Climate change in Croydon and beyond

By - Thursday 27th August, 2015

Robert Ward assesses the threat of global warming, and what might have to be done here in Croydon

If climate change doomsayers are right, this could be the Wandle.
Photo by Shever, used under Creative Commons licence.

I recently wrote about the opportunities of oil and gas exploration around Croydon. Having worked in that industry I’m confident that it can be done safely and responsibly.

One aspect that I didn’t cover is climate change. It’s a subject that has become a test of your ‘right-on’ credentials. You aren’t a sceptic; you’re now a ‘denier’. Yet you aren’t a scientist if you aren’t sceptical, and you certainly aren’t a scientist if you don’t define the problem, because ‘climate change’ is a conflation of issues. Let’s unpick them.

Is the climate changing?

Yes. It has been changing for millennia. During the last ice age glaciers didn’t quite get to Croydon, but they got close. A better question is has the earth warmed since industrialisation began.

Assigning a temperature to our earth, when the temperature at the poles might be -60 celsius and in a desert +60, is hard enough; projecting backwards till centuries before an accurate thermometer was invented is even more difficult.

Since the early 19th century it is easier, but still difficult. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the earth has undoubtedly warmed since the 1950s.

Is humanity the major cause?

How do we tell? Could it not be a natural cycle or that we got the measurement wrong? The IPCC has assigned a probability of greater than 95% that human influence is the dominant cause of the recent warming.

So it is extremely likely that human influence is the dominant cause of the earth warming since the 1950s. If the climate change question stopped here I would be fine.

But it doesn’t, although sometimes there is a pretence that it does along the lines of ‘more scientists believe that Elvis is still alive than don’t believe in climate change, ha-ha’. This is an attempt to prejudice the answer to a different question: what we should do about it. But before we get to that question, there’s another.

Can we confidently predict the future climate?

If the earth is warming there are general conclusions: higher temperature means more energy in the system, and if we have disturbed the earth’s equilibrium there is less stability. But what we want to know is details on what happens under a range of scenarios, for example if we changed nothing, or stopped all fossil fuel usage and options between. We need predictive models.

These are simplifications whose quality is improved using the past. There is ‘history matching’, where parameters are adjusted until we get the best match between the model and what actually happened, or ‘hindcasting’, assessing the accuracy of the model by seeing how well it fits the past. Either way we then ask the model to predict the future.

This work is documented in the IPCC report, ‘Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis’. Forty-two models were created using data up to 2007, which was then used to make predictions. Almost all of the models predicted a much higher temperature than has been seen.

Current models are claimed to be much better. However, although the models will be directionally correct, uncertainties remain.

But uncertainty is no excuse for inaction; or rather, not doing anything should be a conscious decision, not just because it is too difficult or because we are too lazy.

What should we do?

Here is a (non-exclusive) set of possible strategies:

  • Active monitoring – gather data, study the problem, decide later what to do
  • Panic – assume the worst and that it’s too late to change. Move people to higher ground
  • Hedge our bets – change as fast as we can without major disruption, monitor what happens, change course as we learn
  • Radical change – stop fossil fuel usage, reduce economic growth, hope climate change doesn’t just happen anyway

Which you choose depends on the uncertainty in your predictions, the consequences and your appetite for risk. Taking a parochial view, Croydon is typically forty to one hundred metres above sea level, well above the rest of London. Our rainfall is also somewhat less, and minimum temperatures a little lower than Central London.

More rainfall and warmer weather, with a greater likelihood of heat waves and heavy rainfall over short periods are predicted. Improvements to Croydon’s drainage will be required, lower heating bills but more air conditioning.

Croydon Council’s mitigation plans seem to be about reducing emissions, not about addressing the results of climate change. Presumably the assumption is that it isn’t going to happen, or that if it does measures can be put in place quickly.

As a world we seem to be pursuing the ‘hedge our bets’ plan. A justification has been constructed around a temperature rise of two degrees celsius with consequences that, it is assumed, won’t be too bad. The reliability of this prediction seems low, a sales case rather than one with confidence behind it.

I still haven’t addressed the issue of oil and gas developments around Croydon, but at least I am getting closer to asking the right questions, like is ‘hedge our bets’ a good strategy and how does unconventional gas fit in? That’s for another time.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Charles B.Wordsmith

    Even if the exploration of oil and gas around Croydon can be done ‘safely and responsibly’, it does not necessarily make it the right thing to do. As the vast majority of scientists have concluded from the current evidence that climate change is happening and that increased carbon emissions are the main cause of this, and that the consequences of ignoring this fact will almost certainly be disastrous for future generations, I would suggest we need a policy that is somewhere between ‘hedging our bets’ and ‘radical change’. It is clearly not possible to completely stop using carbon fuels overnight without plunging our economy into chaos. However, I do believe we already have a lot of the technology that could help us move towards a much more carbon neutral society. What we need are politicians, scientists and engineers that are committed to help bring that about. The more we invest in such technology, the more likely we are to improve it and the more chance we have to build a future, in which our grandchildren have a climate that is safer from the disastrous extremes, which I fear our current policies will currently lead to. There is obviously a limit to what individual councils can do but I would be interested to know whether Croydon Council has put in place any measures that encourage or even enforce the use of solar panels on much of the new building that is currently taking place.

    • moguloilman

      Croydon Council current climate change strategy can be found here:

      • Charles B.Wordsmith

        Thank you. I look forward to reading it. You might be interested in the following link – about how a Sussex village is planning to power itself with 100% solar energy.

        • moguloilman

          Thanks, key word here is ‘planning’. These are not cheap things to install, they require a link to the grid and they are not very attractive. Balcombe may get enough funding from people outside the village to reduce the costs to them, we will have to wait and see.

          I have worked on a similar sized installation of solar generated electricity and there were a lot of problems keeping it going. Keeping them clean, repairing breakages etc resulted in the amount of generated power being relatively low, lucky to make 30% utilisation during the day and nothing at night.

          Small local wind power installations are as bad. Many of these small wind power installations atop buildings are going round and round but not generating any power for similar reasons.

          IMO renewables have to get a lot more reliable if they are going to work on the small scale or, which we see happening, they have to be very large installations.