We can thank our clouds for saving us from a fate worse than Venus's

Clouds are essential as they reflect and scatter sunlight back into space - but nobody knows how hot the planet can become before the clouds no longer help us.

No one wants to think about cloudy skies in August but if they’re up there, be grateful. According to research published in Nature Geoscience on 28 July, we can thank clouds for saving us from a fate worse than Venus’s.

Venus – a barren, hot planet – suffered from the “runaway greenhouse effect” when its temperature rose past a critical point. That, it seems, arose from having too much thermal insulation resulting from the heat-storing greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere.

On Venus, as on earth, carbon dioxide was an important contributor. Our planet is wet and heating it creates a lot of water vapour, a far more potent insulator than carbon dioxide. The more water vapour there is, the faster warming occurs.

Once you hit the point of no return at which the runaway effect starts, it would take only a few thousand years for life on earth to become untenable.

The recently published calculations show that the Venus effect could happen here – if it weren’t for clouds. They look white and fluffy to us because they scatter light. The tops of the clouds do the same, scattering and reflecting sunlight back into space before it has the chance to warm the earth and take it into the runaway scenario.

There’s still some uncertainty in the calculations, however: we don’t know exactly how hot we can let the planet become before the clouds can no longer help us. Unfortunately, uncertainty in other areas is pushing us in the right direction to find out.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish its fifth assessment report next year. A draft report of some of its data, leaked to the Economist, suggests that increasing carbon-dioxide levels won’t warm the atmosphere as much as we had previously thought. In 2007, the IPCC stated that concentrations of between 445 and 490 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide were likely to result in a rise in temperature of 2° to 2.4° Celsius above the temperatures before the Industrial Age. The new data suggests that 425 to 485ppm would give a rise of 1.3° to 1.7° Celsius.

The Economist threw in plenty of caveats (“The two findings are not strictly comparable”; the data comes “from a draft version of the report, and could thus change”) but evidently felt the burden of reducing carbon emissions is not as onerous as it once seemed. “It is clear,” the paper declared, “that some IPCC scientists think the projected rise in CO2 levels might not have such a big warming effect as was once thought.”

As it turns out, it’s not just carbon dioxide that we need to worry about. US researchers have been mapping the gas leaks from pipelines in urban areas. Boston has more than 3,000 leaks in the pipelines that deliver gas to homes and industries. Preliminary data from Washington, DC indicates that the capital is just as prone to leaks. It’s of huge concern because methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If similar figures apply to every other major city with an ageing gas infrastructure, perhaps the chances of earth slipping into a runaway greenhouse effect need revising upwards.

We can be sure those figures won’t be in the IPCC report, however. As for the ones in the Economist, we’ll just have to wait and see. In many ways, it doesn’t matter: the numbers are out there now and will be put to work by those keen to make sure we don’t punish carbon emitters. Such a leak is not going to make governments feel inclined to do something about the problem – they can just keep their head in the clouds.

Sunset over Tiananmen Square after a day of heavy pollution in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.