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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Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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