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Chasing Ice with the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group


Watching the film of a self-confessed reformed climate skeptic with members of parliament and Lords isn’t how I usually spend my Tuesday morning, but it was what I found myself doing last Tuesday. The occasion for this unlikely meeting was a special screening of photographer James Balog’s film Chasing Ice for the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG), of which the Cabot Institute is a member. The film, which documents the work of the photographer’s Extreme Ice Survey, follows James and his team on a journey to record the retreat of 13 glaciers across the globe continuously over a two year period. 

I won’t spoil the film too much (and strongly encourage you to see it if you can) but suffice to say placing 28 cameras at locations across the globe in some of the most difficult terrains and extremes of temperature is a challenge for both the men and technology involved. The aim to take one photo every hour of daylight for two years solid was massively ambitious, but worth the effort and the pain, as the result is a spectacular demonstration of how our hydrocarbon based economy is changing the face of the planet.
 
“What the public need [...] is something spectacular that grabs people in the gut”
James Balog

James’s desire was to capture what is perhaps the most visually compelling effect of climate change. Retreating glaciers are a clear indication of the effects of rising global temperatures and one (despite the attempts by some to highlight the minority which are advancing) which is hard to ignore. Of course the glaciers highlighted in the film are only a small proportion of global land ice (which has the power to raise sea level) but can be seen as an important “canary in the coal mine” demonstrating the processes which are happening in the really large ice sheets too. Over the last twenty years, mass loss of ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are estimated to have contributed 0.59 ±0.20 mm yr -1 to global sea level rise (Shepard et al., 2012). While that may seem like a small number, the effects over the next century could be dramatic, especially as, if last year’s unprecedented Greenland melt are anything to go by (Tedesco et al., 2012), this rate could be accelerating.

“If you had an abscess in your tooth, would you go to dentist after dentist until one told you not to pull it out?”
James Balog
 
Before the screening there was an introduction to the film by Chris Shearlock, Sustainable Development Manager at The Co-operative Group who explained the Co-op’s involvement in the film, and their outlook on sustainable and ethical investment. The Co-op has invested £1billion in renewable energy, and he estimated that they have refused £300 million of investment opportunities in hydrocarbon extraction, and so when following the film, the questioning turned to exploitation of the soon-to-be summer sea ice free arctic the voice of the Co-operative was clear – that they will not be investing in hydrocarbon extraction. That question was dealt with very differently by Chris Barton, Head of International & Domestic Energy Security at the DECC who put forward the UK government’s current position that whilst we should reduce demand, in order to maintain cheap oil and gas for UK consumers “sensible” and regulated extraction in the arctic should be a priority for UK plc. What to do with the resulting CO2 emissions in order to hit the < 2 °C target? Well in Chris Barton’s mind carbon capture and storage will come to the rescue.

The debate moved to whether, as we are not an Arctic state, we can do anything about the regulation of commercial activity in a basin which is a combination of the territorial water of eight nation states, and open ocean controlled under the international law of the sea. The DECC view seemed to be that it is largely none of our business and out of our control, but interestingly Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions Unit at the FCO, had a different perspective. She suggested that we should be (and can be) working constructively through the Arctic Council, towards a similar regulatory framework to that which controls the other end of the Earth via the Antarctic Treaty, and by influencing Canada (one of the eight bordering nation states) through the commonwealth. Colin Manson, Director of Manson Oceanographic Consultancy and member of the IMO Polar Code working group spoke of the frustration of many in the shipping industry that talks on the Polar Code had stalled and encouraged UK intervention as a broker. He also pointed that one little talked about impacts of the opening up of the Northern Passage would be dramatic reductions in the time and fuel needed for bulk cargo shipping from the far east to Europe. With the representative routing of Shanghai – Rotterdam dropping to 5 weeks, vs the current 8 week route via the Indian Ocean. Colin, along I think with many in the audience, hoped thoughtful regulation and consideration of the impacts of this increased shipping through the arctic would come before it was too late.

Julia Slingo OBE, Chief Scientist at the Met Office closed proceedings with an impassioned plea to take care with the interpretation of our current generation of climate models following questions from the audience, and highlighted the importance of sustained development of what are our best hopes for accurate and precise predictions of future climate change.

All in all it was a fascinating day, and I was grateful to be exposed to a beautiful film, as well as an insight into the minds of those at the policy end of climate change science.

“We think we need new oil and gas production whether people like it or not”
Chris Barton, Head of International & Domestic Energy Security, DECC

This blog is by Dr Marcus Badger (Chemistry) at the University of Bristol. He writes about the APPCCG meeting held on 5 March 2013.
Marcus Badger

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