Grandparents against climate change
Letter 3: 30th August 2020
From Grandparents against Climate Change
3. Early warning signals - 1950-1990
Sixty years ago, when many of us were less than ten years old, there were clear early warning signals from scientists of the danger in burning fossil fuels and predictions of where this would lead. In 1958 Frank Capra made a film called ‘The Unchained Goddess’ which was shown on American TV and explains what weather is, and how it works and the risk of man-made climate change. 1953 Gilbert Plass, a Canadian scientist published a series of papers predicting that a doubling of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) would warm the planet by 3.6°C, that CO2 levels in 2000 would be 30% higher than in 1900 and that the planet would be about 1°C warmer in 2000 than in 1900. 54 years later in 2007 the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report estimated that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a 2 - 4.5°C temperature increase, when CO2 had already risen 37% and temperature had increased by around 0.9oC since pre-industrial times (0.7oC from 1900-2000 average). In the past decade the temperature has increased a further 0.2oC. 1957 Roger Revelle, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Hans Suess studied the rate CO2 had accumulated in the atmosphere and the proportion taken up by the oceans. They said, "Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future”. 1958 Charles David Keeling began systematically monitoring atmospheric CO2 levels on Mauna Loa, in Hawaii. In 1961 he produced data showing that CO2 levels were rising steadily year on year in what became known as the ‘Keeling Curve’ and is probably the most respected and referred to set of data in climate science. 1959 Edward Teller, as guest of honour at a celebration in New York City to mark the 100th anniversary of the US oil industry, told his audience of 300, “CO2 has a strange property; it transmits visible light but absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect. It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe”.
Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, when many of us were teenagers, US presidents were fully informed of the dangers, as was the US oil industry whose research into climate change clearly reflected the results of scientists in academia and government. 1965 President Lyndon Johnson received a report from his Science Advisory Committee titled ‘Restoring the Quality of Our Environment.’ The report concluded with a prediction and a warning of what could follow.
“By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere”. 1965 The American Petroleum Institute (API) president Frank Ikard told an oil industry conference. “The warning is clear and dire and the source unexpected. This report unquestionably will fan emotions, raise fears, and bring demand for action”.
1977 James Black, Exxon’s Scientific Advisor, told Exxon's management committee of top executives that emerging science showed that CO2 levels were rising, likely driven by fossil fuel use, and such increases would boost global temperatures, leading to widespread damage. 1978 President Jimmy Carter received a report from an independent group of elite scientists called the Jasons which advises the United States government on matters of science and technology. They reported levels of CO2 were predicted to double from pre-industrial levels by 2035 and 2060 at the latest and giving a temperature rise of 2-3oC. 1979 The First World Climate Conference was held on 12-23 February 1979 in Geneva and sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization. In his keynote address the Chairman, Robert M. White said,
“In little more than twenty years, we will celebrate the year 2000. This millennium may very well represent the ending of one era in the relation of humanity to the planet and the beginning of another. The millennium may mark a fundamental change in the ability of the planet to sustain its people or at least in the ways in which this will be done”. 1988 Jim Hansen told a US Congressional meeting he was 99% certain the earth was warmer then than it had ever previously been measured and there was a clear cause and effect relationship with the greenhouse effect. 1987 became the warmest year on record and 1981, 1983 and 1987 became the warmest three years since records began.
Thirty years ago could have been a turning point when, at the 1990 Second Climate Conference in Geneva, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a significant contribution, encouraging the world to work together and take action.
“The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations. No-one should under-estimate the imagination that will be required, nor the scientific effort, nor the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order”.
Sadly, it was not a turning point, the world didn’t get the statesmanship of a rare order and the situation accelerated out of control.
Letter 2: 29th August 2020
From Grandparents against Climate Change
2. This is where our understanding began 1800-1900.
Even before our parents were born, scientists understood the Greenhouse Effect and the impact that increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) could have on the planet’s climate. Now that we are able to look back at historic levels of atmospheric CO2 we see that over the past 800,000 years it fluctuated through the ice ages from about 180-280 parts per million (ppm). As the Industrial Revolution started in 1750 it stood at 280 ppm. At this time we could have expected to be approaching the end of the current, warm interglacial period before the onset of the next glaciation within the ongoing Quaternary 2.6 million year Ice-age sequence. Instead of a slow, gradual cooling of the planet, our activities are now taking us rapidly in the opposite direction.
The Industrial Revolution started in the UK slowly spreading to Europe and the USA and by 1850 CO2 levels had reached 285 ppm and by 1900 296 ppm. During this period a number of nineteenth century scientists independently contributed to the development of our understanding of the Greenhouse Effect. They determined that increasing levels of CO2 could impact on the Earth’s climate. 1800 William Herschel discovered infrared radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum. In a simple experiment he placed thermometers in the visible spectrum emanating from a glass prism and found an invisible but warmer band below the red visible light band which became named infrared.
1824 Joseph Fourier realised that the Earth's atmosphere retained heat radiation from the sun keeping the planet warmer than would be the case in a vacuum. He also realized that the heated surface emitted invisible infrared radiation, which carries the heat energy away into space. He also suspected that human activities could influence climate. 1856 Eunice Foote studied the warming effect of sunlight on different gases and considered that changing the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere would change the Earth’s temperature.
1859 John Tyndall independently investigated the absorption of infrared radiation in different gases. He found that water vapour, hydrocarbons like methane (CH4), and CO2 strongly block infrared radiation. He understood that such gases high in the air help keep our planet warm by interfering with escaping radiation.
1896 Svante August Arrhenius used basic principles of physical chemistry to estimate the extent to which increases in atmospheric CO2 would increase the Earth's surface temperature through the Greenhouse Effect. These calculations led him to conclude that CO2 emissions, from fossil-fuel burning and other combustion processes are large enough to cause global warming. 1899 Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin developed at length the idea that changes in climate could result from changes in the concentration of atmospheric CO2.
By 1900, Scientists had already developed an understanding of how CO2 emissions could affect the Earth’s climate. In 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar, a British engineer, presented evidence collected from weather stations across the world to demonstrate that both temperature and CO2 levels in the atmosphere had been rising over the past half-century. By the ‘50s scientists began warning of the potential dangers and predicting where increasing emissions would lead
Letter 1: 28th August 2020
From Grandparents against Climate Change Sent on Fri 28th Aug 20 to all 650 MPs
1. Where are we now with the control of global emissions? Carbon Dioxide emissions have been increasing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In the early ‘90s, countries began to come together to develop a strategy to control and reduce the emissions of CO2 and other Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.
Following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed and entered into force in 1994. It’s aim was to stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. The framework has almost universal membership with 197 countries having ratified the treaty. The members are called parties to the convention and generally meet every year as a conference of the parties or COP. At COP3 held in Kyoto in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted which came into force in 2005 with 192 signatories. Bill Clinton had signed the protocol for the US but Congress refused to ratify it. It committed industrialised countries to limit GHG emissions in line with agreed targets and adopt policies and strategies for mitigation and to report periodically. In 2009 the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen (COP15) was intended to develop strategies to follow Kyoto, but it ended in disarray and it wasn’t until 2015 in Paris (COP21) that a new global agreement was achieved. The Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 and has the goal of ensuring any increase in global average temperature is kept to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels; its aim is to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would substantially reduce the risks and effects of climate change. In 2017, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement.
After 30 years of international efforts to reduce global emissions where are we? Annual global CO2 emissions from 1751 to 1990, a period of 240 years, were about 803 Gt CO2
From 1991- 2019, while the world planned on reducing emissions, they were about 845 Gt CO2
Total CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution ~ 270 years 1648 Gt CO2
Annual global emissions in 2000 were 24.6 Gt CO2
Annual global emissions in 2019 were 36.9 Gt CO2 Carbon budgets to limit future temperature increases are calculated on the basis that the degree of future warming can be calculated from the total CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere and the future annual emissions permissible. Due to the complexity of the system, the calculated budget is sensitive to the method used.
Limiting the increase in global warming to 1.5°C gives a carbon budget which is estimated to be 2250 Gt CO2.
If global emissions to 2019 are about 1650 Gt CO2. this leaves us a budget of 600 Gt CO2.
The Emissions Gap Report is published annually by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to assess global progress in reducing emissions to hold any temperature increase to below 2oC. The recent report, published last November, finds that even if all unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement are implemented, we are still on course for a 3.2°C temperature rise.
The report gives us some stark choices: either set in motion the radical transformations we need NOW or our children and grandchildren face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change and the actions of our generation.
Time is running out; failure to act has already lead to average global temperatures increasing by more than 1° C since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975.
We hope we have not lost you yet. The following 9 emails aim to fill in some background and what some of the issues are. We hope they will persuade you to ACT NOW, on behalf of our grandchildren.
Introductory Letter: 27th August 2020
To all our Members of Parliament.
27th August 2020
This letter reflects the views of 120 grandparents who share serious concerns about the future for their 245 grandchildren.
We are sending this on behalf of grandparents who are extremely concerned by the accelerating rate of climate change, which politicians and statesmen have failed to deal with over our lifetime and which, without urgent action, will severely blight the future of our grandchildren and yours.
Most of us grew up in the '50s and '60s, at a time when scientists understood the impact of carbon dioxide on the world’s climate. US politicians certainly knew: in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson received a report from his scientific advisory group entitled ‘Restoring the Quality of Our Environment’ https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3227654-PSAC-1965-Restoring-the-Quality-of-Our-Environment.html which warned of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and predicted that, by 2000, the increase in atmospheric CO2 might be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in the climate.
As children and teenagers, we would have expected the ‘grown-ups’, the politicians and statesmen of the time, to have ensured that any possible dangers to our future would be taken care of. Alas, this was not to be.
As scientists continued to give us warnings, we reached the 1990s, by which time most of us had our own children and thought that with formation of the United Nations Environment Programme https://www.unenvironment.org/ and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change https://www.ipcc.ch/ (IPCC) and annual COP https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop meetings the problem would be sorted. Margaret Thatcher presented a rousing speech https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108237 at the second Climate Conference in Geneva in 1990 and established and opened https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108102 the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, also in 1990.
We continued securing our children’s future in the knowledge that a new generation of politicians and statesmen who understood the issues would soon put in measures to solve the problem.
We were naive enough not to recognise the power of the vested interests, the power of a press influenced by them, and the politicians more concerned with supporting them; some politicians failed to understand and others were just uninterested. By the time we reached the millennium climate scepticism was rife, climate sceptic think-tanks sprang up to support the vested interests and to spread doubt on the science.
From the millennium many of our generation began to become grandparents and there was a glimmer of hope with the signing of the first Climate Change Bill in 2008 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/27/pdfs/ukpga_20080027_en.pdf and then the election of a Prime Minister who promised to lead the “Greenest Government Ever” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/may/14/cameron-wants-greenest-government-ever in 2010. But we were to see the cutting of subsidies for onshore wind farms https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30504891, the cancellation of the proposed funding for carbon capture and storage research https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/25/uk-cancels-pioneering-1bn-carbon-capture-and-storage-competition?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail and the encouragement of fracking https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23662583.
Thankfully, the new government in 2019 have essentially reversed these, five years later! The amended 1998 Climate Change Act introduced in 2019 aiming for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2050 was welcome and the first of its kind but, sadly, was not particularly ambitious considering where we are.
In June 2020, the Committee on Climate Change presented a new report https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/reducing-uk-emissions-2020-progress-report-to-parliament/ which, among other things, stressed the need for adapting all planning for a minimum 2°C and potential 4°C global temperature rise (by 2100 from pre-industrial levels). The United Nations Environmental Programmes Emissions Gap report https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2019 published in November also clearly points out that we are on track for a 3.2oC temperature rise unless we set in motion the radical transformations we need. Otherwise we, and more importantly our grandchildren and their children, face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change.
We now need a generation of politicians who will finally put climate change at the top of the agenda and keep it there, both nationally and in our international relations. The latter is extremely important and will need, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “Statesmanship of a rare order”. We have a major opportunity to take a lead next year at COP26 but only if we can lead by example.
While some MPs have recognised the seriousness of where we are and have made major contributions over the years to try and deliver change, others just kept kicking the climate change issue down the road while some have simply not recognised it as a problem. Many we assume have not understood the issues otherwise we would not be in the position we find ourselves in now.
Climate change is multifaceted and the science is multidisciplinary; getting to grips with it is not always easy and takes time. To help we are going to send you a number of emails focusing on aspects of climate change, which we hope will help those of you who are not clear on some of the details to find your way through it and to highlight many of our concerns. There are lots of sources of information but to dissect and understand them takes time. We sincerely hope that these will prove helpful to inform your discussions.
The Covid-19 crisis, while a major global disaster for public health, economic activity and social well-being, will be looked back on as an acute disaster in human history. The Climate crisis is a chronic, ongoing disaster and one that we have brought on ourselves and that, if unchecked, has the potential to bring human history to an end.
We do not want our children and grandchildren to have to write to the next generation of MPs challenging why you have also failed them, just like the previous generations of MPs have failed us.
We appreciate the time you have taken to read this.
From Grandparents against Climate Change.