We may be closer than we thought to dangerous climate thresholds

We don’t want the Earth to warm more than 1.5–2°C (2.7-3.6°F) compared to the pre-industrial climate. These targets are not magical; they are expert judgements about what it takes to avoid some of the more serious effects of climate change. We know the seas will rise (they already are). We know droughts and flooding will get more severe (they already are). We know there will be more heat waves, more intense storms, and ocean acidification (all happening now). We cannot stop some of the changes. But if we keep climate change to these limits, we think we can avoid the worst effects.

Where did these targets come from? Well, I mentioned that they are expert judgements but they are based on science. For instance, we can look into the deep past using ice cores, sediment records, and other tools to see how the past climate changed. We can also look into the future with computer models to predict how the future climate will evolve. Through these tools we can get a sense of how large the impact is if temperatures rise.

The obvious question is, where are we at? How much have temperatures risen since the pre-industrial time period? It might seem like that is a simple question. In fact, groups like NASA in the USA regularly provide temperature data as below. According to this image, the 2016 temperature increase has just hit 1°C (1.8°F). So, it would appear that we have some ways to go before hitting our target, right?

Not so fast. Whenever you see an image like the one below, you should ask what years are the baseline. These graphs are termed “temperature anomaly plots.” They don’t show the actual temperature; rather they show the temperature difference between two time periods. It turns out the figure below is oriented so that it is relative to the time period 1951-1980. So when we say that 2016 had a temperature anomaly of 1°C, we really mean that it was 1°C warmer than the 1951-1980 time period.

So, some important questions are, what were the temperatures prior to the graph shown here? What was the pre-industrial temperature? If the pre-industrial temperature is cooler than 1951-1980, it would mean that we have warmed even more than 1°C (1.8°F).

Prior to this publication, some choices were made based on expediency. For instance, in the latest IPCC report, the global reference period was 1850-1900 because it was thought that high-quality records could go back as far as 1850. However, some warming had already occurred by 1850. For instance, greenhouse gases were already being emitted then. Perhaps more importantly, humans had already changed the landscape through practices such as farming and animal husbandry. These land changes can affect temperatures as well. By using 1850 as a start date, you miss these changes and underestimate the total change in the global climate.

The authors considered a number of issues when selecting their recommended period. First, they attempted to select a period prior to significant global warming – before many greenhouse gases and land changes occurred. Second, it would be best to have a choice that didn’t have natural forcings (natural climatic changes such as volcanoes, significant solar changes, and so forth). Using three different analysis methods, the authors are able to conclude that from their pre-industrial time to the 1986-2005 period, there was a likely global temperature increase of 0.55–0.80°C (1–1.4°F).

— source skepticalscience.com

Soils Could Release Much More Carbon Than Expected as Climate Warms

Soils could release much more CO2 than expected into the atmosphere as the climate warms, according to new research by scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

Their findings are based on a field experiment that, for the first time, explored what happens to organic carbon trapped in soil when all soil layers are warmed, which in this case extend to a depth of 100 centimeters. The scientists discovered that warming both the surface and deeper soil layers at three experimental plots increased the plots’ annual release of CO2 by 34 to 37 percent over non-warmed soil. Much of the CO2 originated from deeper layers, indicating that deeper stores of carbon are more sensitive to warming than previously thought.

They report their work online March 9 in the journal Science.

— source newscenter.lbl.gov

Is It Game Over for the Climate Fight?

One possibility is, we’ve lost. It’s a real possibility, and we should consider it carefully instead of ignoring it because it’s emotionally unpalatable.

I think the argument would go like this: The idea that humans would move quickly enough off coal and oil and gas to salvage the planet’s climate was always a long shot. When I wrote the first book on all of this back in 1989, I interviewed a political scientist who said “it’s the problem from hell,” with so many interests at odds, and so much money invested in the status quo, that it was hard to see a real path forward.

And that was back when we thought global warming would roll out somewhat slowly — when we feared the consequences that would unfold in the second half of this century. The scientists, it turns out, had been much too conservative, and so “ahead of schedule” became the watchword for everything from polar melt to ocean acidification. Already, only 17 years into the millennium, the planet is profoundly changed: half the ice missing from the polar north, for instance, which in turn is shifting weather patterns around the globe.

That galloping momentum of warming (building on itself, as white ice gives way to blue ocean and as fires in drought-stricken forests send clouds of carbon aloft) scares me. It should scare everyone; for a decade now it has threatened to take this crisis beyond the reach of politics. To catch up with the physics of climate change we’d need a truly stunning commitment to change, an all-out, planet-wide decision to push as hard as we’ve ever pushed to spread clean energy and shut down the dirty stuff.

The closest we’ve gotten to that — and in truth, it wasn’t all that close — was the Paris Agreement that went into effect last November 4. It committed all the nations of the world to holding the planet’s temperature increase to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and by all means below 2 degrees. It lacked enforcement mechanisms and strict timetables, but it did at least signal the planet’s willingness to go to work. And it helped conjure up the counter-momentum that was beginning to take hold: renewable energy was suddenly outpacing fossil fuel in many places. Carbon emissions were starting to stabilize.

Four days later, Donald J. Trump was elected.

He has promised, of course, to scrap the Paris accords, but even if he doesn’t do that, he and his team will do all they can to slow that building momentum. And since pace is everything here, that might well be enough. Our not-very-good-in-any-event chance just got much much harder.

But — and I say this with a certain weary sadness — the chances have not gotten so much harder that one can justify giving up. There definitely are days when I wish one could simply say ‘that’s that’ and walk away, and since I don’t live next to a refinery I suppose I have that luxury. Doing so would require, however, ignoring a few realities that shouldn’t be ignored.

One is the almost unbelievable fall in the price of renewable energy, which is continuing apace. Each passing month brings cheaper solar panels, more efficient wind turbines, more powerful batteries at lower cost, shinier electric cars. The pieces are there, and in a few spots they’re actually being used: If Denmark can generate half its power from the wind, then so can lots of other places. If India can build the world’s largest solar farm in a matter of months, then there’s no reason others couldn’t follow. The engineering breakthroughs of the last decade have made rapid conversion technologically plausible; as Mark Jacobson and his Stanford team have demonstrated, you can make the numbers work — they’ve shown state-by-state that getting to 80 percent clean power in the U.S. by 2030 isn’t easy, but it is possible.

The other reality is darker, but no less real: global warming will happen on a spectrum. It’s not like everything is okay up to 2 degrees, and then everything is hell. Hell is breaking loose now, and we’re barely past 1 degree. Two degrees will be exponentially tougher — but 3 degrees will be exponentially tougher than that. The battle never really ends: you just keep falling back to the next redoubt, finding some new weapon with which to fight, yielding no more ground than you must. We’re never going to reach the point where it can’t get any worse. It can get worse, and it will if we don’t battle.

Where, then, will the battle be fought?

To some degree, in Washington. That’s been the center of the environmental fight these last eight years, with defeats (cap-and-trade) and victories (the Keystone XL pipeline) and constant, focused lobbying. In fact, we’ve lost at least as much as we’ve won: Even as we greet the Trump disaster, it’s important to account honestly for the Obama years, when America passed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the greatest oil and gas nation on earth. Yes, good organizing helped break the back of the coal industry, but that carbon-spewing anthracite was mostly replaced by methane-leaking fracked gas; depending on how you count the warming effect of that CH4, it’s entirely possible America’s greenhouse gas emissions went up during the Obama era. Still, D.C. was a place you could stand and fight: Obama had promised to do something about climate change, and you could try and hold him to that promise.

Trump has promised just the opposite, and there’s no real leverage to hold over him. As his cabinet appointments have made entirely clear, he’s going to gut the EPA and turn the Department of Energy into a playground for the oil industry. (And who knows what he and Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin are cooking up for Russia.) At least for now, there’s only defense to be played, but defense is half of any game. If the filibuster remains in place and the Democrats can round up 40 votes, the worst damage can perhaps be avoided. That’s why we’ll muster and march: After the inauguration weekend’s Women’s March, a giant climate justice gathering on April 29 figures to be the next crucial date on the movement calendar.

My guess, however, is that most of the action will be outside the Beltway in the next few years — that Sacramento and Albany will be capitals of almost equal significance as we struggle to keep the energy revolution going. California is the world’s sixth largest economy, and it has begun to prosper from a tide of clean energy investment; success there will help drive investment in the right direction. New York is halfway into the most ambitious utility restructuring plan on the continent. Assuming that Governor Andrew Cuomo stays the course (and as a pol with an eye on bigger things, that seems a reasonable bet), the Empire State will demonstrate what a modern energy system might look like. That won’t turn off the dirty power plants in the rest of the country — they’ve been granted a reprieve by Trump’s election — but it will keep Wall Street paying attention. And even across the middle of the country, sense keeps breaking out. Iowa is largely wind-powered now; even Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, recently refused to scrap renewable energy targets.

In this new landscape, the large, sprawling, diverse climate movement that has sprung up in the last decade can push the process in many useful ways.

Take, for instance, the ongoing battles against new fossil fuel infrastructure, exemplified in the last few years by the battles over the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Those were crucial fights, and only in part because they slowed the construction of particular pipelines. They also scrambled the investment thinking of multinationals, banks, and investors. Canada’s tar sands, for instance, may have been dealt a fatal blow by the various pipeline battles — even if they’re eventually built, billions of dollars in new mining operations were deferred or canceled in the meantime. The idea that tar sands output would triple or quadruple has vanished; even Exxon is facing the likely need to write off its investment in the north.

The battle waged at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access pipeline a particularly powerful chapter in this fight, and not just because it made crystal clear to the larger public what many of us have known for years: that frontline communities, and in particular Native Americans, are leading much of this struggle. Standing Rock also demonstrated that most of the nation’s (and many of the planet’s) big banks were still in the business of underwriting fossil fuel. That means new targets, and ones vulnerable to consumer pressure — the bank-lobby sit-ins that have taken place across the country are just the first wave, I’d wager.

In fact, the fossil fuel divestment movement will see a new surge of organizing. It’s already enormous, the biggest campaign of its kind in history, with endowments and portfolios worth more than $5 trillion pulling out of some or all of the fossil fuel stocks. And it’s already done damage — as Peabody Coal went bankrupt, it explained to the SEC that damage from the divestment campaign was one big reason. Now it becomes an even more compelling place to act: with the system jammed in D.C., the pressure will inevitably build elsewhere. And increasingly, divestment campaigners are taking on iconic targets, places like the Nobel Foundation or the planet’s great museums, making the case that our culture simply can’t survive the coming meltdown.

That’s crucial, because in the end the real fight is not over a pipeline or a windmill or even a carbon tax. The real fight — all real fights — are over the zeitgeist. They’re about who controls the vision of the future.

Donald Trump and his band of fellow travelers won the vision battle by staring backwards — the key word in their ball-cap slogan is “Again.” And understandably, because the world around us is scary. It’s much nicer (at least for white people) to pretend we don’t have to deal with reality, that we can somehow turn things back to an earlier day.

But defying reality is a hard trick, day in and day out. Mother Nature is doing her best to break the spell all the time — sooner or later even distracting presidential tweets can’t crowd out the brute actuality of drought and flood and heat. And there’s a gentle reality that’s spreading as well: each solar panel means someone else seeing firsthand what the new world might look like.

The zeitgeist can’t be rewritten by environmentalists alone. Though there’s no technical reason why environmental protection should be a “progressive” idea, it’s clear that in our day and age the Republican party and the conservative movement have chosen to go with the fossil fuel industry. (They’ve been bought, and they’ve stayed bought). That leaves those who care about the climate standing with those who care about the poor, about racial justice, about immigrants, about peace. And at bottom that’s the right fit: a renewably powered world would be far more localized, democratic, and fair. It’s the opposite of planet Koch in every way.

Which means, in turn, that one goal of our fight must simply be to break the power of Trumpism and all that it represents. If you want good news, here it is: Trump and his crew have pushed all their bets onto fossil fuel. There’s no Obama-esque hedging and half measures. Which means that if they fall, then climate denial should fall with them. Fossil fuel worship should fall with them. Their backward-looking vision should tumble down around them.

That’s if they fall. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

— source e360.yale.edu By Bill McKibben

Massive Permafrost Thaw Documented in Canada

Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama.

According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.

Permafrost is land that has been frozen stretching back to the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, the long-frozen soils thaw and decompose, releasing the trapped greenhouse gases into the air. Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere.

— source insideclimatenews.org

Global hydropower boom will add to climate change

For many years new hydropower dams were assumed to be zero greenhouse gas emitters. Now with 847 large (more than 100 MW) and 2,853 smaller (more than 1 MW) hydropower projects currently planned or under construction around the world, a new global study has shown that dam reservoirs are major greenhouse gas emitters.

The study looked at the carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) emitted from 267 reservoirs across six continents. Globally, the researchers estimate that reservoirs contribute 1.3 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to those from rice paddy cultivation or biomass burning.

Reservoir emissions are not currently counted within the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) emissions assessments, but they should be, argue the researchers. In fact, countries are currently eligible under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to receive carbon credits for newly built dams.

The study raises the question as to whether hydropower should continue to be counted as green power or be eligible for UN CDM carbon credits.

— source news.mongabay.com

Warming temperatures could trigger starvation, extinctions in deep oceans

Researchers from 20 of the world’s leading oceanographic research centers today warned that the world’s largest habitat – the deep ocean floor – may face starvation and sweeping ecological change by the year 2100. Warming ocean temperatures, increased acidification and the spread of low-oxygen zones will drastically alter the biodiversity of the deep ocean floor from 200 to 6,000 meters below the surface. The impact of these ecosystems to society is just becoming appreciated, yet these environments and their role in the functioning of the planet may be altered by these sweeping impacts. Results of the study, which was supported by the Foundation Total and other organizations, were published this week in the journal Elementa.

— source phys.org

Antarctica Just Shed a Manhattan-Sized Chunk of Ice


The Pine Island Glacier on the coast of West Antarctica is a case in point. A massive iceberg roughly 225 square miles in size — or in more familiar terms, 10 times the size of Manhattan — broke off in July 2015. Scientists subsequently spotted cracks in the glacier on a November 2016 flyover. And in January, another iceberg cleaved off the glacier.

The ocean under Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf has warmed about 1°F since the 1990s. That’s causing the ice shelf to melt and pushing the grounding line — the point where the ice begins to float — back toward land, creating further instability.

— source climatecentral.org