Friday, 19 December 2008

Chilling developments in Dubai

A refrigerated swimming pool and an artificially cooled beach - Dubai's latest excesses are enough to make conservationists weep. Leo Hickman reports
Leo Hickman
The Guardian, Thursday 18 December 2008

A beach in Dubai, where development is still geared to luxury rather than sustainability. Photograph: Jochen Tack/Alamy
There will surely come a day when Dubai runs the world's reserves of hyperbole dry. But in the meantime, we continue to draw a sharp intake of breath each time a new construction project is announced. We have had ski domes built in the desert, seen vast artificial islands rise from the sea and watched several structures vying for the title of world's tallest building. Dubai represents the will, vision and ambition of our species. Yet many believe it shines an unflattering light on our tendency for folly and hubris, too.
This week, it was reported that the Palazzo Versace hotel - the Emirate's latest offering for those still in the market for exorbitant luxury - will boast, when completed in 2010, a refrigerated 820sq metre swimming pool and a beach with artificially cooled sand to protect its guests from the excesses of a climate that can see summer temperatures exceeding 50C. Wind machines will even be on hand to provide a gentle breeze.
"We will suck the heat out of the sand to keep it cool enough to lie on," said Soheil Abedian, founder and president of Palazzo Versace, a hotel group with plans for a further 15 luxury hotels around the world to add to the one that already exists on Australia's Gold Coast. (I'm a Celebrity junkies will know this as the hotel where the celebrities are sent once voted out of the "jungle".) "This is the kind of luxury that top people want," he added.
The energy required to run this project can only be guessed at (when questioned, Hyder Consulting, the British company hired by the hotel to build these facilities, said it has signed a confidentiality agreement with Palazzo Versace and therefore couldn't comment), but it is likely to leave the world's environmentalists with their heads in their hands. First there is the energy required to power giant wind machines all day long, not to mention the electricity needed to pump coolant around tubes laid under the sand. However, the most energy-intensive element of this plan is likely to be the power needed to refrigerate a whole swimming pool under Dubai's baking sun.
Of course, in a place like Dubai, this kind of audacious project goes relatively unnoticed, among the many others currently underway. To pick just one other example, 30,000 mature trees are scheduled to be shipped to Dubai to help landscape a new Tiger Woods-designed golf course that will be bordered by "22 palaces and 75 mansions". Even without the twin threats of climate change and a global economic recession, Dubai's grandiose plans might seem short-sighted to some. Is it really wise to be building at all, let alone on this scale, in a place that the United Nations describes as one of the most "water-imperilled" environments on the planet, but where per capita water use is three times the global average?
"It's grotesque that while the world's poorest people face the loss of their homes and livelihoods, as well as disease and starvation, because of climate change, the world's richest people think it's acceptable to waste precious energy so pointlessly on things such as artificially cooled beaches," says Robin Oakley, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace UK. "While Abu Dhabi, like Barack Obama, is betting on green technology as the engine for growth this century and even building a zero-emissions city, Dubai is apparently still stuck in the 1980s."
Dubai's ruling elite insists it now places "sustainability" at the heart of its plans for existing and future projects. Last year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai's ruler, spelled out the "Dubai Strategic Plan 2015" in a speech. He explained that oil now contributes only 3% to Dubai's GDP and that his plan is to "sustain Dubai's environment, ensuring that it is safe and clean". Each new construction project now boasts a paragraph in its brochure about how it will "follow environmental best practice", but even if these new measures do materialise, Dubai is a place built on the ideology and convenience of cheap, free-flowing oil. Its business model, particularly its ever-expanding tourist sector, is based on the premise that people will always be willing and able to fly long distances to get there. (Some airlines now euphemistically describe Dubai as both a "long short-haul" destination and a "long-haul weekend break destination".) A new six-runway mega airport is being built to serve a predicted capacity of 120 million passengers a year.
These latest plans for an artificially cooled beach may be causing ripples around the world, but why isn't there more vocal opposition by environmentalists within Dubai? The simple answer is there are no environmentalists in Dubai; not in the sense of a campaigning, placard-bearing activist that you might find elsewhere. NGOs are barely tolerated within the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part. When I visited Dubai two years ago to investigate the environmental and social impacts of its tourism industry for a book I was writing, no one was willing to talk to me on the record, such was their fear of speaking out against the ruling class. The few environmental groups that do exist in Dubai rarely stray from a brief that seems largely limited to educating school-children about the importance of recycling.
The one place where dissent does seem to be allowed - or is harder to police - is the internet, where people can hide behind their anonymity. Discussion forums are a popular way to vent criticism about the direction Dubai is taking, as are blogs such as Secret Dubai Diary. One recent controversy is that over Sammy the Shark, a young whale shark that was caught in the Arabian Gulf and then transferred to the aquarium at the Atlantis Hotel, which opened last month with a £20m party and firework display. More than 16,000 people joined a Facebook group calling for its release, and one local newspaper started a campaign urging that the shark be returned to the sea. A local radio DJ has even been playing a "Free Sammy" interpretation of Michael Jackson's Heal the World.
But while Dubai's citizens fight for Sammy to be freed, its leaders refuse to be diverted from realising their vision. At the United Nations climate talks, held in Poland earlier this month, Dr Rashid Ahmad Bin Fahad, the UAE's minister of environment and water, gave a speech in which he spoke of the need for his country to consider using nuclear power to desalinate its fresh water. Well, how else are they going to keep those swimming pools filled and chilled?

Germany pledges €18 million to Amazon fund

The Associated Press
Published: December 18, 2008

BERLIN: Germany is pledging €18 million ($24.5 million) to a fund set up by Brazil to help protect the Amazon rain forest and combat global warming.
The Development Ministry says Thursday's announcement underlines Germany's support for Brazil's program to prevent deforestation.
Brazil created the fund in August. Officials hope it eventually will raise $21 billion to protect nature reserves, persuade loggers and farmers to stop destroying trees and finance scientific and technological projects.
Logging and burning in the Amazon releases an estimated 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, accounting for up to 80 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

Usefulness of Millennium projects in question

Parminder Bahra

It sounds like a trivial sum — $110 (£72) per person, per year, for five years. But this is the amount required to lift each person in the Earth Institute's Millennium Initiative projects in Africa out of poverty, according to Jeffrey Sachs.
Professor Sachs promotes the use of official development aid, and lots of it, to tackle the core problems faced by Africa — disease, physical isolation, climate stress, environmental degradation and extreme poverty.
The Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) and its rural counterpart, the Millennium Villages Initiative (MVI) are both designed to help regions in Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (including the end of poverty and hunger; universal education; sex equality; combating HIV and Aids; environmental sustainability and improved maternal and child health) and increase economic growth through targeted investments.
Professor Sachs says: “Each of the cities has its own opportunities. Agriculture is obviously part of every one.” He also thinks that tourism has great potential and that there is also scope for businesses in light manufacturing, pharmaceuticals for the domestic market, minerals and mining.

The point of the MCI is to “exploit these opportunities” by bringing together public and private entities. His organisation hosts events where possible investors can meet and identify business potential so that they can “close the gaps in knowledge and get the markets to do a lot of the job”.
Professor Sachs argues that it is critical that economic aid is focused and targeted and that it engages the private, as well as the public, sector.
The MCI has been set up in nine cities in seven African countries — Mali, Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia and Ghana. The MVI has started in 79 villages in sub-Saharan Africa.
Critics of Professor Sachs argue that his approach is not borne out by the evidence. Countries that have received significant levels of aid in the past have experienced relatively stagnant growth. They add that his policies to tackle extreme poverty do not lead to the take-off that has been experienced in countries such as China and India, and neither do they address the problems of bad governance and corruption.
It is also argued that even if aid levels are increased, it is unlikely to be effective because the recipient countries are not in a position to absorb the extra income or use it in a productive manner.
With the global recession, this debate may become academic and the challenge will be to prevent aid falling from its current level rather than to convince governments to increase their contributions.

Linking offshore wind farms to grid to cost £10bn – and public will pay

Published Date: 19 December 2008
By Jenny Haworth
Environment Correspondent

IT WILL cost more than £10 billion to build the infrastructure needed to connect offshore wind farms around the UK to the electricity grid, a new report reveals.
The research investigated the options for building a network of cables to transport electricity from offshore sites to areas of demand on shore. The study, commissioned by the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed, said the cost of connecting nine offshore areas identified as potential sites for wind farms would be £10.4 billion. Two of the areas are off Scotland – in the Firth of Forth and the Moray Firth. The cost of building grid connectors to those two alone is estimated at £343 million.Most of the other sites are likely to be even more costly, according to the study by Senergy Econnect and National Grid. This is because they are larger and further offshore. These include Dogger Bank, a site about 125 miles off the Northumberland coast, which will cost £5.9 billion to connect.Opponents of offshore wind argue that it is too expensive to be viable. Those in favour say the cost has to be met to provide renewable energy needed to tackle climate change and provide a secure supply.The government aims to build 25 giga- watts of offshore wind farms – requiring about 700 turbines – to help meet the target of 15 per cent of energy being generated from renewables by 2020.Danielle Lane, development manager at the Crown Estate, said the cost was still a "relatively small" amount compared to the overall cost estimated of bringing on stream 25 gigawatts of wind power, which has been calculated at £80 billion.A spokeswoman for the Crown Estate added: "It is a lot of money. It's a big challenge to deliver the government's target for renewable energy generation."The infrastructure needs to be put in place if we are to deliver government targets, and obviously we are committed to working with them to deliver those targets."Jason Ormiston, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the industry body, said: "We need to look at the long-term benefits in terms of tackling climate change, and we also need to compare it to the anticipated cost of fossil fuel in the next ten to 20 to 30 years."Looking at the oil price by 2020, most commentators say it's likely to be higher than today. We are talking about value."If we want to capture that potential, whether it's offshore wind, wave and tidal, or even island renewables, we have to think about how to connect it to the market."He acknowledged that some of the cost would be footed by members of the public paying their electricity bills. "We have to accept that there will be a cost. However, if we have a wide range of portfolios, including both renewables and conventional generation, what you find is that it depresses the cost of electricity."IN NUMBERSThe cost of connecting the nine areas identified as potential sites for offshore wind development around the UK, known as the Round 3 zones:Moray Firth: £193 millionFirth of Forth: £150 millionDogger Bank and Hornsea, off the coast of Northumberland: £5.9 billionNorfolk, off east coast of England: £1.7 billionHastings, off south coast of England: £184 millionWest Isle of Wight: £175 millionBristol Channel: £430 millionIrish Sea: £1.6 billionTotal cost: £10.4

Germany's E.ON begins wind park as Centrica helps

Published: December 19, 2008

LONDON: German utility E.ON has begun work on a new wind farm in northern Britain with the help of the world's first purpose-built wind farm construction vessel that has been leased out by rival utility Centrica .
The Resolution arrived in Belfast, northern Ireland, on December 18 and will set about installing the first of 60 turbine foundations and two substation foundations, E.ON said in a statement.
Each of the turbine's foundations weighs up to 280 tonnes -- the equivalent of around 70 fully-grown African elephants.
The Resolution, owned by British-based MPI, was the first to be built of only a handful of vessels capable of carrying out construction at what will be one of the world's largest offshore wind farms.
It has been chartered by Centrica, but the utility agreed to release the vessel, which will be returned to it by February next year, after a vessel being used by E.ON was damaged.

"Of course there is commercial benefit here, but it's not just about returns," said Alan Thompson, Centrica's head of renewables, in a statement.
"The government has just announced its intention to increase wind farm generation from two gigawatts to 33 gigawatts by 2020. If we are ever to get near that, we're going to need all the flexibility we can get and that includes arrangements like the one in place today."
More vessels are likely to be built in the future, but they cost tens of millions of pounds and it takes around three years to deliver them, Centrica said.
E.ON said the Resolution was a temporary replacement for the damaged vessel the Lisa A, which is undergoing repairs.
At 180 megawatts, Robin Rigg Wind Farm in the Solway Firth, off the coast of Scotland, will generate enough clean energy to power up to 117,000 homes and displace the emission of 200,000 tonnes of CO2 every year.
It is expected the 325 million pounds wind farm will be operational in the spring of 2009.
The Resolution has just completed foundations for Centrica's wind farms at Lynn and Inner Dowsing off the east coast, with a combined capacity of 180 megawatts.
Centrica is also expecting to begin work on another wind farm off the east coast and is waiting a government decision, expected in the first quarter of 2008, on whether it can go ahead.
(Reporting by Barbara Lewis; editing by James Jukwey)

Clean-energy projects struggle to secure funds

The Times
December 19, 2008
Robin Pagnamenta, Energy and Environment Editor

Global investment in clean energy technology, including solar power and wind power, has collapsed in the past three months after hitting record levels this year.
Venture capital investment in the industry reached a record $4.6 billion (£3 billion) in the first nine months of the year, despite a steep slowdown in the wider economy. This was 82 per cent higher than in the same period last year, according to a study published today by Ernst & Young.
However, Gil Forer, the accounting firm's global director of clean technology, acknowledged that conditions had deteriorated sharply. Enhanced regulation in Europe had, he said, contributed to the brisk growth in the first three months of this year, driving fresh investment into low-carbon energy sources, but venture capitalists were scaling back their investments as the global financial crisis dragged on.
John Dunlop, the head of energy for HSH Nordbank, the world's largest financier of renewable energy projects, said that the outlook appeared increasingly tough. “There is a long queue of wind and solar projects in Europe and the US that are looking for debt finance that are not getting it,” he said. “Debt is what drives the market, so 2009 will be a very difficult year.”

The warning of a steep downturn in activity comes as Ed Miliband, the Energy Secretary, is on Friday set to appeal for greater investment in low-carbon sources of energy at a meeting of oil-producing and oil-consuming countries in London.
The UK passed legislation this year to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, becoming the first country to impose a legally binding national emissions-reduction target. European Union leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to cutting EU carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, and to obtaining at least 20 per cent of energy from renewable sources and to achieving an overall 20 per cent reduction in energy use.
The British Government views a huge expansion of offshore wind and tidal energy schemes as a key priority. However, the problems in the industry could leave governments struggling to hit these ambitious goals.
On Thursday, the price of a barrel of US crude oil slipped to $38 a barrel, its lowest since July 2004, after a record output cut from Opec of 2.2 million barrels on Wednesday failed to bolster prices, which have plunged more than $100 from a peak of $147 in July.

New ban imposed on regulating global warming gases

The Associated Press
Published: December 19, 2008

WASHINGTON: The Bush administration is trying to make sure in its final days that federal air pollution regulations will not be used to control the gases blamed for global warming.
In a memorandum sent Thursday, outgoing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson sets an agency-wide policy prohibiting controls on carbon dioxide emissions from being included in air pollution permits for coal-fired power plants and other facilities.
The decision could give the agency a legal basis for issuing permits that increase global warming pollution until the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama can change it, a process that would require a lengthy rulemaking process.
"The current concerns over global climate change should not drive EPA into adopting an unworkable policy of requiring emissions controls," Johnson writes. And while the administrator acknowledged public interest in the issue, he writes that "administrative agencies are authorized to issue interpretations of this nature that clarify their regulations without completing a public comment process."
The White House has repeatedly said that the Clean Air Act should not be used to regulate carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, even though an April 2007 Supreme Court decision determined that the EPA could do so under the law. But that hasn't stopped environmentalists from trying.

The Thursday memo from Johnson was an attempt to clarify the agency's position after an appeals board in November rejected a federal permit for a Utah power plant putting the fate of scores of coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities in limbo.
In that case, the judges said the EPA did not make a strong enough case for not requiring controls on carbon dioxide, the leading pollutant linked to global warming. Environmentalists had challenged the permit saying that law makes clear that greenhouse gas emissions can be controlled.
Environmentalists on Thursday said the EPA's memo would allow power plants to be approved that increase greenhouse gas emissions. They also said the ruling would tie the hands of President-elect Barack Obama, who has said he wants heat-trapping gases to be regulated.
"What you have is a midnight declaration that is designed by edict to rewrite EPA's regulations to say categorically carbon dioxide can never be considered in permitting a new coal plant," said Vickie Patton, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.
But EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said the opinion simply codifies existing agency policy.
"It had been the unspoken policy of the agency," Shradar said. "All it does is put into policy what the agency has done for 30 years."
Representatives of the electricity generators said Thursday that the EPA once again made the right choice. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Council, an association of power companies, said if agency determined Clean Air Act could be used to place limits on carbon dioxide, many other sources would have to get permits under the law.
Segal said that if the EPA had made a different interpretation the results would have been catastrophic for the economy and the environment.

'Clean Coal' Backers Pitch Project for Stimulus Plan

WASHINGTON -- Backers of a big "clean coal" project scuttled by the Bush administration are banking on President-elect Barack Obama to revive their venture, setting up a fight with the anti-coal wing of Mr. Obama's base.
The FutureGen Alliance, a coalition of utility companies and coal producers, is hoping to revive plans to build the first commercial-scale project to capture and store emissions from coal-burning power plants. In one sign of its confidence, the FutureGen Alliance, along with a development group for Coles County, Ill., last week bought a 400-acre site for $7 million. The coalition includes American Electric Power Co., Consol Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp., which had originally agreed to contribute 26% of the cost, with the U.S. paying the rest.
The Bush administration abruptly pulled out of the project, to be based in Mattoon, Ill., in early 2008 after the project's costs almost doubled, to $1.8 billion, threatening to expose taxpayers to even higher costs in the future.
"There's been extensive reaching out to the Obama administration and I think we've gotten a strong reception," said Mike Mudd, chief executive of the FutureGen Alliance. "We think it would be an excellent fit for a stimulus package."
A big supporter of putting the FutureGen Alliance project in Illinois is Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), an Obama ally who threatened to hold up the nomination of any new Bush appointees to the Department of Energy when the project was pulled.
The FutureGen Alliance is touting the carbon-capture-and-storage project as something that would create jobs immediately, one of the criteria that Mr. Obama has established for determining what to fund in a stimulus package.
Illinois estimates that the project could create 1,300 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs. Over the four-year construction period, the project could create 1,225 other jobs in areas such as manufacturing, as parts are needed in order to begin construction.
Coal is a divisive issue within the coalition that lifted Mr. Obama to the White House. Coal is cheap and abundant in the U.S., but scientists say coal is a major source of the greenhouse gases linked to climate change. Government forecasters say that mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases, which Mr. Obama endorses, would force a decrease in U.S. coal use. Technology to take the carbon dioxide out of the exhaust from a coal-fired power plant could take 10 to 15 years to develop on a commercial scale, and even then would be costly.
Mr. Obama's choice for Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu, called coal "my worst nightmare" in a 2007 speech. Mr. Chu said carbon capture technology is "not a guarantee that we have a solution." He emphasizes conservation, along with a greater reliance on renewable energy.
Write to Siobhan Hughes at

A different world than Kyoto

The argument that developing countries are taking no action to address climate change is wrong, write Jonathan Lash and Taryn Fransen from World Resources Institute, part of the Guardian Environment Network
From World Resources Institute, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Thursday 18 December 2008 16.14 GMT

With the target date for the Kyoto Protocol's successor agreement still a year away, and a lame duck U.S. delegation in attendance, nobody expected a watershed moment at the recently concluded climate change conference (COP-14) in Poznan, Poland. While delegates made modest progress on some key issues, the real stuff happened outside the negotiations, as the leaders of some of the highest-emitting and fastest-growing economies pledged to reduce their countries' greenhouse gas emissions.
Brazil announced it would reduce its deforestation rate over 50 percent from recent levels by 2017, avoiding an estimated 4.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Mexico pledged to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, employing a "cap-and-trade" policy like the one recently considered by the U.S. Congress. South Africa presented a detailed plan to peak their country's emissions by 2020. And while China—now the world's largest source of annual greenhouse gas emissions—made no new announcements in Poznan, it is on track to reduce its energy intensity 20 percent by 2010. In 2007 alone, China closed over 1,000 inefficient factories.
These developments are significant for two reasons. First, these four countries collectively account for nearly a quarter of global emissions. More importantly, China, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico are all developing countries—"non-Annex I countries" in the parlance of the Kyoto Protocol. Critics perennially complain that international efforts to address global warming won't work unless developing countries—which account for just over half of all global greenhouse gases—take action to reduce their emissions. For their part, developing countries have resisted emissions targets, arguing, legitimately I think, that developed countries have contributed the lion's share of emissions so far, and should lead in making reductions. In any case, the argument that developing countries are taking no action is wrong. This month's pronouncements signal a growing urgency on the part of emerging economies to shift their own development to a more sustainable path.
While the new targets are politically significant, their impact on emissions and domestic policy remains to be seen. Brazil's plan, for example, has come under fire by local environmental groups, who charge that it lacks ambition (the first phase of its target was largely achieved before the plan was even announced) and means little without an implementation plan. There is no doubt that China's plans are being implemented, but as long as China's economic growth outpaces its intensity targets, they will not result in absolute emissions reductions. Per-capita Chinese energy consumption is still well below that in the United States, so reducing emissions intensity is a reasonable near-term goal. Ultimately though, we will need absolute reductions in China as basic energy demand is satisfied and new technology options materialize.
Developing countries have come a long way since the US Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it did not require them to act. President-elect Obama has stated that his administration will seek deep emissions cuts in the U.S., but Congress will no doubt have an eye on China as it considers what policies to enact. A clear understanding of developing country climate and energy policies will be key to fostering confidence that emissions reductions at home will not be negated by unconstrained growth abroad.
For their part, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa have made at least some of their efforts contingent on outside support, and the Chinese used their program to call on developed countries for greater action. Mexican environment minister Juan Rafael Elvira said that his country's target was meant to spur other countries to reduce their own emissions—and to help Mexico attract investment to make its reductions. South Africa has divided its plan into low- and no-cost efforts it can tackle alone and additional efforts it could undertake with international assistance.
As the Obama administration takes up the negotiating reins, it will be navigating a very different terrain than the one in which the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997. Developing countries have presented a range of initiatives that they are prepared to take forward either unilaterally or with international support. The U.S. must now act quickly to pass strong legislation to spur an economic recovery while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the U.S. must seek a fair and effective agreement that supports the initiatives already underway in developing countries. A significant part of the global community is ready to do its part. So must the United States.
• This article was shared by World Resources Institute, part of the Guardian Environment Network

Weather or not, we're getting warmer

Weather records are one thing, climate another. But one thing is certain, says Robert Henson - we have more warming to come
Robert Henson, Friday 19 December 2008 00.01 GMT

July weather in Britain ... but what does it say about our changing climate?
Like any true football fan or political junkie, I love a good statistic. Those of us who grow up watching the weather - and who now study it, predict it, or write about it - rely on careful, long-term observations. When records are broken, our eyebrows go up and our pulse quickens. We know the difference between a garden-variety record (say, the warmest 12 December ever recorded in Bournemouth) and a truly smashing set (as in Europe's scorching summer of 2003).Even so-called daily records, as in the first example above, can tell a compelling tale when gathered over a long enough period. For nearly a decade, a friend of mine has been patiently tallying record highs and lows reported by NOAA from many hundreds of stations across the United States. Thus far he has counted about 230,000 record highs and about 110,000 record lows. In some years, such as 2008, the ratio is closer than in others. But every year since 2000 has seen more record highs than lows.Climate change has soured my once-wholesome love of statistics like these. I find it harder to take pleasure in a virtually snow-free autumn like the one we just saw in much of Colorado. Almost every fall since 2000 has seen less-than-average snowfall in the Denver area. When you contemplate humanity's influence on the atmosphere, the highs and lows - but especially the highs - become much more ominous.Many people now view weather records as canaries in the coal mine of our greenhouse-goosed atmosphere. The numbers are getting more press than ever. Is this a good thing? Perhaps, if it comes with some perspective on what makes a record more or less meaningful. Otherwise, it is easy to be swayed by those who cherry-pick a show-stopping number as proof or disproof of climate change.Every weather record is only as good as the trail of meteorological bread crumbs that precedes it. Hurricane forecasters were dumbfounded in 2005 when the Atlantic produced 27 named storms. The record was as much linguistic as numeric: for the first time, forecasters ran through the year's assigned list of names and resorted to the Greek alphabet. As remarkable as 2005's burst of activity was, the record was tempered by our spotty knowledge of hurricane counts prior to the advent of satellites and hurricane-hunting aircraft. And there is still much uncertainty on how future hurricane activity in the Atlantic might be exacerbated by warmer oceans in the face of possible changes in upper winds and other factors. Yet there was no denying the bitterness of 2005's hurricane vintage, especially Katrina. That year's unheard-of activity helped galvanise research and focus public attention on what a hyperactive hurricane season can do. Impressive weather statistics can thus be a seen as a broadening of the possible: they tell us that, as we travel into the future, we have to pack for an even wider range of conditions than we thought. When London manages to crack the 100F (37.7C) mark for the first time in 300 years of records, as it did in 2003, we know that something once unthinkable is now something to prepare for.Something of a year-end ritual for climate watchers is waiting for the Met Office, NASA, and NOAA to announce their rankings for annual global temperature. Slight differences in accounting for data-sparse parts of the planet sometimes lead to slightly different rankings among the three groups. By all accounts, though, 2008 looks set to be the least warm year since 2000. This has more than a few climate sceptics claiming that The Great Cooldown has begun.Clearly, a temperature reading averaged across the planet for an entire year is much more significant than a single hot day in London. Yet even the global atmosphere has ups and downs that have little or nothing to do with increased greenhouse gases. If a warm year like 1998 cannot serve as airtight proof that humans are changing the climate, then a coolish year like 2008, or even the relative flatness of the global temperature trend this decade, doesn't mean that longer-term projections of global warming are bogus. Believing that would be equivalent to thinking that spring wasn't coming just because March has brought a frigid week or two.The Australian climate scientist Neville Nicholls has a haiku that neatly summarizes what we most need to remember about climate change. Even for a number-lover like me, this says it all:
The world is warmingFossil fuels are causing this;More warming will come.
• Robert Henson works at the The Rough Guide to Climate Change and The Rough Guide to Weather.

Global warming's proof in the puddingstone

The Times
December 19, 2008
The Earth heated up 55 million years ago - and that gives us important clues on how to deal with climate change now
Bryan Lovell

Not far from the road that the Romans called Ermine Street and we more prosaically call the A10 is a field strewn with rounded flint pebbles. These formed on a tropical beach 55 million years ago: Hertfordshire-by-the-Sea.
Above the field stands a copse. The farmer has not sought to bring it under the plough, and there is a good reason. The wood is pitted with Roman and Stone Age excavations. Our ancestors quarried hard patches of the beachrock, cemented by silica, at a time of exceptional global warming 55 million years ago. The Hertfordshire puddingstone was used to grind corn.
Grinding corn with puddingstone querns was more important to the survival in that area of our Stone Age and Roman ancestors than oil is to us today. You have to eat: you don't really have to consume hydrocarbons by driving up the A10 and flying from Stansted to Lanzarote - although that can be fun in the right company.
The former head of Opec, Sheikh Yamani, once said that the Stone Age did not end because they ran out of rock, and there is indeed unshaped puddingstone to be found. The Stone Age ended because people with brains as good as ours developed new technology and adapted to it.

We shall never know their names, but those of our present-day leaders who have the conviction and courage to act on the message written in those 55 million-year-old rocks will never be forgotten.
What is that message? While the flint pebbles were being rounded on the hot shores of Hertfordshire, an episode of dramatic global climate change was being recorded in deep-sea sediments on the ocean floor. We can now read that record 55 million years later, using the recently established division of that part of the geological timescale into thousands rather than millions of years. This brings the story on to a human timescale: we are thereby led to some uncomfortable and implacable conclusions about our current use of the planet.
It is commonly said that our present-day release of carbon into the Earth's atmosphere is an uncontrolled experiment with an unknown outcome. That is not really true. Fifty-five million years ago there was a release of fossil carbon comparable with that on which we have now embarked. This was long before we were around to light so much as a camp fire - so we didn't do it, but now we know about it. Although we cannot predict with complete confidence the outcome of our own experiment, the main effects of the 55 million-year release of fossil carbon provide hefty clues to what is likely to happen. This observational science requires no computer- generated models to carry conviction.
Earth became a lot warmer 55million years ago. Even on the deep ocean floor, temperatures increased by several degrees centigrade. The boundary between the Palaeocene and Eocene epochs is defined by the resulting extinctions in the fossil record.
Warming of the oceans caused their advance on the land, and they became notably more acidic and received large volumes of carbon as the released gases were recycled. It was well over 100,000 years before the planet returned to something approaching its previous state.
The trigger for the 55-million-year- old event remains a matter of active research. Nonetheless we know enough to assert that the whole episode may plausibly be regarded as an earlier and complete version of our own present-day dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. A global event that is a threat to the survival of a highly specialised species such as Homo sapiens is not something we would wish to provoke through our own agency.
The oil industry is widely perceived to be a significant part of the problem. The rapture of those who discovered, and recovered, the spectacular wealth from the North Sea must now be tempered by the realisation that they are responsible for starting a piece of unfinished business with the Earth's carbon cycle. Petroleum geologists and engineers may not feel particularly in need of redemption, despite the obloquy dished out by many environmentalists. But if they are abashed, help lies close at hand, in their very own reservoirs - and elsewhere underground.
We can put the fossil carbon back - at a price. As well as considering the future price of a barrel of oil, the prospective value of a tonne of carbon put safely back underground becomes crucial. At least some of the technical and commercial skills required to produce oil and gas are comparable with those needed to inject and store CO2.
We do not have the luxury of choosing between consuming less fossil fuel on the one hand, or carbon capture and storage on the other. We need to do lots of both, to have any hope of holding the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at (say) 550 parts per million (ppm) by the middle of this century. At present oil production stands at about 80 million barrels a day. Depending on how much you compress the CO2 before injecting it, you could achieve some 20 per cent of that 550ppm target by pumping 80 million barrels of CO2 underground each day.
Those of us who buy the oil industry's most useful product do so to feed the engines of aircraft, ships and cars - which do not lend themselves to easy CO2 capture. However, capturing fossil carbon at coal-fired power stations is simpler. The storage of their CO2 probably provides the best prospect for using the oil industry's skills to help to meet our stringent targets.
And why should the oil industry not seize this opportunity to develop existing technology? True, pumping waste into long-term storage is not what we veteran frontier explorers are used to, with our techno-gambler culture of high risk and high reward. This would be a future service industry, with a price per tonne for all the carbon safely stored. The dull psalm of duty would appear to replace the trill of pleasure - but that is to set the technical challenges too low. The geology and engineering involved are interesting enough to quicken the blood of skilled young people. The task could be tackled properly between now and 2050, with every prospect of technical and commercial opportunity for the UK.
One thing is missing, which only the most determined action by our leaders can provide. That is the establishment of policy and regulation that puts an appropriate and fungible value on a tonne of carbon. Simply that: there need be no officious dictation of choices of action within such a global framework. This is one area where the market really can do its work.
Which of our leaders will have the guts to establish restraint in per-capita output of carbon as a social good, on a par with the provision of health services and education? Could it be a combination of President Obama and Prime Minister Brown, working with China, India and others? We have received an important 55 million-year-old message from a warm planet. We can understand it and we should respond with conviction.
Bryan Lovell is senior research fellow in earth sciences at Cambridge University. An extended version of this article is published in Geoscientist