware. On the other, there were no fixed ‘cuddies’ (toilets) and no bathrooms, so crew washed themselves and their clothes in portable canvas or rubber baths wherever they could find space.

The chart room

Tellingly, no care or expense was spared on the heart of the ship, the laboratory and the magnetic observatory. Louis Bernacchi, the only member of the Discovery crew to have visited Antarctica before, engaged in studies of terrestrial magnetism from the centre of a magnetic exclusion zone thirty feet across – no iron or steel was used in the ship’s construction within this zone (brass was a common replacement), and even cutlery was cleared from this area when measurements were due to be made. A sobering reminder that even the best laid plans are susceptible to human error, Bernacchi humbly observed at the end of the Discovery mission that all along a parrot had observed his work from an iron cage in the laboratory!

Dr Wilson would complete his natural history paintings in this corner of the laboratory

I have to admit I visited the Discovery with low expectations, but was engrossed in the intricate and intimate displays. The museum vividly gives a sense of just how mysterious Antarctica was at the time, and how great the achievements of the early explorers were. One line which leapt out at me in the displays is that more was known about the moon in 1969 than was known about Antarctica in 1901 – the interior was a blank on the map. Have you been to the Discovery? Can you recommend anywhere else for me to visit?

About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.