Humidity is the real heatwave threat

It’s not just the extreme temperature a heatwave brings that’s the problem, but the humidity from its burden of water vapour.

LONDON, 24 December, 2017 – When the mercury climbs to extreme levels, it’s the dangerous humidity produced by heat reacting with water-sodden air that can spell death, not just the heat alone.

US researchers have warned yet again of the need to beware the risks of this combination. With fierce heat waves expected to become more  common as the climate warms, they say humidity can greatly intensify the effects of the heat by itself.

They report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that during this century the drastic effects of high humidity in many areas will increase significantly. At times, they may overtake people’s ability to work outdoors or, in some cases, even to survive.

Health and economies would suffer, especially in regions where people work outside and have little access to air conditioning. Potentially affected regions include large swathes of the already muggy south-eastern United States; the Amazon; western and central Africa; southern areas of the Middle East, including the Arabian peninsula; northern India; and eastern China.

“The conditions we’re talking about basically never occur now – people in most places have never experienced them”, said lead author Ethan Coffel, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “But they’re projected to occur close to the end of the century.”

The warming climate is projected to make many now-dry areas dryer, in part by changing precipitation patterns. But, as global temperatures rise, the atmosphere can hold more water vapour. That means chronically humid areas may only get more humid.

“We move toward a world where heat stress is a vastly greater problem than it has been in the rest of human history”

Muggy heat is more oppressive than the “dry” kind, because humans and other mammals cool down by sweating; sweat evaporates off the skin into the air, taking the excess heat with it. That works well in a desert. But when the air is already laden with moisture, evaporation off the skin slows down, and eventually becomes impossible.

When this cooling process stops, a creature’s core body temperature rises beyond the narrow tolerable range. Without air conditioning, organs strain and then start to fail, leading to lethargy, sickness and possibly death.

Using global climate models, the researchers mapped current and projected future “wet-bulb” temperatures, which reflect the combined effects of heat and humidity (the measurement is made by draping a water-saturated cloth over the bulb of a conventional thermometer; it does not correspond directly to air temperature alone).

The study found that by the 2070s, high wet-bulb readings that now occur perhaps only once a year could stretch to 100 to 250 days annually in some parts of the tropics. In the south-east US, wet-bulb temperatures now sometimes reach 29 or 30°C; by the 2070s or 2080s, such weather could occur 25 to 40 days each year, say the researchers.

Laboratory experiments have shown wet-bulb readings of 32°C are the threshold beyond which many people would have trouble functioning outside. This level is rarely reached anywhere today.

Risk to India

But the study projects that in 50 or 60 years the limit could be reached one or two days a year in the US southeast, and three to five days in parts of South America, Africa, India and China. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people would suffer.

The hardest-hit area in terms of human impact, the researchers say, will probably be densely populated north-eastern India.

“Lots of people would crumble well before you reach wet-bulb temperatures of 32°C, or anything close”, said co-author Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty. “They’d run into terrible problems.”

The study projects that some parts of the southern Middle East and northern India may even hit 35 wet-bulb degrees Celsius by late this century – equal to the human skin temperature, and the theoretical limit at which people will die within hours without artificial cooling.

Using a related combined heat/humidity measure, the so-called heat index, this would be the equivalent of nearly 170° Fahrenheit of “dry” heat. But the heat index, invented in the 1970s to measure the real feel of moist summer weather, actually ends at 136; anything above that is literally off the chart.

Avoiding the worst

On the bright side, the paper says that if nations can substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades, the worst effects could be avoided.

Only a few weather events like those projected have ever been recorded. The most recent was in Iran’s Bandar Mahshahr in July 2015. That day the “dry” air temperature alone was 115°; saturated with moisture, the air’s wet bulb reading neared the 35 °C fatal limit, translating to a heat index of 165°F.

Bandar Mahshahr’s infrastructure is good and electricity cheap, so residents adapted by staying in air-conditioned buildings and vehicles, and showering after brief excursions outside. But this is not an option in other vulnerable places, where many people cannot afford such remedies.

“It’s not just about the heat, or the number of people. It’s about how many people are poor, how many are old, who has to go outside to work, who has air conditioning”, said the study co-author Alex deSherbinin of Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

He said that even if the weather does not kill people outright or stop all activity, the necessity of working on farms or elsewhere outdoors in such conditions can bring chronic kidney problems and other damaging health effects.

Previous warnings

Other researchers have sounded the alarm about the risks dangerous humidity levels can pose. A 2015 study said parts of the Gulf region, where Bandar Mahshahr lies, could, on present trends, become uninhabitable for humans by 2100.

The following year another study extended the warning to include North Africa. Earlier this year sports chiefs even reported that humidity could affect the behaviour of cricket balls.

Climate scientist Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who proposed the 35°C survivability limit, said he was sceptical that this threshold could be reached as soon as the researchers say. All the same, he said, “the basic point stands.”

Unless greenhouse emissions are cut, “we move toward a world where heat stress is a vastly greater problem than it has been in the rest of human history. The effects will fall hardest on hot and humid regions.” – Climate News Network

Human limits to growth may be here

Can we run any faster? How tall can we get? Humans who accelerated into climate change may now have to accept our limits to growth.

LONDON, 15 December, 2017 – Humankind may have gone about as far as it can go. Our own limits to growth suggest Homo sapiens may have reached some kind of plateau.

A single species that has changed the climate, become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and ushered in a new geological era, may also be about to become more aware of its physiological limitations.

French researchers think that although more people are living longer than ever, the record age for any single human may have been set two decades ago by a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calment, who died in Arles aged 122 years and 164 days.

Tomorrow’s humans may not be able to run much faster than Usain Bolt, the 100 metres Olympic champion and world title holder. Nor are humans – who on average gained 8.3 cms in the last 100 years – likely to go on growing taller. At some point humankind may have exhausted its physical potential.

“These traits no longer increase, despite further continuous nutritional, medical and scientific progress. This suggests that modern societies have allowed our species to reach its limits,” said Jean-Francois Toussaint of the Paris Descartes University, who led the study. “We are the first generation to become aware of this.”

“Now that we know the limits of the human species, this can act as a clear goal for nations to ensure that human capacities reach their highest possible values for most of the population”

And although such constraints are not directly connected to climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, what humans achieve is a combination of genetic and environmental limitations.

“This will be one of the biggest challenges of this century, as the added pressure from anthropogenic activities will be responsible for damaging effects on human health and the environment,” he said.

“The current declines in human capacities we can see today are a sign that environmental changes, including climate, are already contributing to the constraints we have to consider.”

Professor Toussaint and his colleagues report in the Journal of Physiology that they worked through an enormous number of studies to track the unprecedented improvements in human capabilities during the 20th century, all of which show signs of a major slowdown in the most recent years.

Soils over-used

They calculated that temperature changes in the last decades may affect human physical limits. They also took into account apparent stagnation in crop yield, the over-exploitation of soils, and human disturbance to the rest of the planet’s biodiversity.

Many of these factors have already been explored. Researchers have established planetary pollution with seemingly indestructible plastic waste on such a scale that it may define a new geological marker for a new era that could be called the Anthropocene.

Human populations are expected to exceed UN forecasts in the coming century and the weight of construction by humankind – the technosphere – has been estimated at 30 trillion metric tons.

These, and the impact on the climate as ever more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere from power stations, factory chimneys and exhaust pipes, will leave an indelible mark in the geological record.

Negative change

Humans evolved in an environment that is now being dramatically altered by human action. But even if records for age, height and athletic performance may endure, many people could hope to go on living healthier lives, and for longer – in a stable climate with reliable food supplies.

But climate is changing, and food yields are threatened. Professor Toussaint thinks that “something has changed, but not for the better. Human height has decreased in the last decade in some African countries; this suggests some societies are no longer able to provide sufficient nutrition for each of their children and maintain the health of their younger inhabitants,” he said.

“Now that we know the limits of the human species, this can act as a clear goal for nations to ensure that human capacities reach their highest possible values for most of the population. With escalating environmental constraints, this may cost increasingly more energy and investment in order to balance the rising ecosystem pressures.

“However, if successful, we then should observe an incremental rise in mean values of height, lifespan and most human biomarkers. The utmost challenge is now to maintain these indices at high levels.” – Climate News Network

London’s great smog prompts link with Delhi

The UK has cleaner air than in 1952 when the great smog of London descended on the capital – but not yet clean enough for thousands.

LONDON, 5 December, 2017 – For Londoners approaching the mellowness of old age, today may bring back some poignant memories: the lethal great smog of London blanketed the UK capital exactly 65 years ago, bringing death to thousands of people. Now,  nearly a lifetime later, air pollution is still sending large numbers of Londoners and other Britons to an early grave.

The great smog lasted from 5 to 9 December 1952. The UK Met Office records: “The smoke-like pollution was so toxic it was even reported to have choked cows to death in the fields. It was so thick it brought road, air and rail transport to a virtual standstill.” On the Isle of Dogs, in London’s Docklands, people could not see their feet for the fog.

To remember the victims of air pollution and to stimulate ideas and action to improve modern air quality a British group, the New Weather Institute, is launching a scheme today in London.

It starts with an act of remembrance in one of central London’s most polluted spots, close to the River Thames, with the laying of a wreath of black flowers, symbolising the pollution that penetrates into people’s lungs.

But the initiative is not just about 1952, nor solely about the United Kingdom. It is a reminder that lethal air quality persists, 65 years on, in many parts of the world, causing an estimated 6.5 million premature deaths annually. 

“Lots of things in life we have choices about. Breathing isn’t one of them”

After the wreath-laying the organisers will establish a video link with Delhi, the city which has possibly the world’s worst air quality, with local people reporting on conditions there. On 3 December a cricket match in the city between India and Sri Lanka was repeatedly halted as players said they were vomiting continuously because of dangerous levels of pollution. 

The event also sees the launch of a website, Clear the air – a tale of two cities, which tells the stories and hopes of people living parallel lives in London and Delhi for whom air pollution is inescapable. It includes people who work on the street in both cities, those who drive taxis, are runners, work professionally to tackle air pollution, and those who live with its health consequences. 

Over 4,000 people are thought to have died in London’s 1952 smog. By today 8,700 people in London will have died prematurely in 2017 because of major air pollutants, with more than one person an hour dying before their time. Globally, premature deaths linked to air pollution are estimated to be more than 12 per minute, or about one every five seconds.

People are also being invited to share their experiences of air pollution on social media with the hashtag #SmogDay – because for some, the New Weather Institute says, pollution in cities is a problem that never goes away.

Ending the air pollution that causes early death and makes the lives of millions much more difficult will also tackle the emissions that lead to climate change, the Institute stresses.

Visibility problem

This is a time of year when swathes of the most populated parts of the planet suffer choking pollution. But despite the clouds of smog, it says, too often this is an invisible problem. And even when it is in clear sight, finding reasons not to act is often easy.

Another Asian capital with an unenviable record for its pollution levels is Beijing, although it does not reach Delhi’s saturation. For Beijing, separating cause and effect in the relationship between climate change and air quality is not straightforward.

At the UN HQ in New York 193 countries are involved in negotiating a series of resolutions on pollution, and cities everywhere are being encouraged to be part of UN Environment’s BreatheLife campaign to improve urban air quality.

The great smog of 1952 led to UK legislation on clean air. But campaigners insist that that now needs updating, with a right to clean air enshrined in law. 

“Lots of things in life we have choices about. Breathing isn’t one of them,” says the New Weather Institute. “We hope Smog Day becomes an annual day which helps keep the issue visible for the whole year.” – Climate News Network

Humans cause growing heat wave danger

A heat wave can be lethal – and researchers have now counted the ways they can kill. Humans may have only themselves to blame.

LONDON, 12 November, 2017 – With meticulous attention to clinical detail, US climate scientists have identified 27 different ways to die during a heat wave.

And a second study, from Australia, confirms once again that human-induced climate change has doubled the probability of record-breaking hot years in the last half century.

Extremes of heat can be lethal: in 2003, a long and unprecedentedly hot spell is thought to have claimed 70,000 lives in Europe. In 2010, 10,000 are known to have died in Russia, in 2015 the heat killed 2,000 in India. Since 1980, researchers have recorded more than 800 instances in which heat extremes claimed lives.

And now, Camilo Mora, a geographer at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, has looked more closely at the pathology of death during a hot season.

He and colleagues report in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes that they worked through the medical literature to discover in as much detail, and in as many ways as possible, how heat can kill a warm-blooded mammal equipped by evolution to maintain a constant body temperature of 37°C in normal conditions.

“Dying during a heatwave is like a terror movie with 27 bad endings to choose from. It is remarkable that humanity overall is taking such a complacency on the threats that ongoing climate change is posing”

“We know of many cases where people have died as a result of heatwaves. However, why people died is a question whose answer is scattered”, Dr Mora said.

Their study focussed on seven vital organs – heart, brain, intestines, kidneys, liver, lungs and pancreas – and five physiological mechanisms triggered by heat: for the medically-minded, these are ischaemia, heat cytotoxicity, inflammatory response, disseminated intravascular coagulation and rhabdomyolysis.

That meant 35 possible combinations, and of these, they found 27 different pathways in which extreme heat could lead to organ failure and then death. Any one of these, or a combination, could kill.

Dr Mora and his colleagues have already warned that lethal heat waves will become a more frequent hazard: by 2100, if humans go on burning fossil fuels under the notorious business-as-usual scenario, 75% of us could be at risk. He has also warned that climate change could be happening faster than many researchers expected and that rising temperatures could actually reduce harvests, especially in the tropics.

Many death paths

And now he has delivered the grisly details of death as the thermometer rises. People die of ischaemia because the surge of blood flow to the skin – a cooling mechanism – reduces the flow to other organs.

The combination of ischaemia and heat cytotoxicity can damage the intestinal lining and release gut content into the bloodstream. The inflammation of white blood cells – a normal response to infection – can also damage gut cell membranes, with the same consequences.

A mix of such responses can cause the blood to clot, and cut off the blood supply to the brain, lungs, or heart. Outcomes include permanent loss of brain function, acute tubular necrosis in the kidneys, and even, for people active in a heat wave, the leakage of myoglobin from broken skeletal muscle cells, resulting in toxins in the liver and lungs.

“Dying during a heatwave is like a terror movie with 27 bad endings to choose from,” said Dr Mora. “It is remarkable that humanity overall is taking such a complacency on the threats that ongoing climate change is posing.”

In the 200 years since the launch of the Industrial Revolution, average global temperatures have risen by less than 1°C. In the last decade there has been an increase of 2300% in the loss of human life in heat waves, the Hawaiian scientists say.

Human culpability

Other groups have warned that high heat and high humidity, in places like the Gulf region, could by the end of the century have reached lethal levelsthat conditions could become so fierce as to trigger a new exodus of peoples from the Middle East and North Africa; and that those people crammed into megacities – always several degrees warmer than the surrounding hinterland – in the vulnerable regions of the globe could be at risk on a huge scale as hazards rise over the decades.

And, a new study suggests, there is already no doubt that humans are culpable. Andrew King, who researches climate extremes at the University of Melbourne, writes in the journal Earth’s Future that considering chance alone, between 1861 and 2005 there might have been seven years of record-breaking temperatures. In fact, there have been 17 such years.

Last year was the hottest on record, and before that 2015 broke all records. Researchers warn that 2017 will be one of the three warmest ever years. By 2100, Dr King argues, every other year could be a record breaker.

“We can now specifically say climate change is increasing the chance of observing a new temperature record each year,” he said. “It is important to point out we shouldn’t be seeing these records if human activity weren’t contributing to global warming.” – Climate News Network

Warming helps toxins to thrive

Many of the world’s poorest people are being poisoned by their basic foods – and global warming helps toxins to multiply.

LONDON, 11 November, 2017  As global temperatures creep inexorably upwards, the warming helps toxins to thrive, with dire consequences for human health. There are millions of stunted children in the world today, because poorly stored food crops are developing moulds that produce poisons which damage health and cause malnutrition.

An estimated 500 million of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America are affected by these poisons, which are known as mycotoxins and are produced by moulds that grow on people’s staple diets – groundnuts, maize and other cereals.

The poisoning can be so severe that in some cases people die immediately, but normally the toxins are in lower doses, reducing the nutritional value of the food and in some cases causing cancer.

In richer countries stricter control over how grain is stored, and testing for mycotoxins, eliminate most of the problems. For example, the EU has strict legislative limits on a range of foodstuffs from cereals to nuts, dried fruit, fruit juices, spices, coffee and cocoa.

Poorest hit

However, in middle or low income countries, where controls are not so great, it is the poorest members of the community that eat foods contaminated with mould, according to the World Health Organisation.

There is also concern that climate change is making the situation worse. Extreme climate in places like India, where the problem is already severe, provide perfect conditions for the moulds to grow.

Among the scientists working on the problem is Professor Naresh Magan of Cranfield University, UK. He says: “The impact is not only in relation to drought stress and increased temperature and CO2, but a movement of pests which can cause damage and allow more mycotoxigenic fungi to infect staple foods, for example maize.

“Mycotoxins are a particular problem because they are heat-stable and, once formed, difficult to destroy. Cooking will not degrade them and processing only decreases the toxin content by 25-40%.”

The three species of moulds that produce mycotoxins are aspergillus, penicillium and fusarium.

“The health impact of mycotoxins in food has been neglected for too long. We have the tools to make a difference; now we must find the political will”

According to a report by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), for many children the problem starts in the womb, because their mothers are poorly nourished, lack vitamins, and need mineral supplements.

This results in an estimated 26% of the world’s children younger than five years having stunted stature, and 8% being much too thin for their height.

“Insufficient gains in length/height and weight from birth to age five years, resulting from childhood under-nutrition, put the child at increased risk of morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases as well as impaired mental development, reduced learning capacity in school, and lower earning potential as an adult, among other effects”, the report says.

Almost all of Africa is affected, but the problem is also severe in south Asia, Caribbean countries and populous Pacific islands like Indonesia and the Philippines.

High exposure

“In these countries it is the poorest people who are exposed to the pervasive natural toxins, aflatoxins and fumonisins [a distinct group of mycotoxins], on a daily basis, simply by eating their staple diet. Exposure occurs throughout life at levels far in excess of internationally accepted norms.

“This contrasts starkly with the situation in developed countries, where people and livestock are protected by good agricultural practices, regulation, and legislation”, the experts say.

The report recommends an education programme for developing country farmers to try to  eliminate the fungi that cause the problem. A series of preventative measures is being tested.

Dr Christopher Wild, director of IARC, said: “The health impact of mycotoxins in food has been neglected for too long. We have the tools to make a difference; now we must find the political will.” – Climate News Network

Altering crops can exploit changing climate

The world can feed many millions of extra mouths by altering crops to make the most of local conditions, scientists say.

LONDON, 7 November, 2017 – US and Italian scientists have worked out a strategy to feed an extra 825 million people – by altering crops and where they are grown. Their new menu for the global table could serve up 10% more calories and 19% more protein, while reducing the use of rainwater by 14% and cutting irrigation by 12%.

The secret: shift the patterns of crop growth to make the best of climate change, in a rapidly warming world in which rainfall patterns could become less predictable and drought and heat waves will become more frequent and more intense.

So that means, for some, less reliance on traditional staples such as rice, wheat, millet and sugar cane and sugar beet, and a switch to more groundnuts, soybean, sorghum, roots and tubers.

Climate change has already announced itself in small ways with earlier wine harvests in Europe, the promise of a sparkling future for wine in southern England, and the first successful cultivation (in South Wales) in the United Kingdom of that costly Mediterranean delicacy, the black truffle.

But the overall picture is alarming: there have been predictions of lower yields for coffee producers in South America and for wheat farmers in Europe, Asia and the Americas. There have been warnings that climate change could hit African farmers hard and that traditional crop varieties may not be able to adjust to new conditions.

Big savings

Kyle Davis of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in the US and colleagues report in the journal Nature Geoscience that they matched models of water use in farming and yield maps for 14 of the world’s most important food crops.

They found that their new models of crop distribution could create substantial savings in water costs in 42 countries, including Australia, India, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa, as well as in California’s Central Valley and Egypt’s Nile Delta.

Some regions – the US Midwest, for example – would continue to face water scarcities whatever crops were planted. But for at least 63 countries – many of which, like Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya and Spain, rely heavily on food imports – crop redistribution would deliver 20% higher levels of calories or protein, and increase self-sufficiency overall.

Research of this kind relies on considering local conditions and making judgments that will deliver the best returns to the farmers and their communities. Farmers have, traditionally, done just that.

“Our analysis shows that redistributing crops across lands that are cultivated at present can make use of the technologies and knowledge that are already present in a country”

But an average rise in global temperatures of around 1°C in the last century or so means that local traditions are in question. It is a given that the Mediterranean truffle Tuber melanosporum depends on the Mediterranean oak and the climate conditions of southern France and northern Italy. But UK researchers report in the journal Climate Research that they have successfully cultivated a 16-gram specimen in Monmouthshire, in Wales.

Black truffles are one of the world’s most expensive delicacies. The success, attributed to climate change, was more or less accidental.

“This is one of the best-flavoured truffle species in the world and the potential for industry is huge,” said Paul Thomas of the University of Stirling in Scotland, and Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd, one of the co-authors.

“We planted the trees just to monitor their survival, but we never thought this Mediterranean species could actually grow in the UK – it’s an incredibly exciting development.”

Starting point

Climate change will act as a global lottery: there will be winners. But as global population continues to grow, and extremes of heat, drought, windstorm and flood become more frequent, there may be many more losers.

The Nature Geoscience researchers argue that their recipe for agricultural change is a starting point, not a final answer. Harvest choices must be adapted to local conditions and local cultures.

“Our analysis shows that redistributing crops across lands that are cultivated at present can make use of the technologies and knowledge that are already present in a country to offer distinct benefits across food security and environmental spheres,” Dr Davis and his colleagues write. 

“In particular, our results are encouraging for several world regions that are grappling with water scarcity, food insecurity, or a combination of both.” – Climate News Network

Electric bus was killed off 100 years ago

The electric bus and other vehicles could have been running in the UK over a century ago, if fraudsters had not stifled clean transport at birth.

LONDON, 30 October, 2017 – The electric bus would have let Londoners enjoy clean air early in the twentieth century, saving millions of people from breathing problems and premature death, but for the dishonesty and double-dealing which promoted the internal combustion engine instead.

The world is only now slowly waking up to the scale of the problem. Air pollution caused by fumes from the hundreds of thousands of vehicles on our roads is one of the big killers of the modern age, especially in cities, and is, along with climate change, a serious threat to the future of the planet.

It is not just fast-growing cities like Beijing or Delhi that are reeling from the effects of vehicle pollution.

At least 40,000 deaths in London each year are attributed to outdoor air pollution, much of it the result of the noxious fumes emitted from internal combustion engine-driven cars, trucks and buses, particularly those fuelled by diesel.

“Our cities could have been a whole lot cleaner, healthier and quieter. The electrobus swindle didn’t just impoverish the shareholders of Edwardian England. We were all robbed”

Yet, as investigative journalist Mick Hamer writes in his excellent new book A Most Deliberate Swindle, much of this pollution could have been avoided.

More than a century ago the technology existed for electric vehicles – hailed today as one of the main ways to tackle the urban pollution crisis. The adoption of a revolutionary vehicle called the electrobus could have ushered in an age of clean transport – and clean air.

Hamer tells the story of how a massive fraud of shareholders and various other scurrilous activities acted as a severe brake on the development of electric transport.

“One thing is pretty certain”, writes Hamer. “The electric vehicle wouldn’t have been stuck in the doldrums for a century, and today’s electric revival wouldn’t have had to start from zero.

Petrol’s moment

“Our cities could have been a whole lot cleaner, healthier and quieter. The electrobus swindle didn’t just impoverish the shareholders of Edwardian England. We were all robbed.”

Turn the clock back to 1906, when the age of horse-drawn public transport is gradually coming to an end in the United Kingdom. A number of petrol-fuelled buses are on London’s streets. They are noisy and smelly – some of them catch fire. They are prone to breakdown.

The electrobus – powered by batteries – is noiseless, emits no fumes and is more reliable. Its backers say it’s also cheaper to run than petrol vehicles.

This was the age of the entrepreneurial investor, a time when members of the public were caught up in a rush to become shareholders in all manner of get-rich-quick schemes – from gold mines in the Amazon to rubber plantations in Malaya.

Shares in demand

The public fell over itself to buy shares in the London Electrobus Company and what was considered to be “the aristocrat among public conveyances.”

The problem was that while the basic idea of the bus was sound, the people behind it were not. Hamer lists a colourful cast of devious characters – headed by a German-born lawyer and including the nephew of the Greek prime minister and his astrologer, a music hall artist, a crooked judge, and a gunrunner.

Shareholders were systematically deceived by “solicitors and accountants who could not be trusted to add up the pennies in a child’s piggy bank.”

“On top of the fraud, bribery and blackmail, there was champagne, sex, juicy divorce cases, a drunken brawl and motoring derring-do. This was no longer a simple story about an electric bus.”

Some electrobuses did run on London’s streets. Harrods, the fashionable department store, used electric delivery vans till 1918.

In 1911 a fleet of 17 electric and hybrid buses was running in Brighton, on England’s south coast, but by then the London Electrobus Company – wracked by court cases and press exposés of its fraudulent goings-on – had gone into liquidation.

Boost for oil

Along with Henry Ford’s model T car, internal combustion-powered buses were starting to be mass-produced, and costs dropped. Oil consumption grew dramatically.

Perhaps the air in our cities – and our health – would be a lot better today but for those fraudsters of more than 100 years ago.

“If battery power worked for buses then other vehicles might have followed suit”, says Hamer.

“In the grand scheme of things, the failure of an electric bus may seem trivial, but it led ultimately to the failure of electric delivery vehicles.

“The result was a resounding victory for the internal combustion engine, which in turn established acceptable levels of noise and pollution. We still hear and breathe these consequences today.” – Climate News Network

*A Most Deliberate Swindle by Mick Hamer is published in paperback by RedDoor   

Life-saving fossil fuel phase-out can work

A pollution-free world driven by renewable energy is possible, say scientists with a plan for a fossil fuel phase-out for 139 countries.

LONDON, 25 August, 2017 – Californian scientists say a fossil fuel phase-out is achievable that would contain climate change, deliver energy entirely from wind, water and sunlight to 139 nations, and save up to 7 million lives each year.

They say it would also create a net gain of 24 million long-term jobs, all by 2050, and at the same time limit global warming to 1.5°C or less.

The roadmap is entirely theoretical, and depends entirely on the political determination within each country to make the switch work. But, the researchers argue, they have provided a guide towards an economic and social shift that could save economies each year around $20 trillion in health and climate costs.

The scientists have provided the calculations for only 139 of the 195 nations that vowed in Paris in 2015 to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C, because these were the nations for which reliable energy data was publicly available.

But these 139 nations account for perhaps 99% of all the carbon dioxide emitted by human combustion of fossil fuels. And the clean-energy answer covers all economic activity – electricity, transport, heating and cooling, industry, agriculture, forestry and fishing.

Workable scenario

“Policymakers don’t usually want to commit to doing something unless there is some reasonable science that can show it is possible, and that is what we are trying to do,” said Mark Jacobson of Stanford University’s atmosphere and energy programme.

“There are other scenarios. We are not saying that there is only one way we can do this, but having a scenario gives people direction.”

Jacobson and 26 colleagues report in the journal Joule that their roadmaps to a new energy world free of fossil fuels and of nuclear energy can be achieved without the mining, transporting or processing of fuels.

According to their roadmaps, 139 nations could be 80% complete by 2030 and entirely committed to renewable sources by 2050. Jobs lost in the coal and petroleum industries would be more than compensated for by growth in the renewable sectors, and in the end, there would be more than 24 million new jobs worldwide.

Energy prices would become stable, because fuel would arrive for free: there would be less risk of disruption to energy supplies because sources would be decentralised. And energy efficiency savings that go with electrification overall could reduce “business-as-usual” demand by an estimated 42.5%.

Lives saved

“Aside from eliminating emissions and avoiding 1.5°C degrees global warming and beginning the process of letting carbon dioxide drain from the Earth’s atmosphere, transitioning eliminates 4 to 7 million air pollution deaths each year and creates over 24 million long-term full-time jobs by these plans,” Professor Jacobson said.

“What is different between this study and other studies that have proposed solutions is that we are trying to examine not only the climate benefits of reducing carbon but also the air pollution benefits, job benefits and cost benefits.”

The study is an extension of earlier research by Professor Jacobson at Stanford: he has presented a master plan for renewable energy for all 50 US states, and along with other researchers presented detailed arguments for the most efficient use of wind power, and even proposed that as a bonus wind turbines could sap the ferocity of hurricanes

His is not the only group to calculate that the US could free itself of fossil fuels and their associated costs. Nor is his the only group to make the case that clean power can save money and lives in the US and elsewhere.

“Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can” 

But the new study recognises that global conversion from fossil fuels to sunlight, water and wind power won’t be easy. The European Union, the US and China would cope better because there is greater available space per head of population: small densely-populated states such as Singapore would face greater challenges. 

There is also the challenge of political will: President Trump has announced that rather than work with the rest of the world to reduce the risks of climate change, the US will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, and other researchers have repeatedly pointed out that the Paris accord is itself not enough, and is not being acted upon with sufficient vigour, anywhere. 

Nor will the process be without contention. Professor Jacobson has lately been the focus of a bitter academic argument about whether fossil fuels can be entirely phased out without recourse to clean coal, nuclear energy and biofuels.

But the study in Joule excludes nuclear power because of the high costs, the hazards and the problems of disposing of waste. Biofuels and coal in any form also cause pollution.

Costs slashed

The Stanford team wants to see what could be called a clean break with the past. Space shuttles and rockets have already been powered by hydrogen, aircraft companies are exploring the possibility of electric flight; underground heat storage – to cope with fluctuating demand – would be a viable option, and shared or “district” heating already keeps 60% of Denmark warm.

The switch to renewables would require massive investment, but the overall cost would be one fourth of what fossil fuel dependency already costs the world.

“It appears we can achieve the enormous social benefits of a zero-emission energy system at essentially no extra cost,” said Mark Delucchi of the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California Berkeley, a co-author.

“Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can.” – Climate News Network

Climate change is triple risk to Europe

New studies confirm climate change’s triple risk to Europe. The heat is on, lives are at risk and the floods are arriving earlier.

LONDON, 13 August, 2017 – Researchers have just issued three separate climate warnings to the citizens of Europe on the same day, in three different journals – a triple risk salvo  .

One group warns that, if humans go on burning fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate, heatwave temperatures could reach an intolerable 55°C in many parts of the globe, including some parts of continental Europe.

A second study warns that by the century’s end weather-related disasters – floods, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and windstorms – could claim a 50-fold increase in fatalities, and expose 350 million Europeans to harmful climate extremes every year.

And a third study points out that climate change is already at work: the spring floods in Western Europe now arrive up to 15 days earlier than they did in 1960.

By [2100], the present record-breaking temperatures in southern Europe would be matched or surpassed every year, and climate-related events could deliver more premature deaths than air pollution

Two of the studies are from the European Commission’s joint research centre and the first of these confirms separate research in June and again this month, that murderous levels of heat and humidity could affect many millions if there are no steps to drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming and climate change.

But this time the European researchers warn in the journal Scientific Reports that even if the world’s nations do fulfil a promise made in Paris in 2015 to contain global warming to no more than 2°C by 2100, temperatures will almost every year tip to 40°C in many parts of Asia, Australia, North Africa, and both North and South America, and in Europe there will each summer be a 30% probability of similarly strong heatwaves.

And with such high temperatures comes the increased risk of other climate-related disasters. Another team of European researchers warn in the journal Lancet Planetary Health that rising temperatures would bring increasingly dangerous weather extremes.

They analysed 2,300 records of disaster events between 1981 and 2010, assumed that there would be no attempts to adapt or mitigate climate change, and then scaled up the possible casualties eight decades from now.

By then, the present record-breaking temperatures in southern Europe would be matched or surpassed every year, and climate-related events could deliver more premature deaths than air pollution.

Earlier shift

And in the journal Science, researchers from separate institutions across Europe analysed data from 4,200 river-measuring stations in 38 European nations across a 50-year timespan. They also collected information on soil moisture, rain and snowfall and temperature.

In western Europe, 50% of the stations recorded a shift towards earlier floods – up to 15 days earlier – and in northeastern Europe, half of all hydrometric stations recorded an advance in the flood timing of around eight days.

Around the North Sea, half the stations registered floods that came eight days later than in 1960, perhaps because of extreme precipitation during the winter. River flooding is the natural hazard most likely to affect the most people, and now costs the world an estimated $100 bn every year.

The scientists warn that shifts in flood timing could have considerable economic and environmental consequences, and say their continental-wide observations “also enable the identification of a clear climate change signal that could not be obtained by earlier studies based on flood magnitude data.” – Climate News Network

Nutrition will suffer as warming affects diet

By 2050, heat waves, floods and other climate change effects won’t be the only worry. There’s also the evidence that warming affects diet.

LONDON, 5 August, 2017 – Global warming and climate change are not the only threats linked to greenhouse gas emissions: there is also the knowledge that warming affects diet.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also mean that wheat, rice, maize, potatoes and other staples will grow with lower levels of protein – and by 2050, an extra 150 million  people in 47 countries will be at greater risk of malnutrition.

Four out of five people on the planet depend mostly on grain staples and legumes for dietary protein. The UN estimates that poor nutrition already accounts for around 3 million deaths among young children every year, and experiments show that higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are associated with protein losses of around 5%.

“This study highlights the need for countries that are most at risk to actively monitor their populations’ nutritional sufficiency, and, more fundamentally, the need for countries to curb human-caused CO2 emissions,” said Samuel Myers, a research scientist in the department of environmental health at Harvard University in the US.

Increased loss

He and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that tests of crops grown under high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide show protein decreases of up to 15%.

The researchers then used available data to calculate the effect of such losses on overall protein intake – which varies from region to region, according to the mix of crops, and other dietary supplements.

They assumed no change in animal protein, or in protein in nuts, and then they looked at the probable impact on human health in the coming decades, as humans continue to burn fossil fuels, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and raise planetary average temperatures.

Bad to worse

Researchers have repeatedly warned that rising temperatures – and particularly greater frequencies and intensities of heat waves, droughts and floods – will threaten global food security: they will reduce fruit and vegetable yields, hit grain crop harvests and in particular affect wheat harvests in one of the most populous – and poorest – nations on the planet.

Ironically, other researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that a switch from a meat to a plant-based diet is likely to become more important than ever in combating climate change and reducing emissions from agriculture.

So protein deficiencies in crop yields could only make an already bad situation worse for the world’s poorest.

“We need to dramatically reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible”

And there is a second challenge, this time of mineral deficiency. In another journal, Geohealth, Dr Myers and a different set of colleagues warn that higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are also associated with lower iron content in food crop staples.

More than 350 million children and more than a billion young women of child-bearing age already live in countries with high levels of anaemia: in a greenhouse world, these will face another 3.8% iron deficiency in their staple diet.

“Strategies to maintain adequate diets need to focus on the most vulnerable countries and populations, and thought must be given to reducing vulnerability to nutrient deficiencies through supporting more diverse and nutritious diets, enriching the nutritional content of staple crops, and breeding crops less sensitive to these CO2 effects,” Dr Myers said.

“And, of course, we need to dramatically reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible.” – Climate News Network

Warmer, wetter world faces lethal future

The thermometer rises, the air becomes saturated, and the warmer, wetter world turns potentially lethal. By 2100, billions could be in danger.

LONDON, 3 August, 2017 – If humans go on burning fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate – the notorious “business as usual” scenario – then potentially more than a billion people could be exposed to lethal levels of heat and humidity in this warmer, wetter world.

But if, instead, the world manages to act upon a global promise made in Paris in 2015, and to contain global warming to no more than an average rise of 2°C, the number at risk would be measured only in millions.

The threat comes not just from the extremes of heat of the kind that in 2015 killed an estimated 3,500 in India and Pakistan. It comes from the deadly double punch of heat and rising humidity.

Human safety under such conditions is measured on a scale called “wet bulb temperature”. Once this combined measure of temperature and air moisture reaches 31°C, perspiration can no longer be easily evaporated. Since perspiration is part of the machinery for keeping cool in intemperate conditions, human health and even survival is threatened.

Threshold nears

And researchers report in the journal Science Advances that unless there are serious reductions in global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive global warming and could trigger catastrophic climate change, the most extreme, once-in-25-years heat waves could increase wet bulb temperatures now at around 31°C to 34.2°C. At 35°C, few humans could survive more than a few hours.

“It brings us close to the threshold of survivability,” said Elfatih Eltahir, an environmental engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

And the people most likely to be at risk from such extremes live in northern India, Bangladesh and southern Pakistan. These regions are home to 1.5bn people, one fifth of the world’s population, many of whom survive on subsistence farming: they are among the world’s poorest. They are more likely to work out of doors, and are less likely to have access to air conditioning.

“With the disruption to agricultural production, it doesn’t need to be the heat wave itself that kills people. Production will go down, so potentially everyone will suffer”

“That makes them very vulnerable to these climatic changes, assuming no mitigation,” said Professor Eltahir. 

The forecasts are based on computer simulations of scenarios that nobody would wish to see repeated as real life experiments. They are backed by inexorable logic: for every 1°C rise in temperature, the potential saturation levels of the air rise by 7%, so where there is water to be evaporated, local humidity rises with the thermometer.

Professor Eltahir and his colleagues in 2015 examined conditions in the relatively wealthy Gulf region, and predicted potentially lethal wet bulb temperatures by 2100. He recently examined the effect of climate change on the flow of the River Nile, which provides food for millions in Egypt and Sudan.

Then he and colleagues looked at the possible future consequences for the most densely populated, food-growing regions of South Asia. Other researchers have repeatedly warned that heat extremes will increase, both in temperature and in frequency,  and in particular in parts of Asia.

Not inevitable

These heat waves will make air temperatures so high that some planes will have difficulty taking off, and will certainly reduce harvests in ways that will once again put the world’s poorest at highest risk.

“With the disruption to agricultural production, it doesn’t need to be the heat wave itself that kills people. Production will go down, so potentially everyone will suffer,” said Professor Eltahir. But this doesn’t have to happen: serious emissions reductions could reduce the risk.

“With mitigation, we hope we will be able to avoid these severe projections. This is not something that is unavoidable.” – Climate News Network