Tag: climate change

Book review: The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan

frankopanIt is rare that I am menaced by the sheer size of a book but The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan has done this to a degree. The Silk Roads, by the same author is similarly massive. So in a break from my usual habit I am going to review as I read.

The book is about the interplay of climate and humanity, and how humanity impacts the environment with an attempt to cover history across the world rather than focussing on Western Europe.

The extensive footnotes for this book are found in a separate downloadable pdf.

0 – Introduction – Frankopan is a year younger than me – born in 1971, and his early memories were shaped by news reports of acid rain, the fear of nuclear winter and Chernobyl – all stark demonstrations of man’s potential impact on the environment.

1 – The World from the Dawn of Time(4.5bn-7m BC) – The earth’s environment has always been changing, in deep time there was a much lower concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere. Those animals we see around us are the result of evolution through multiple cataclysmic environmental events.

2 – On the origins of our species (7m BC-12,000BC) – Climate change in central Africa and growing social groups led to speciation of the hominid group. We started large scale manipulation of the environment – managing forests with fire – 65,000 years ago.

3 – Human interactions with Ecologies (c.12000-c.3500BC) – End of the Younger Dryas and the start of the Holocene is a key point for civilisations, the climate becomes more benign and stable and larger settlements start to grow.

4 – The first cities and trade networks (c3500-c2500 BC) – the first cities are founded, and arguably the first anthropogenic climate change takes place. With cities came hierarchies, ownership and vulnerability to shocks and disease.

5 – On the risks of living beyond one’s means (2500BC-c.2200BC) – One such shock is the great drought of 2200BC, often seen as a global phenomena but actually rather complicated with different regional effects and an impact which was perhaps most obvious on the ruling class.

6 – The first age of connectivity (c.2200-c.800BC) – the environment provides resources unevenly, and so trade is necessary as societies become more sophisticated, these trade networks lead to interdependence so when one society falls others are impacted. The trade is not just in goods but also in ideas.

7 – Regarding Nature and the Divine (c1700-c.300BC) – Religions which we still see today arose several hundred years BC, and many of them made references to the environment. The ruler was often an intermediary to the gods/control of the weather – rain being particularly important. Even in this time there were exhortations to preserve the environment.

8 – The Steppe Frontier and Formation of Empires (c.1700-c.300BC) – the Eurasian steppes provided a catalyst for the growth of empires in the neighbouring region, alongside the domestication of the horse in about 3000BC. This combination provided rapid transport, and the flatness of the terrain made expansion easy. There is also an interplay between nomadic and pastoral peoples.

9 – The Roman Warm Period (c.300BC-AD c.500) – the Roman Empire grew at a time of benign and stable climatic conditions – and fell when those climatic conditions changed. Contemporary writers noted the pollution in Rome and other big cities. We can see the lead of the Roman Empire in Greenland ice cores.

10 – The Crisis of Late Antiquity (AD c.500-c.600) – the decades from 530AD saw multiple volcanic eruptions leading to global cooling, food shortages, and the rise of disease (the Justinian plague) and the fall of empires.

11 – The Golden Age of Empire (c.600-c.900) – the Prophet Mohammad’s agreement with the ruling elite in Mecca in 628AD provided an Arab identity that grew to an Empire stretching across North Africa and into Spain. Trade grows with sub-Saharan Africa. These patterns are replicated in the Americas and the Far East. Literacy grew in the eighth century with the introduction of paper from China. Empires started to decline in the 9th century as another warmer drier period started.

12 – The Medieval Warm Period (c.900-c.1250) – the Medieval Warm Period was both warm, and stable with unusually low levels of volcanic activity. During this time there was a large growth in global population, and Northern Europe saw significant growth. This growth was a result of improvements in crops and technology, as well as the benign climate.

13 – Disease and the formation of a New World (c.1250-c.1450) – the 13th century saw the rise of the Mongol empire, under Genghis Khan, stimulated by wetting weather in the steppe leading to more productive pasture when other areas were suffering drought. But the wet weather and the extensive trade networks of the Empire led to the rise of Black Death. Interesting parallels between post-Plague and post-1918 influenza Europe – the roaring twenties.

14 – On the expansion of Ecological Horizons (c.1400-c.1500) – the 14th and 15th century saw the fall of some of those empires that rose during the earlier more benign and stable weather, more driven by the instability of large empires than by climate change. It also saw the European "exploration" of the world and the large scale transport of plant and animal species across the world.

15 – The Fusion of the Old and the New Worlds (c.1500-c.1700) – the European "discovery" of the New World introduced a massive migration of flora and fauna around the world, potatoes, tomatoes,chillies from the New World to the Old. Pigs, sheep, goats and cattle from the Old to the New.

16 – On the exploitation of Nature and People (c.1650-c.1750) – the new sugar, tobacco and cotton industries required a large workforce, resistant to malaria, and Africans fitted the bill – this chapter to about slavery.

17 – The Little Ice Age (c.1550-c.1800) – the Little Ice Age has long been known but its magnitude was quite variable around the world, many things have been ascribed to the Little Ice Age but connections and causality are tenuous. The 17th century saw significant developments in military technology and spending on professional armies in Europe. There was also a large rise in urbanisation. Variable weather, uncertain crops hit some countries hard.

18 – Concerning Great and Little Divergences (c.1600-c.1800) – 1600-1800 was the period in which the economies of Europe diverged from those of Asia and Africa, and in Europe the North pulled away from the South. The introduction of the potato to Europe was important, as was maize and manioc (cassava) to Africa.

19 – Industry, extraction and the Natural World (c.1800-c.1870) – markets became truly global with wheat from North America cheaper to ship from Canada to Liverpool than from Dublin to Liverpool. Colonialism was at its height with Britain leading the world and the Americans expelling indigenous people from their own lands.

20 – The Age of Turbulence (c.1870-c.1920) – new resources became ripe for exploitation like rubber, guano and tin. Industrialisation proceeded apace. Concerns about climate began, and the Carrington Event and the Krakatoa eruption started scientists thinking about global impacts. Global pandemics made an appearance for both people and animals.

21 – Fashioning New Utopias (c.1920-c.1950) – the middle years of the 20th century saw a new wave of exploitation with oil, copper, uranium and more recently lithium becoming important resources. Colonialism receded but was replaced by corporate and government interference in states. In the Soviet Union ecological damage, and great human upheaval was driven by the dash to modernise but in a communist rather than capitalist framework.

22 – Reshaping the Global Environment (the mid-Twentieth Century) – the USSR and the USA started large scale environmental modification projects, see Teller’s proposals to use nuclear explosions to change just about anything.

23 – The Sharpening of Anxieties (c.1960-c.1990) – in the sixties the USA and USSR got heavily into weather modification, and the Americans into Agent Orange in Vietnam. The USA programme was conducted in deep secrecy, and when it was revealed there was an outcry which lead to a treaty banning such environmental modification. This led to a wider thaw of Cold War interactions.

24 – On the edge of Ecological Limits (c.1990-today) – the 1990s saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Industrial China. It also saw the discussions over climate change heating up.

25 – Conclusions – Frankopan’s conclusion is rather gloomy, he highlights how we are failing to act on climate change but then points we may suffer worse consequences from volcanic activity, or an asteroid strike!

There are themes across the whole book, in the environment we see periods of stable climate interspersed by periods of change – particularly driven by volcanic eruptions. From the human side we see the growing scale of civilisations, larger civilisations with more connections are more vulnerable to instability and the fall of other civilisations. We see ever increasing urbanisation and exploitation of the environment at ever greater scale.

Although initially intimidating, I found The Earth Transformed rather readable – perhaps because I saw each chapter as a separate essay.


IMG_6875 Some time ago we installed “solar thermal” on our roof, as described in: “The Dorothy Hopkinson Memorial Solar Panel”. This heats water, it’s significantly reduced our gas usage over the summer when the central heating is not on but during the winter when most of our gas is consumed the effect is minimal.

Next step on the renewable energy list is solar photovoltaic (PV) – this converts light to electricity directly. Solar PV systems are rather more expensive than solar thermal systems, until recently the economics of this were a bit questionable – £10,000 is a lot to spend to reduce your electricity consumption by half. However, the feed-in tariff scheme was introduced in the UK in April 2010. This scheme pays a generous tariff based on the total amount of renewable electricity generated by an installation in an effort to increase the uptake of such systems. A similar scheme has been in place in Germany since 2000, where it has been pretty successful in reaching this goal.

We have a medium-sized 3 bed semi-detached house with East-West facing roof elements which are relatively small. Two of us live in the house, our annual electricity consumption is typically 6.5 kWh  per day or 2400kWh per year (*see below for a comment on units). When we first moved into the house our consumption was around 11kWh per day (4000kWh per year). We reduced this by replacing all our light bulbs with low energy versions; switching off a second fridge/freezer; almost entirely stopping using a tumble drier and on replacing fridges and washing machines we bought the lowest energy versions we could find. So these measure achieved roughly 40% reduction. I know all this because I’ve been recording our electricity and gas consumption once a week for the last 3 years!

A colleague at work has recently installed both solar thermal and solar PV, and he gave a talk describing his experiences. After some delay we arranged for a survey by The Green Electrician, who were the installers recommended locally by Segen. The surveyor did a few measurements of our roof and then went through sample power generation calculations and costings based on those measurements. The calculation is described in “The Government’s Standard Assessment Procedure for Energy Rating of Dwellings” (SAP 2005 page 69). Beforehand I was under the impression that this wasn’t going to be worthwhile since only our East-facing roof is available for installation and this is always described as ‘non-ideal’. However, the calculations show that the penalty for an East-facing roof compared to a south-facing one is only about 15%. Unlike solar thermal, direct sunlight is not required – useful energy is still generated on a cloudy day or when the panel is in shadow.

Slight diversion: we were original quoted for an 8 panel system, however once on the roof the installers found they could fit two more panels. I’ve redone the calculations to allow for this – they may be a little bit inaccurate but not much.

The system recommended was a 1.85kWp Suntech system (ten 1580 x 808mm panels = 12.64m2) limited by the size of our roof. The calculated output of this system is 1393kWh per year i.e. about 60% of our annual usage. The price quoted for this system is ~£8,600 (excluding cost of scaffolding which was just over £400). The feed-in tariff is £575 per year based on 1393kwH per year production at a price of 41.3p per kWh. The savings on our electricity bill should be £98 per year (based on 50% of generated electricity being used by us at 14p per Kwh) and £21 based on selling the other 50% back to the grid at 3p per kWh. The feed-in tariff is inflation linked, and it’s reasonable to assume that the buy and sell prices of electricity will go up in the future. As you can see the feed-in tariff is what makes this financially sensible. In theory we will be getting £694 back on the system every year, so it will pay for itself in 13 years or less, mainly due to the feed-in tariff. The tariff is paid for 25 years so at the end of 25 years we will have been “re-paid” at least £8350 more than we spent. This is an embarrassingly high “middle-class benefit”. There are companies who will install renewable systems, paying the upfront costs, providing significantly cheaper electricity and taking the tariff (see Guardian article here): in summary this could work for you but the companies aren’t doing you a favour.

Installation is pretty straightforward: we needed substantial scaffolding across the front of the house to provide roof access; there’s some electrical gear to go in the loft (this is a panel about 1m2) and there’s a cable run from there down to our consumer unit under the stairs where there is a further small meter the size of a central heating controller. In our house this is fairly straightforward: the cable runs up to the loft via ducting up the stairwell – we’ll bury this in the wall when we next decorate. Three chaps were working for a substantial fraction of two days but they also cleaned out my gutter and re-pointed the ridge-tiles. At this point I’d like to commend Ian, Danny and John: the installers, who did a fine job and were most polite.  

There’s still some paperwork for us to do, but essentially the power companies are obliged to pay the feed-in tariff and accept energy back from us onto the grid.

At the moment I’m going up and down the loft stairs to look at my power generation at 30 minute intervals! Overall I’m very pleased with the system: survey to installation was a day under 3 weeks and on a not particularly sunny day I’ve been generating 1000W since 10:30am and peaked at around 1500W. As of 3pm I’ve generated 4.4Kwh which is nearly 70% of our average daily usage. We expect to get less electricity from the system as we head into the shorter days of winter with a sun lower in the sky, but it’s not a bad start.

As an additional bonus we can now electrocute unsuspecting electricians in a sustainable fashion – unlike a normal house you need to switch off supply from the grid and from the solar panel before sticking your screwdriver anywhere electrical. There are big signs to this effect next to the consumer unit.

*Note on units: Power is the rate at which something consumes energy, and the units for this are Watts (W), 1000 Watts is known as 1kiloWatt (kW) – a kettle uses about 2kW when it is running, the PC I’m using about 300W and the electric shower about 9kW. Ultimately what you buy from the electricity company is an amount of energy. For domestic electricity consumption we talk about “kWh” or “kilowatt-hours” this is a power multiplied by a time which in physical terms is “energy” which physicists would normally quote in units of “Joules” however, we’re not in physics at the moment. The quoted output of our system is in “kWp” or “Kilowatt-hours (peak)” – this is the maximum power we could possibly obtain from the system.

Some pictures of the system, including a graph of gas and electricity consumption over the last three years.

A letter to the Institute of Physics

Dear Sir/Madam

As a member of the Institute of Physics I would like to register my extreme displeasure and unhappiness at the IOP submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee regarding the leaking of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (reproduced here) . In my view this submission will damage the scientific reputation of the Institute amongst scientists and other learned societies. This submission will prejudice my future confidence in any policy statements that the IOP makes.

My specific complaints of the submission are as follows:
1. Item 2 mis-represents the current scientific practice of sharing of data and methodologies. Currently methodologies are generally shared by publication in scientific journals not by the explicit sharing of computer source code. Raw experimental data from third parties is not routinely shared. To imply that the researchers at CRU are acting out of step with current practice is false. 
2. Item 4 specifically casts doubt on the historical temperature reconstructions based on proxy measures whilst not acknowledging that such reconstructions have been repeated by a range of research groups using a range of methodologies, as described in the IPCC 2007 report.
3. Item 5 accuses the researchers at CRU of “suppression” of the divergence between proxy records and the more recent thermometer based record. This is ridiculous, the CRU has published on this very divergence in Nature.
4. Item 6 makes no recognition of the un-usual circumstances that CRU found themselves in, subjected to a large number of Freedom of Information requests, culminating in the publication of a substantial fraction of their private e-mail correspondence.
The subject of climate science and it’s relationship to anthropogenic climate change is an area subject to political interference, in my view the IOP’s submission is a political attack on the CRU at East Anglia University dressed in a flimsy scientific cover.
I expect the Institute to fully withdraw this submission to the Science & Technology Committee. I feel that the subsequent explanatory statement by the IOP is insufficient in addressing the shortcomings of the original submission. It also takes no cognisance of the fact the IOP position will be taken publicly to be the sum of all it’s published statements, and indeed that this submission will be preferred, over all others, as a presentation of the IOP’s policy by those who wish to deny the position on climate science that the IOP claims to hold.
I will be cancelling my direct debit mandate to the IOP now, I may decide to continue with my membership when it comes up for renewal.

yours sincerely,
Dr Ian Hopkinson

8/3/10: update, corrected some typos

The Dorothy Hopkinson Memorial Solar Panel

This post is in memory of my paternal grandmother: Dorothy Hopkinson. This isn’t going to be a maudlin post: granny died about 18 months ago at a fair old age. I remember her for her cheery smile, ultra-competitive playing of cards and Scrabble (whilst simultaneously claiming to be unconcerned by the outcome), her white drop-handlebar bike which she rode into her sixties, spectacles at a jaunty angle as she slept: snoring in front of the TV, icecream made from evaporated milk in battered aluminium dishes and nettle soup. When she died she left some money which I used to buy a direct water heating solar panel which I have christened “The Dorothy Hopkinson Memorial Solar Panel”.

So to the panel: bought from Solartwin it cost about £3000, it comprises a single panel about 6ft by 4ft which is on our roof. Installation was in September 2008, took about four hours and is minimally invasive. The panel takes cold water as it is heading towards the hot water tank, circulates it around the panel (as long as it’s sunny) heating it as it goes, then feeds it back into the top of the hot water tank. Our roof isn’t ideally oriented, it faces west rather than south, so it catches the afternoon sun. There’s only two of us in the house, we use gas for heating, hot water and cooking – so the solar panel is replacing some of that water heating. Our gas bills are already pretty low (~£360 per year). At the same time that we had the solar panel installed we added to our loft insulation and also significantly improved the insulation on the hot water tank (previously it had a flimsy red jacket, worn off the shoulder). As a side note, I found the rolls of loft insulation from B&Q to be rather huggable ;-)

I have, of course, been recording my gas and electric readings every Saturday morning for the last couple of years. Okay, I appreciate most people don’t consider this “natural” but it isn’t hurting anyone and it does give me some nice numbers to play with. Obsessive data collection has a fine track record in science: Tycho Brahe for example spent years collecting data on planetary orbits, Nevil Maskelyne collected data for determining the longitude from the location of the moon, J.D. Bernal’s poor lab technician spent what must have been an incredible amount of time fishing balls out of a bag, recording their exact location as he went (that’s more data collection by proxy) (these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head). Of course computers and electronics have meant that a lot of data collection can be automated but there’s still a place for a bit of tedious manual data collection in the modern lab (or home). Feel free to add to tales of heroic data collection in the comments.

I give the gas and electricity numbers to a little program I wrote in C# (a relatively new programming language), which plots them out. I used C# as a little exercise to get me using the language – normally I use Matlab (which is a language environment more suited to scientific programming).

Making graphs with numbers comes very naturally to me, and I find it very easy to read a graph. But I observe when we go walking that I’m much happier reading an OS map than my wife who prefers words in a guide book – so I’m not sure everyone reads a graph in the way I do. Perhaps you’d like to comment?

So in the graph above, time runs along the bottom axis from left to right, the gas used in a week runs in the vertical direction. The mountainous bits are the winters, when the central heating is switched on. The relatively flat bits in between are the summers. First thing that strikes you is that the amount of gas used for central heating in the winter is huge (about ten times more) compared to the amount used just to heat water, during the summer. The solar panel was installed in September 2008 (almost a year ago),  over the winter it probably had relatively little effect, although looking at the raw numbers gas usage over Winter 2008/09 was about 20% lower than Winter 2007/8 despite this year being a colder winter. This is probably due to the improved insulation installed at the same time, we went from about 10cm thickness to about 25cm thickness. In the summer the reduction in gas usage is pretty large – down by 55%. Through this summer you can see that the gas usage drops gently to a minimum around June, this is due to the increasing height of the sun in the sky and the lengthening day.

Was the panel worth it? Well, it is quite exciting seeing your water getting heated for “free”, and during the summer months (even a relatively poor summer) we used a lot less gas. In financial terms the payback time for us is very long, although with a larger household and larger hot water tank the pay-off time would be reasonable (i.e. <10 years). Personally, I think the financial argument is missing the point, if we only change our behaviour for short term financial benefit we will all steam, gently over the next 100 years or so.