Dan Jones on whether carbon emissions cause global warming

victorian_chimny12:30 Monday 7th March 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

JEREMY SALLIS: Let’s welcome onto the programme our first hour feature guest this afternoon, as we will be marking throughout the day and throughout the week the Cambridge Science Festival that has kicked off. My guest this afternoon is Dan Jones from the British Antarctic Survey, ahead of a special talk entitled ‘Everything you always wanted to know about climate science‘. Good afternoon to you Dan.
DAN JONES: Hello Jeremy. Thank you for having me.
JEREMY SALLIS: And just to clarify, is it the oceans? Is that your baby? Is that your sphere of expertise particularly?
DAN JONES: Yes, that’s the heart of the whole earth system that I’m interested in and involved with in terms of what I study.
JEREMY SALLIS: And in terms of climate change then, what are you looking at in relation to the oceans?

DAN JONES: Well the big one is that the ocean heat content has been increasing quite a lot over the past several decades. In fact, when you’re looking for the fingerprints of climate change, the ocean heat content is a more robust one to use than just the atmospheric temperature here on the surface, because the ocean takes a long time to heat up and cool down. So in a way it’s a more reliable thermometer than just the atmosphere, because of how long it takes to heat up and cool down.
JEREMY SALLIS:┬áSo it’s a gradual rather than peaks and troughs that can change quite quickly.
DAN JONES: Yes that’s right. And you can also look at the acidification of the ocean. You can look at its chemical composition and see changes there. You can see changes in the saltiness, especially around Antarctica and other places where you may have changes, and how much fresh water is running off into the ocean from the continent.
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. And what have you witnessed then, what sort of evidence of changes in the sea temperature?
DAN JONES: Well I certainly can’t claim to have personally witnessed it myself, because it’s something that you have to pull from the observations taken by many many different people all over the planet over the past several decades. But yes, the ocean heat content has been increasing. And the changes are also pretty interesting because they’re kind of regional. They’re different from region to region, depending on where you’re looking on the planet. And that’s one of the big places where we still need to do a lot of research. We understand the basic big picture stuff, but we still need to do a lot more work on the for example how will the seas around the UK for example or around Antarctica change over the next decades to centuries.
JEREMY SALLIS: And what can happen then,if the temperature keeps rising, the ocean temperature?
DAN JONES: Well a lot of different things. I think one of the things that I kind of wanted to .. yes, so what can happen if the oceans heat keeps increasing? Do you mind if I .. I want to kind of present this picture of climate ..
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. Well go for .. Yeah yeah go for it. Yeah yeah go for it. Yeah.
DAN JONES: Not to dodge your question. It’s a good question.
JEREMY SALLIS: Yeah. Well we’ll come back to it. Yeah yeah go on.
DAN JONES: It’s just that there’s whole volumes written on that right. That’s a huge subject. So I think the big idea that I was hoping to discuss with you a little bit was that I think climate and climate change, I think it’s an issue that we understand a lot about. It’s simple in that way, in that we understand the basics of it. It’s .. when I say it’s simple, we know what carbon dioxide does. And climate change, specifically human driven climate change, it’s a fact, because we know what carbon dioxide does. When you put more of it into the atmosphere you get more energy down here at the surface. And that energy has to go somewhere. Picture every square metre of the earth’s surface with a little four watt light bulb on it. So if you can imagine that, a four watt light bulb on every square metre of earth surface, that’s over a five hundred trillion light bulbs by the way. That energy is going to go into the surface. That energy has to go somewhere. And energetically that’s what we’re doing by doubling CO2. If we double the CO 2 concentration in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, it’s energetically equivalent to putting a four watt light bulb on every square metre of earth surface. And then that energy goes into the ocean and into the atmosphere and into the ice and the other components of the earth system.
JEREMY SALLIS: Ok. So you would argue that human activity is changing the climate which we’re experiencing, and we’re experiencing that right now.
DAN JONES: Right. And just to kind of reiterate, yeah, at the risk of repeating myself a bit, I would argue that, yeah. And I would argue that not based on the temperature trends. That’s not where the argument starts. it doesn’t start with the temperature trend. It doesn’t start with the complicated computer models. It starts with basic physics. It starts with the simple physics of you know what CO2 does. We’ve known since before the light bulb was invented. We’ve known what the effect of doubling CO2 in the atmosphere would be in terms of the extra energy getting back down here to the surface. It’s very old very well established physics.
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. Can I put to you some comments coming through from listeners. Because, and I know this from experience as well, because I’ve mentioned to Paul, I quite often have this conversation during family get-togethers as well at Christmas, but climate change is a load of old bunkum. It’s just being made up by scientists. They’re doing it .. some people are saying they’re doing it because they’re getting grants to continue their studies so they can look at climate change. You know, they’re creating themselves work, and that it’s just cyclical. Like the Earth has experienced changes, in some points dramatic changes in temperature over thousands of years. So why is this any different to one of those phenomena?
DAN JONES: Two things, right? So the why are we doing it question, the first one that you brought up. We’ll start with that one. So climate change is a terrible money-making scheme for scientists. It would be a really dumb way to make money basically. For folks who work as scientists, many of them .. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to pat myself on the back or something, but you know we could go off and work for insurance companies or for various technology firms. We could make a lot more money in other fields. So the argument that we’re doing it for money is pretty bizarre to me. The question about whether the climate is cyclical, that’s a really interesting question and a kind of great question, because we do know, if you look at the ice core records, you see ice ages and inter-galcials, the periods in between the ice ages. So we know that there is a background cycle there. And I think my favourite answer, I got this from an old professor somewhere, when he was asked, isn’t this just us coming out of an ice age, his answer was yes, that too.
DAN JONES: So that’s also happening. We have come out of an ice age over the long, over the past several tens of thousands of years. But climate responds to whatever forces that change the most at the time. And over those long many hundred thousand year timescales, the thing that forces climate to change is changes in the position of the earth and its orbit. But at the moment right now since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been adding so much CO2 to the atmosphere that our activities have become one of the dominant things that’s forcing the atmosphere to change.
JEREMY SALLIS: And can we be certain of that though? Can we be certain that human activity is having a significant impact, and it isn’t this sort of global natural phenomenon?
DAN JONES: Everything we understand is consistent with the idea that it’s the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere gets you more energy at the surface basically. It’s that four watts per square metre picture that I mentioned a minute ago. So everything that we understand from really basic physics from since before the Civil .. from since before the light bulb was invented, all of that points in the same direction and tells us that yes, putting CO2 into the atmosphere is kind of like putting on additional blankets, kind of like putting on additional layers of clothing. So we are going to get more energy at the surface as a result, and that energy is going to go somewhere.
JEREMY SALLIS: Right. This comes from Tam. This is on the email, jeremy.sallis@bbc.co.uk.
Afternoon Jez ..” Afternoon Tam. “I’m not entirely convinced that the changes we’re witnessing in the Earth’s climate is solely down to mankind, just that it is adding to naturally occurring phenomena.If we go back to before the Battle of Hastings, Britain had a climate warm enough to grow grapes, and Greenland was under the plough, rather than under snow. Then came the mini ice age where the Thames froze over.” He also goes on to say .” In 1703 the UK had its worst ever hurricane, and that was well before the advent of the Industrial Revolution.” And people quite often say .. how many years ago was it now .. about three or four years ago we had temperatures going down to minus twelve celsius. It was a bitterly cold winter. We haven’t experienced anything like that recently, that cold, and this last winter was pretty warm. But when we had that cold winter, people were saying oh global warming, what a load of old nonsense. But is there a subtle difference between climate and weather?
DAN JONES: There is. Yes. I’m glad you mentioned that, be cause there is a big difference between weather and climate, and one simple way to think about it is if you don’t like the weather, wait a little while, wait a few minutes, or hours, days, maybe a month. If you don’t like the climate, you have to move basically. You have to go somewhere else, because the climate is set largely by location, by the conditions around you, around where you live. So another way to think about that is weather tells you what clothes to keep in your .. sorry .. let me back up. Weather tells you what to put on. You know, you wake up in the morning and the weather tells you what to pick out of your closet, whereas climate tells you what to keep in your closet, the range of possibilities that you might expect. Yes.
JEREMY SALLIS: Excellent stuff. Stay with us. Dan Jones from the British Antarctic Survey, and present at the ‘Everything you always wanted to know about climate change’ talk which is happening as part of the Cambridge Science Festival this coming Thursday at the Department of Chemistry at the Wolfson Lecture Theatre on Lensfield Road.

(MUSIC: Lou Rawls – You’ll Never find another love)
(MUSIC: Fleetwood Mac – Little Lies)


JEREMY SALLIS: Lots of comments coming through on this, and it doesn’t surprise me actually, when we talk about climate change and global warming. My guest this afternoon is Dan Jones from the British Antarctic Survey, based here obviously in Cambridge, and as part of the Cambridge Science Festival he’ll be at a talk entitled ‘Everything you always wanted to know about climate science’. And this is Thursday at six pm.
DAN JONES: Yes. Thursday at six in the Department of Chemistry. Unfortunately I think it may have maybe sold out already.
DAN JONES: But you can go to the Cambridge Science Festival website and check and see if they have tickets available. And you can also if you have questions for us you can Tweet using the hashtag #CamClimate. We’re going to be using that hashtag for the evening, for the event, to take questions. So we will try to have a Twitter element to the evening, which ill hopefully allow for a little remote participation.
JEREMY SALLIS: From your living room, if you can’t get a ticket.
DAN JONES: Yeah kind of thing.
JEREMY SALLIS: We can do that now as well, because we’re getting quite a few comments and if you don’t mind. This is from Pete. He says, ‘ After climate change reports were published not too long back, where scientists lied and manipulated figures, I don’t trust any of them to provide the truth any more. Coupled with the UK emitting less than 2% of the global carbon emissions, I see no point in us doing anything when the likes of China, India and Brazil aren’t really leading the way.‘ Well let’s talk about the figures first of all, because there was a report wasn’t there not too long ago, and it was ..
DAN JONES: Which one? (UNCLEAR) Is it the IPCC?
JEREMY SALLIS: You’ll know better than I do. I remember seeing the headlines, and it was actually not all that it seemed to be.
DAN JONES: Well I don’t know what headlines you’re referring to. Do you have someone in mind?
JEREMY SALLIS: Well I’ll have to dig it out, but I know what he’s referencing. I know what he’s referencing.
DAN JONES: Because the IPCC report is a report that’s been put together by scientists, by the scientific community, and it’s our job, and as a community we take this job very seriously, it’s our job to give the public the best information that we have about this data, the climate system and where we think it’s headed. The vast majority of us are funded by taxpayer dollars, and we are trying to provide a value, we’re trying to provide a service for those funds that we’ve been receiving. So I know that maybe I don’t know how much weight this has coming from a scientist, but the scientists I know are honest people. They’re good people. They want to put good information out there,. They want their names to be associated with correct robust information, right? We all like .. we all .. it’s kind of a point of pride for us to say, if you look at my papers, if you look at my talks, the stuff in there is going to be correct. It’s going to be .. you know .. you’re going to be able to trust it. That’s very important for the scientists I know, and it’s certainly important for myself. There’s really very little to gain in offering the public false information. I don’t understand what that would get us. It wouldn’t get us anywhere.
JEREMY SALLIS: Can we go to the second point, because this is an interesting point. If we as a country aren’t the main proponents of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, the little changes that we make, do they really have a global impact, when the likes of China and Brazil are not playing the same game?
DAN JONES: I think that’s why the big international agreements like the one that took place in Paris, the COP21 agreement that was reached back in December, I think that’s why those agreements are so important, that we all have to kind of agree what the goal is. And there was an agreement, an agreement was reached at this Paris accord, which is amazing. It’s amazing that that happened. So the agreement was that we’re going to try really hard to stay below 2% warming for the entire planet. And I think that’s a good goal, and you know, we should .. we’re going for it. I don’t know what’s going to happen obviously, but I think it’s good to have a goal, and to aim for it. Even if you miss it, then just the action of trying to reach that goal will probably put you in a better place than you were before.
JEREMY SALLIS: I asked you off-air about paying 5p for plastic bags, to reduce creating things which could be potentially damaging to the environment, and you were making the point to me as well that you’re not a proponent of political ideology particularly. You have a job which is apolitical.
DAN JONES: That’s right. Yes. I view my role as a scientist, my role is not to push any particular policy. My role is to let’s say for example you come to me with a policy, you come to me with something you want to implement. My job would then be, and not just my job but the whole scientific community, our job would be to help you work out what the consequences of that policy would be. So I view scientists as having more of that collaborative role in society, where you tell us what you want to do and we’ll tell you what the physical climate and chemical world will look like as a result.
JEREMY SALLIS: And then you do the maths.
DAN JONES: That’s right.
JEREMY SALLIS: This is from Terry. He says: ‘Is oil and gas being pulled out of the earth causing temperatures to rise?’
DAN JONES: I guess I don’t think the action of just pulling them out is the thing that causes the temperature to rise. What causes the temperature to rise is when you burn oil and gas like that. That puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which, as we were discussing before the break, gets more energy to the surface basically.
JEREMY SALLIS: But the actual physical process of removing these elements from the earth ..
DAN JONES: I don’t think there’s a big effect there. No. I think it’s the effect of having more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
JEREMY SALLIS: This is from Chris. He says: ‘Jez, this is something that David Attenborough touched on recently in his latest documentary. If the temperature of the oceans increases, it will have a detrimental effect on the coral reefs, and eventually we’ll have no reefs if we don’t change our ways and the way we run the planet‘. is that true?
DAN JONES: That is one of the big effects that if you add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere it reacts with seawater and the seawater becomes more acidic. And we know that that puts stress on coral reefs and a lot of other aquatic ecosystems. So that even if the temperature part .. even if the temperature increase was negligible and not a problem .. I’m not saying that that’s the case, but even in that scenario, we’d still have the problem of an increasing .. sorry we’d still have the problem of a more acidic ocean.
JEREMY SALLIS: And just finally, let’s end on a positive, because there are positives to be garnered from this conversation about climate change, quickly.
DAN JONES: Yes. That’s right. I think that we can do something about this. And again I’m not going to advocate for any particular policy. But the conversion of the economy into a new .. into a non-carbon economy, that can be a big economic opportunity that can be something that generates additional wealth. A lot of wealth is created in the process of creating our current energy infrastructure. So converting that over can potentially be something positive.
JEREMY SALLIS: OK. Dan Jones from the British Antarctic Survey, also part of the Cambridge Science Festival with this talk ‘Everything you always wanted to know about climate science‘, happening on Thursday at six pm. But do check the Cambridge Science Festival website to check that there are still tickets available. Dan, thank you so much for joining us.
DAN JONES: Thank you.