Antarctica could melt ‘irreversibly’ due to climate change, study warns

Antarctica minus ice

A simulation shows Antarctica, totally stripped of ice.
(Image: © Garbe et al.)

Antarctica contains more than half of the world’s freshwater in its sprawling, frozen ice sheet, but humanity’s decisions over the next century could send that water irreversibly into the sea.

If global warming is allowed to continue unchecked, Antarctica will soon pass a “point of no return” that could reduce the continent to a barren, ice-free mass for the first time in more than 30 million years, according to a new study published Sep. 23 in the journal Nature.

“Antarctica is basically our ultimate heritage from an earlier time in Earth’s history. It’s been around for roughly 34 million years,” study co-author Anders Levermann, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, said in a statement. “Now our simulations show that once it’s melted, it does not regrow to its initial state [until] temperatures go back to pre-industrial levels … a highly unlikely scenario. In other words: What we lose of Antarctica now, is lost forever.”

Related: 6 Unexpected effects of climate change

In the study, PIK researchers ran computer simulations to model how Antarctica will look thousands of years from now, depending on how high average global temperatures rise in response to modern greenhouse gas emissions.

They found that, if average temperatures rise 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels for any sustained period of time, much of the ice in West Antarctica will crumble, resulting in 21 feet (6.5 meters) of global sea-level rise; that amount of rise would devastate coastal cities like New York, Tokyo and London. This scenario could be a reality within decades; a global average temperature rise of 9 F (5 C) is currently considered the “worst-case” warming scenario if current greenhouse gas emission levels are allowed to continue through the year 2100, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

If those IPCC projections are off, things could get much, much worse, the authors of the new study found. Should global temperatures rise between 11 and 16 F (6 to 9 C) above pre-industrial levels for any sustained period of time over the coming millennia, more than 70% of Antarctica’s present-day ice will be lost “irreversibly,” the study authors wrote. And, if temperatures rise by 18 F (10 C), the continent is doomed to be “virtually ice-free.” Should the continent lose all of its ice, global sea levels will rise by nearly 200 feet (58 m).

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A short video accompanying the study (shown here) illustrates that reality in grim detail, showing the continent’s ice vanishing first from the coasts, then all across the mainland until nothing but green plains and rocky cliffs remains.

This cataclysmic melting will not occur in our lifetimes; the full effects would likely not be seen for roughly 150,000 years, Andrew Shepherd, a climatologist from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study, told the Daily Mail.

However, the study authors warned, humankind’s failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions this century could trigger an irreversible feedback cycle that seals Antarctica’s fate for millennia to come.

The rapid depletion of Antarctica’s ice shelves — large plates of ice anchored to the mainland on one side and floating freely over the ocean on the other — represent one particularly dangerous feedback mechanism, the researchers wrote. As warm ocean water laps against the underside of ice shelves, the point where the base of the shelf meets the water (also called the grounding line) retreats farther and farther back, destabilizing the entire shelf and allowing enormous chunks of ice from the mainland to slide into the ocean. Many ice shelves in West Antarctica are already experiencing this sort of runaway melt, with roughly 25% of the region’s ice in danger of collapsing, according to a 2019 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Antarctica’s fate is in the hands of current policymakers, the study authors concluded. The Paris Climate Accord, which 73 nations agreed to in 2015 (and which the United States abandoned in June 2017 at the behest of President Donald Trump), aims to limit the planet’s average temperature from rising by more than 2.7 F (1.5 C) above the preindustrial average, to forestall the worst effects of climate change.

While emissions dropped by a trivial amount earlier this year, due to mass quarantining during the pandemic, a UN report published earlier this month warns that the world is currently not on track to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Accord, with average global temperatures lingering around 2 F (1.1 C) above pre-industrial levels between 2016 and 2020.

The report added that there’s a 20% chance the annual global mean temperature will have increased by more than 2.7 F (1.5 C), at least temporarily, by the year 2024.

The End of Climate Change Denial Is the Start of Something Much Worse

Donald Trump doing...something.
Donald Trump doing…something.
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP (Getty Images)

Last night’s presidential debate was an abomination by just about any standard. The sitting president told white supremacists to “stand by,” took no responsibility for the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans killed by covid-19, refused to back a peaceful transfer of power, and generally lied with reckless abandon while moderator Chris Wallace essentially took a nap in the green room for most of it then laughed off the whole proceeding at the end.

As a climate reporter, the one “bright” spot was actually hearing Wallace wake from his slumber to ask a series of climate questions in the waning minutes of the debate. It broke 12 years of climate silence at presidential debates (and proved Chris Wallace clearly reads Earther). I have quibbles with the questions themselves, but President Donald Trump’s responses, in particular, showed that outright climate denial is basically done for, at least at the policymaking level. The only problem is, the toxic stew replacing it is much, much worse.

Without outright denial of human-caused climate change to lean on, Trump and the rest of the far-right are reverting to anti-democratic, potentially violent tactics to maintain their hold on power despite the mutual destruction their goals will mean for us all.

Wallace’s first question to Trump on climate was about his beliefs. In 2018, I said they were no longer worth asking him about because his brain makes lace look like a wall of steel. The incoherence was present again, but this time Trump copped to greenhouse gas emissions “to an extent” causing the climate crisis. (They are the primary cause.) He then segued to talking about California and also needing “better management of our forest” while implying climate change played a role in the state’s devastating wildfires. The section of the debate discussing science was also basically the only time during the 90 minutes of hell that Trump actually shut up—and he even hedged in favor of electric cars!

It shows that the flat out climate denial that dominated conservative politics for most of this century has lost its grip. The reasons are simple: Looking at the state of the world in 2020, it is impossible to deny what’s happening right outside our windows. Raging fires, wild hurricanes, intense rainstorms, coastal cities flooding under sunny skies due to rising seas.

But what’s replacing denial is a darker evolution of conservatism in a climate-constrained era. Trump has, first and foremost, served industries actively making climate change worse by deregulating everything from power plants to cars to endangered species and water protections. That will accelerate the crisis that Trump begrudgingly acknowledged. But you can’t acknowledge a crisis then defend policies that clearly make it worse.

Sure, he hand waved about the Green New Deal (which Democratic nominee Joe Biden does not support, though his climate plan incorporates some of its elements), lied about the cost of addressing climate change, and said: “they want to take out the cows.” They’re predictable, tired-ass Republican talking points stuff. All that is bad and unforgivable given that repeating these talking points is designed to delay climate policy that will, in turn, conscript millions around the world to suffering, displacement, and death. But it’s the policies and tactics Trump said outside the climate portion of the debate that will have a truly chilling impact on our ability to slow Earth’s warming.

First up is the foundation of democracy itself: voting. Trump’s refusal to accept losing the election and wild lies about voter fraud are part of a greater Republican push to disenfranchise voters. The goal is to keep as many Americans from voting as possible. And for those who can cast a ballot, Republicans are looking to invalidate them. It’s a way of maintaining minority rule, with a president who lost the popular vote and a Senate that Republican control despite representing 15 million fewer Americans. That perversion of democracy is step one to ensuring climate policy remains a pipe dream, despite a majority of Americans actually wanting the government to address the crisis.

Likewise, Trump’s race to appoint Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett—who he said during the debates was “good in every way” despite much evidence to the contrary—will ensure the court represents business interests for decades to come. Even if Democrats win the White House and Senate, hold the House, and pass meaningful climate legislation (dare to dream, right?), any challenge to it would appear before a court that has six conservatives that could shoot down any new laws—not to mention regulations put forward by executive order. A court with Coney Barrett—whose entire judicial philosophy justifies reversing precedents—could even overturn previous rulings, including a landmark case that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases.

The most putrid part of the debate, though, was Trump’s call to the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, to “stand back and stand by.” That poses an immediate threat as the election approaches where the Republican approach is disenfranchisement by any means necessary. In the context of the climate crisis, it could lead to violent outcomes targeting the most vulnerable among us.

In recent years, the rise of ecofascism has also put a new twist on a hateful ideology. It left a horrific imprint on El Paso last year, when a gunman killed 22 people. He wrote a manifesto decrying corporate pollution and arguing the U.S. needed to “get rid of enough people” as justification for cold-blooded murder.

Just this month, we’ve also seen the far-right embrace wildfire conspiracy theories as a way to test boundaries and usurp power in Oregon. While it’s not textbook ecofascism, it’s a sign of the growing ways the far-right is using the climate crisis—which Republican policies are making worse—to further its goals of white supremacy.

The coming decades will be a time of great upheaval. Activists will be in the streets clamoring for just policies that meet the moment to deal with climate change and the intertwined issues of racism and inequality at the same time as Republicans are courting violent forces to repress the popular will. Climate denial was a form of slow violence. Now, Trump and Republicans appear to be embracing an accelerationist view while propping up polluters at all costs.

Major wind-driven ocean currents are shifting toward the poles

Major wind-driven ocean currents are shifting toward the poles
Satellite observational sea surface temperature anomaly during the last five years (2015-2019), reference to the first five years (1982-1986). Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut/Gerrit Lohmann

The severe droughts in the USA and Australia are the first sign that the tropics, and their warm temperatures, are apparently expanding in the wake of climate change. But until now, scientists have been unable to conclusively explain the reasons for this, because they were mostly focusing on atmospheric processes. Now, experts at the AWI have solved the puzzle: the alarming expansion of the tropics is not caused by processes in the atmosphere, but quite simply by warming subtropical ocean.

But up to now, climate researchers have had a problem. They couldn’t conclusively explain this obvious expansion of the tropics using their . The models simply didn’t show the magnitude and the regional characteristic of the observed expansion. A team working with the physicists Hu Yang and Gerrit Lohmann at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven (AWI) has now discovered the likely cause. As the AWI experts report in the Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres, the reason for the expansion appears to be an altered warming of the . To date, experts assumed that processes in the atmosphere played a major role—for instance a change in the ozone concentration or the aerosols. It was also thought possible that the natural climate fluctuations that occur every few decades were responsible for the expansion of the tropics. For many years researchers had been looking in the wrong place, so to speak.

“Our simulations show that an enhanced warming over the subtropical ocean in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are the main drivers,” says Hu Yang, the study’s lead author. These subtropical warming patterns are generated by the dynamic of subtropical ocean gyres, measuring several hundreds of kilometers in diameter, which rotate slowly. These currents are especially well-known in the Pacific, because the majority of floating marine litter is concentrated in them. “Because the currents in the region bring together the surface warming water masses particularly intensely, it’s easier for the subtropical ocean surface to accumulate warmth than in other regions—and the same applies to plastic,” says Lohmann. As a result of this warming of the subtropical ocean, the tropical warm ocean regions are expanding. According to his calculations, this phenomenon is the catalyst for the tropics expanding to the north and south. “Previous researchers had been taking an overly complicated approach to the problem, and assumed it was due to complex changes in the atmosphere. In reality, it’s due to a relatively simple mechanism involving ocean currents.”

What led the experts to explore this avenue: data on ocean gyres that they happened to come across five years ago—data on ocean temperatures and satellite-based data, freely available on databases. Both sources indicated that the gyres were becoming warmer and more powerful. “That’s what led us to believe that they might be a decisive factor in the expansion of the tropics,” explains Hu Yang.

The AWI experts were right: their findings perfectly correspond to actual observations and the latest field data on tropical expansion. Just like in reality, their climate model shows that the tropics are now stretching farther to the north and south alike. In the Southern Hemisphere, the effect is even more pronounced, because the ocean takes up more of the overall area there than in the Northern Hemisphere.

Yet when it comes to the question of whether the droughts in Australia, California and the Mediterranean are due to the expansion of the tropics, Gerrit Lohmann can’t give a definitive answer. “When talking about  change, it’s always difficult to quantify the respective parameters with absolute certainty,” he says. “However, we can safely assume that the ocean currents and expansion of the tropics make droughts and hurricanes more likely to occur.”

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The tropics are expanding, and climate change is the primary culprit

‘Light Years Ahead’ Of Their Elders, Young Republicans Push GOP On Climate Change

Audio will be available later today.

Benji Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition, testifies about climate change during a U.S. House hearing in 2019.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Think “climate change activist” and a young, liberal student may come to mind.

A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed climate change is the top issue for Democratic voters. For Republicans, it barely registers overall, but there is a growing generational divide.

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows Republicans 18 to 39 years old are more concerned about the climate than their elders. By a nearly two-to-one margin they are more likely to agree that “human activity contributes a great deal to climate change,” and “the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.”

Some of these young conservatives are starting environmental groups and becoming climate activists. And now they’re pushing their party to do more.

Benji Backer started the American Conservation Coalition in 2017, after his freshman year in college, and says his love of nature comes in part from his family.

“They were Audubon members, Nature Conservancy members. But they were conservative, and I grew up not thinking that the environment should be political at all,” says Backer.

Yet these days, environmental politics dominates his life. From now until the November election Backer is driving an electric car across the country, talking about his group’s climate agenda and posting videos

Backer is promoting his group’s American Climate Contract, which is a conservative, market-focused response to the Green New Deal.

He’s critical of fellow conservatives who ignore climate change. He praised Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg when they both testified before Congress last year. And Backer says he wants to work with liberal climate activists to pass legislation.

So, how will he vote in November?

“If President Trump wants to get my vote, he’s going to have to prioritize climate change in a way that he has not done over the past four years,” says Backer.

While he’s undecided so far, Backer says he was disappointed climate change wasn’t even discussed at the Republican National Convention.

In a statement to NPR the Trump campaign said, “President Trump’s record on the environment proves you can have energy independence and a clean, healthy environment without destroying the economy, overregulating, or burdening American taxpayers.” The statement never mentions climate change.

“Young Republicans are light years ahead of their elder counterparts on this issue,” says Kiera O’Brien, founder and president of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, which supports a carbon tax proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

O’Brien grew up in Alaska and says young conservatives are motivated by mounting evidence that the climate is changing.

“They’re seeing the impacts first-hand, whether it’s myself in Alaska with algal blooms that are turning the ocean weird colors, or with flooding in the Gulf Coast, or hurricanes that are unprecedented at this point,” says O’Brien. She calls her generation “the climate generation,” and says effects they were told were far off are happening now.

Some liberal climate activists are encouraged to see young conservatives join them.

“It means a real hope for the future because it speaks to our generationally shared values: truth, empathy, and patriotism,” says Nikayla Jefferson, with the Sunrise Movement. “Climate change knows no party lines.”

Former South Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis says young conservative climate activists are being faithful to their age cohort.

“I think it’s that they, along with their progressive friends, plan on living on the earth longer than, say, their parents or grandparents,” says Inglis, Executive Director of the conservative climate group republicEn.

Inglis says for this generation, addressing climate change is becoming a moral issue more than a political one. And that makes him optimistic the country will eventually take more action to address the problem.

“The demographics are definitely going to deliver a win for climate change. I am absolutely certain we are going to win on climate policy. The question is whether we win soon enough to avoid the worst consequences,” says Inglis.

Scientists say that time line is short, but Inglis believes the country is more likely to succeed if both sides of the aisle are focused on the challenge.

The daring plan to save the Arctic ice with glass

The fear that action to combat climate change has been too slow has led some scientists to test unconventional methods to stem the loss of Arctic sea ice.

One of the most important, yet underappreciated, features of the Arctic sea ice is the ability of its blindingly white surfaces to reflect sunlight. For at least as long as our species has existed, the frozen seas at the top of our world have acted as a massive parasol that helps keep the planet cool and its climate stable.

Yet now, much of that ice is rapidly vanishing. Rising temperatures have locked the Arctic in a self-destructive feedback loop: the warmer it gets, the reflective white ice dissolves into darker, blue water, which absorbs more of the Sun’s warmth rather than reflecting it back into space. Warmer water accelerates melting, which means yet more absorption of heat, which drives further melting – and so on in a vicious cycle that is part of the reason why the Arctic is warming around twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This July, ice cover was as low as it had ever been at that time of the year.

As planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, some have been driven to explore desperate measures. One proposal put forward by the California-based non-profit Arctic Ice Project appears as daring as it is bizarre: to scatter a thin layer of reflective glass powder over parts of the Arctic, in an effort to protect it from the Sun’s rays and help ice grow back. “We’re trying to break [that] feedback loop and start rebuilding,” says engineer Leslie Field, an adjunct lecturer at Stanford University and chief technical officer of the organisation.

This is the backup plan I hoped we’d never need – Leslie Field

The melting of the sea ice has impacts far beyond the Arctic and its inhabitants. It will contribute to rising sea levels, and some say it’s already disrupting weather patterns around the globe. If we lose our protective white shield entirely – which some reckon could happen just decades from now – it could have the same warming effect as another 25 years of fossil fuel emissions at current rates, which would mean more intense droughts, flooding and heat waves. By rebuilding sea ice, Field hopes her approach will also restore its ancient function as a planetary air-conditioner and help counteract the effects of global warming. (Read more about how ice loss in the Arctic affects the rest of the world.)

Tiny powder-like beads could increase the reflectivity of Arctic ice, to reflect more of the Sun's warmth back into space (Credit: Susan Kramer/Arctic Ice Project)

Tiny powder-like beads could increase the reflectivity of Arctic ice, to reflect more of the Sun’s warmth back into space (Credit: Susan Kramer/Arctic Ice Project)

Many scientists frown upon such technological interventions in Earth’s planetary system, known broadly as “geoengineering”, arguing that fiddling with nature might cause further damage. However, “the utter lack of progress on climate mitigation is really opening up a space for all of these [geoengineering] things to be discussed,” says Emily Cox, who studies climate policy and public attitudes towards geoengineering at the University of Cardiff. That said, the urgency does not erase the uncertainty. “What do you do if something goes wrong… especially in the Arctic, which is already a fairly fragile ecosystem?”

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Field launched the Arctic Ice Project — formerly known as ICE911 — in 2008, soon after watching the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truthwhich convinced her of the urgency of doing something about the melting sea ice. In particular, it’s the fate of old, thick sea ice that worries her the most – the kind that lasts multiple years. This mature ice, dazzlingly white, has a high albedo, meaning it’s extremely good at reflecting sunlight – much more so than the thinner and darker young ice that forms each polar winter only to melt again during the summer. Yet over the past 33 years, that ice has dwindled by a staggering 95%.

When ice in an uncovered area had completely vanished, there was still nearly a foot in the section treated with the glass beads

What if, Field asked, she could layer a reflective material on top of the young ice to protect it during the summer months? If it had that extra protection, could it rebuild into sturdy multi-year ice, and kick-start a local process of ice regrowth? She settled on silica – or silicon dioxide – which occurs naturally in most sand and is often used to make glass, as the material of choice. She found a manufacturer that turns it into tiny, brightly reflective beads, each one 65 micrometers in diameter – thinner than a human hair, but too large for them to be inhaled and cause lung problems, Field says. The beads are also hollow inside, so they’ll float on water and continue to reflect away sunlight even if the ice begins to melt.

Over the past decade, she and her team have scattered the silica spheres over several lakes and ponds in Canada and the United States, so far with encouraging results. For instance, in a pond in Minnesota, just a few layers of glass powder made young ice 20% more reflective – enough to delay the melting of the ice. By spring, when the ice in an uncovered area of the pond had completely vanished, there was still nearly a foot of ice in the section treated with the glass beads.

Dark blue water absorbs more of the Sun's rays, accelerating the process of global warming - but bright white ice reflects that radiation away (Credit: Getty Images)

Dark blue water absorbs more of the Sun’s rays, accelerating the process of global warming – but bright white ice reflects that radiation away (Credit: Getty Images)

Field doesn’t want to carpet the Arctic in glass. Instead, she plans on distributing it strategically to protect some particularly fast-melting, vulnerable areas, like the Fram Strait, a thin passage between Greenland and Svalbard. According to results of a climate model she presented last December at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, treating the Fram Strait could lead to large-scale ice regrowth across parts of the Arctic.

Scientists agree that the beads are well-intentioned, but worry about their potential effects on the Arctic ecosystem. If they float around there indefinitely, “it’s just going to clog up the ocean and mess with the ecosystem,” says Cecilia Bitz, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington who specialises in Arctic sea ice.

Field argues that the balls are safe because silica is so abundant in nature – indeed, it routinely washes from weathered rocks via rivers into the sea. And according to some safety testing as part of her 2018 study, the beads, when ingested, cause no ill effects in at least two species – sheepshead minnow fish and northern bobwhite birds.

However, some biologists are concerned about the potential effects on the creatures at the base of the Arctic food chain. Depending on how much light the silica beads reflect, they could block sunlight from photosynthesising plankton, such as diatoms, algae that live under the sea ice and around it. Any change in plankton abundance could cascade up the food web and have unpredictable effects on organisms from fish to seals and polar bears, notes Karina Giesbrecht, an ocean chemist and ecologist at Canada’s University of Victoria who has studied the role of silica in Arctic ecosystems.

Some view such approaches as stop-gap solutions to climate change, in that they only treat single symptoms

On top of that, the silica balls are similar in size to diatoms, which are eaten by zooplankton known as copepods, Giesbrecht notes. If the beads sank into the water column, copepods might consume them thinking they are diatoms, without gaining any nutrition. In the worst case, the copepods could starve, with knock-on effects for other members of the Arctic ecosystem.

So far, Field has been using beads that mostly stay afloat (though some inevitably sink each season), and she is planning to test their impact on plankton ecosystems. If there are any harmful effects, she’ll explore ways of tailoring the beads to make them ecologically safer, she says. One option she is considering is whether to tweak their composition such that they dissolve after a period of time. There are many other questions that her team, which is about to undertake further testing in seawater-filled pools in Alaska, will have to answer to convince the world that the approach is safe and effective.

The young, thin Arctic ice is darker and less reflective than the thick, white, old ice – pushing the Arctic into a feedback cycle of warming (Credit: Martha Henriques)

The young, thin Arctic ice is darker and less reflective than the thick, white, old ice – pushing the Arctic into a feedback cycle of warming (Credit: Martha Henriques)

For one, Mark Serreze, a climate scientist who directs the US National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wonders whether they’ll work as intended. “If you put down the silica beads in an area of fast-moving ocean currents, notably the Fram Strait, they will be quickly dispersed,” rendering them ineffective, he says.

The proposal also raises financial questions, like who would foot the approximately $1-5bn (£800m to £4bn) annual bill for making, shipping, testing and distributing the necessary silica beads in the Fram Strait. It may be an eye-watering figure, but it starts to look small next to the estimated $460bn (£360bn) that the United States incurred in extreme weather and climate disasters between 2017 and 2019 alone, Field notes.

Researchers are exploring the feasibility of other geoengineering approaches to save the melting Arctic, but none come without problems. One, for instance, would entail building millions of wind-powered devices to pump water from the deep to the ice surface in order to build up thicker layers of ice – which is energy-intensive and might not be very effective, Bitz says. She and Serreze view such approaches as stop-gap solutions to climate change, in that they only treat single symptoms – in the case of silica dust, temperatures – while doing nothing about the root cause of it. If Field’s strategy works as intended, “that’s wonderful,” Bitz says, “but I know that not emitting CO2 in the first place will work.”

Field agrees that geoengineering is in no way a replacement for reducing carbon emissions. Rather, she sees it as a chance to buy the time needed for world economies to decarbonise and stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The silica beads, she says, are “the backup plan I hoped we’d never need”.

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Climate Explained: Methane Is Short-Lived in the Atmosphere but Leaves Long-Term Damage

Climate Explained: Methane Is Short-Lived in the Atmosphere but Leaves Long-Term Damage
Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide, no matter the time scale. Алексей Филатов / Getty Images

By Zebedee Nicholls and Tim Baxter

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to


Methane is a shorter-lived greenhouse gas – why do we average it out over 100 years? By doing so, do we risk emitting so much in the upcoming decades that we reach climate tipping points?

The climate conversation is often dominated by talk of carbon dioxide, and rightly so. Carbon dioxide is the climate warming agent with the biggest overall impact on the heating of the planet.

But it is not the only greenhouse gas driving climate change.

Comparing Apples and Oranges

For the benefit of policy makers, the climate science community set up several ways to compare gases to aid with implementing, monitoring and verifying emissions reduction policies.

In almost all cases, these rely on a calculated common currency – a carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO₂-e). The most common way to determine this is by assessing the global warming potential (GWP) of the gas over time.

The simple intent of GWP calculations is to compare the climate heating effect of each greenhouse gas to that created by an equivalent amount (by mass) of carbon dioxide.

In this way, emissions of one gas – like methane – can be compared with emissions of any other – like carbon dioxide, nitrous dioxide or any of the myriad other greenhouse gases.

These comparisons are imperfect but the point of GWP is to provide a defensible way to compare apples and oranges.

Limits of Metrics

Unlike carbon dioxide, which is relatively stable and by definition has a GWP value of one, methane is a live-fast, die-young greenhouse gas.

Methane traps very large quantities of heat in the first decade after it is released in to the atmosphere, but quickly breaks down.

After a decade, most emitted methane has reacted with ozone to form carbon dioxide and water. This carbon dioxide continues to heat the climate for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide, no matter the time scale.

How much worse depends on the time period used to average out its effects. The most commonly used averaging period is 100 years, but this is not the only choice, and it is not wrong to choose another.

As a starting point, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report from 2013 says methane heats the climate by 28 times more than carbon dioxide when averaged over 100 years and 84 times more when averaged over 20 years.

Many Sources of Methane

On top of these base rates of warming, there are other important considerations.

Fully considered using the 100-year GWP and including natural feedbacks, the IPCC’s report says fossil sources of methane – most of the gas burned for electricity or heat for industry and houses – can be up to 36 times worse than carbon dioxide. Methane from other sources – such as livestock and waste – can be up to 34 times worse.

While some uncertainty remains, a well-regarded recent assessment suggested an upwards revision of fossil and other methane sources, that would increase their GWP values to around 40 and 38 times worse than carbon dioxide respectively.

These works will be assessed in the IPCC’s upcoming Sixth Assessment Report, with the physical science contribution due in 2021.

While we should prefer the most up to date science at any given time, the choice to consider – or not – the full impact of methane and the choice to consider its impact over 20, 100 or 500 years is ultimately political, not scientific.

Undervaluing or misrepresenting the impact of methane presents a clear risk for policy makers. It is vital they pay attention to the advice of scientists and bodies such as the IPCC.

Undervaluing methane’s impact in this way is not a risk for climate modellers because they rely on more direct assessments of the impact of gases than GWP.

Tipping Points

The idea of climate tipping points is that, at some point, we may change the climate so much that it crosses an irreversible threshold.

At such a tipping point, the world would continue to heat well beyond our capability to limit the harm.

There are many tipping points we should be aware of. But exactly where these are – and precisely what the implications of crossing one would be – is uncertain.

Unfortunately, the only way we can be sure of where these tipping points are is to cross them. The only thing we know for sure about them is that the impact on lives, livelihoods and the places we love would be beyond catastrophic if we did.

But we cannot ignore disturbing impacts of climate change that are already here.

For example, damage to the landscape from the Black Summer bushfires may be irreversible and this represents its own form of climate tipping point.

The scientific understanding of climate change goes well beyond simple metrics like GWP. Shuffling between metrics – such as 20-year or 100-year GWP – cannot avoid the fact our very best chance of avoiding ever-worsening climate harm is to massively reduce our reliance on coal, oil and gas, along with reducing our emissions from all other sources of greenhouse gas.

If we do this, we offer ourselves the best chance of avoiding crossing thresholds we can never return from.


Zebedee Nicholls is a PhD Researcher at the Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne.

Tim Baxter is a Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Senior Researcher – Climate Council; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne.

Disclosure statement: Zebedee Nicholls is affiliated with The University of Melbourne’s Climate & Energy College. He is funded by the Australian Government via the Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP). Tim Baxter is employed by the Climate Council, a non-profit organisation providing independent, authoritative information on climate change and its solutions to the Australian public and has previously been employed under various Australia Research Council grants.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

David Attenborough: ‘Eating Free-Range Meat Is Middle-Class Hypocrisy’

The veteran broadcaster made the comments ahead of the launch of his new film David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet
'I'm affluent enough to afford free-range, but it's a middle-class hypocrisy'

‘I’m affluent enough to afford free-range, but it’s a middle-class hypocrisy’

David Attenborough says eating free-range meat is a ‘middle-class hypocrisy’ – and that he is ‘troubled’ when he eats fish and chicken.

The veteran broadcaster made the comments during an interview with the Radio Times magazine ahead of the launch of his new film David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet.

‘Middle-class hypocrisy’

Sir David said he ‘couldn’t remember’ when he’d last eaten meat, and that it was ‘years ago’.

But he then revealed: ” I eat fish, and chicken, and my conscience does trouble me.

“I’m affluent enough to afford free-range, but it’s a middle-class hypocrisy.”

David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet premieres on September 28. It will launch on Netflix in October.

The film covers the period of his life, outlining the defining moments, and highlighting how the environment has been damaged during that time.

Announcing the launch of the film, Sir David warned: “Humanity is at a crossroads and I think the natural world is really under serious, serious threat.”

EU’s farm animals ‘produce more emissions than cars and vans combined’

Greenpeace says bloc must get a grip on reducing greenhouse gases from livestock or risk missing Paris agreement targets

A German Angus cattle eats hay
 Deforestation to produce feed is a major driver of carbon dioxide emissions attributable to cattle. Photograph: Jens Büttner/dpa

Cows, pigs and other farm livestock in Europe are producing more greenhouse gases every year than all of the bloc’s cars and vans put together, when the impact of their feed is taken into account, according to a new analysis by Greenpeace.

The increase in meat and dairy production in Europe over the past decade has made farming a much greater source of emissions, but while governments have targeted renewable energy and transport in their climate policies, initiatives to reduce the impact of food and farming on the climate have lagged behind.

In 2018, the latest year for which accurate data is available from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock on EU farms (including the UK) were responsible for the equivalent of about 502m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, mostly through the methane they release. That compares with 656m of carbon dioxide from Europe’s cars and vans in the same year.

But when the indirect greenhouse gas emissions are calculated, using established methods to estimate the deforestation and land use changes associated with growing animal feed, then the total annual emissions are equivalent to 704m tonnes of carbon dioxide. The calculations are set out in a new Greenpeace report entitled Farming for Failure, published on Tuesday.

The EU’s meat and dairy production rose by 9.5% between 2007 and 2018, which according to Greenpeace translated into an increase in annual emissions of 6%, or about 39m tonnes. That would be the equivalent of putting 8.4m new cars on the road.

If such rises continue, the EU has little chance of meeting its obligations to reduce greenhouse gases under the Paris agreement. Last week, the EU strengthened its targets on cutting emissions, announcing a target of 55% cuts by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, as part of the European green deal, and ahead of key UN climate talks next year.

Marco Contiero, agriculture policy director for Greenpeace, said policymakers must get a grip on livestock emissions, or face missing carbon reduction targets. “European leaders have danced around the climate impact of animal farming for too long,” he said. “Science is clear, the numbers as well: we can’t avoid the worst of climate breakdown if politicians keep defending the industrial production of meat and dairy. Farm animals won’t stop farting and burping – the only way to cut emissions at the levels needed is to cut their numbers.”

Halving intensive animal farming would cut about 250m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year, about the same as the total emissions from the 11 lowest-emitting countries in Europe.

A spokesperson for the UK’s National Farmers’ Union said farmers were taking action, with a target of being carbon neutral by 2040. Farming in the UK is directly responsible for 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, according to the NFU, without taking into account indirect emissions related to feed.

“If we are to achieve [the carbon neutrality goal], we must reduce all our greenhouse gas emissions,” said the spokesperson. “A focus on improving productivity is key here, alongside maintaining and improving our storage of carbon in grassland and producing more renewable energy.”

Greenpeace is calling for an end to public subsidies for industrial-scale animal farming under the EU’s common agricultural policy, as part of the bloc’s plans for a green deal. Such a policy is unlikely to win much favour from the powerful farming lobbies in most large European countries, but policymakers will be under pressure to show how they can meet the EU’s climate targets without large-scale reforms to farming.

In A Heating-Up West, Must Business-As-Usual Conservation Be Interrupted?


A firefighter strolls through the aftermath of a burn. Photo courtesy US Dept. of Defense
A firefighter strolls through the aftermath of a burn. Photo courtesy US Dept. of Defense

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this column, Lance Olsen reviews reasons to accept that we can’t restore ecosystems to what they were, can’t keep them as they are, and that heresy may be our best path to hope.

                                                           By Lance Olsen
Throughout many decades, many in the forest and wildlife conservation communities have organized around concerns about the adverse effects of business-as-usual in the logging industry.
For many, grappling with these concerns has also become business-as-usual in the conservation community. Alas, business-as-usual conservation is increasingly unlikely to meet its goals.
I’ve long sympathized with conservationists’ business-as-usual concerns about logging, and still do. After all, they’ve been all-too-frequently justified, and all-too-frequently still are. There’s still good and necessary work to be done in this context. I stand by the men and women doing that work.
That said, along with these continuing concerns, I’ve increasingly come around to a view that forests and wildlife are now far less threatened by logging than by the consequences of our fossil-fuel economy. This may nowhere be more true than the dry interior western United States.

In this part of the world, there’s been increasing evidence that rising levels of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, will yield heat and drought enough to transform this semi-arid region’s forests. The options include transformation to a less dense, savanna-like forest of the same species, or to a “novel” forest composed of species unlike the familiar forest of today, or even to a landscape without trees.

The stakes are high, will only be getting higher as temperatures climb higher, and the risks extend well beyond rare and already-threatened plants and animals. Given the deep evidence I’ll consider here, we are all being forced to reconsider the future of even common, widespread species such as lodgepole pine and the mule deer.
As the West goes dry
A new book, Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems, 2018, J.E. Halofsky, D.L. Peterson (eds.), brings some useful perspective for evaluating the new situation. More specifically for the region from Yellowstone to Glacier National Parks, Chapter Five of the new book, Effects of Climate Change on Forest Vegetation in the Northern Rockies needs special mention.
The very first sentence of Chapter Five’s abstract lays out the critical changes in clear terms. “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”
This one sentence says a mouthful. Its described path from heat to drought takes us straight into the realm where drought tolerance will be critical to hope for the survival of grasses, shrubs, trees — and animal life associated with them.
Haunting, an evergreen forest in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin has been turned to dead snags by geothermal heat. Might this become a widespread aesthetic in Greater Yellowstone as drought and higher temperatures eliminates forests evolved for the cold and what does it mean for the species specially adapted to them? Photo courtesy NPS
Haunting, an evergreen forest in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin has been turned to dead snags by geothermal heat. Might this become a widespread aesthetic in Greater Yellowstone as drought and higher temperatures eliminates forests evolved for the cold and what does it mean for the species specially adapted to them? Photo courtesy NPS
The Nevada Department of Wildlife, for example, has found that, “Droughts are especially difficult on mule deer and their associated habitats,” and that “ the impacts of drought on Nevada’s mule deer have been significant.
Obviously enough, drought does no favors for any wild species, in any part of the world. Elephants, leopards, tigers are known to take hits from drought.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base. For example, in 2006, the Journal of Hydrometeorology published findings that “ … the proportion of the land surface in extreme drought is predicted to increase from 1 percent for the present day to 30 percent by the end of the 21st century.”
This modeled expectation of expanding droughty areas has been variously confirmed by observed real-world trends since then. For example, a 2018 study found that the drylands of the interior western US have expanded eastward, and by140 miles.
This is gritty stuff, and not without implications. In fact, drought predicts the health and death of animals, first through its direct effect on the productivity and quality of animal habitat, with a subsequent indirect bottom-up effect on animals’ physical health and risk of mortality. In drought, food can be very scarce, which forces animals to sprawl out more widely in search for a bite to eat, only to get in trouble when their sprawl collides head-on with a sprawling human condition. In this collision, animals including bears can die as the ecosystem wilts.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seems a prime example.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seems a prime example. I ran a search of the 300-plus page document for drought, and got no results. Zero. Evidently, the d-word is too explosive for this government to mention even in some passing reference.
As the West heats up
Just as wildlife and forest conservationists can’t duck drought, we can’t avoid the reality that we’ve already passed through some important thresholds of heat, and that ecosystems will be taking hits from more and more of it.
Heat has consequences for species and ecosystems. By 2002, an article in Nature reported that, “Although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible”
By 2004, Global Environmental Change could publish findings that, ”Between 1C and 2C increases in global mean temperatures most species, ecosystems and landscapes will be impacted and adaptive capacity will become limited.”
By 2006, it was already too late to halt the heat at .06C above the pre-fossil fuel era. In that year, biologist Camille Parmesan’s review of over 800 reports focused exclusively on wild species and ecosystems found that a third of species had already felt the effects of “recent, relatively mild climate change (global average warming of 0.6 C).”
Within a few years, it was already too late to halt the heat at 0.7C, and then too late to halt it at 0.85C. As of 2018, it’s already too late to halt the heat at a little over 1C, and it’s not going to stop climbing. Instead, species and ecosystems are likely to take hits from increasing heat for at least the next 30 years.
The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, a document forged by the federal government and the states, is supposed to guide grizzly bear management forward into the future. And yet the document, at best, pays lip service to the largest landscape-level force already affecting the ecosystem—climate change. Olsen notes that transformation of habitat is certain to send bears ranging more widely and coming into conflict with people which could cause higher mortality. By not acknowledging this, he says, the agencies are being remiss. Photo courtesy NPS/Eric Johnston
The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, a document forged by the federal government and the states, is supposed to guide grizzly bear management forward into the future. And yet the document, at best, pays lip service to the largest landscape-level force already affecting the ecosystem—climate change. Olsen notes that transformation of habitat is certain to send bears ranging more widely and coming into conflict with people which could cause higher mortality. By not acknowledging this, he says, the agencies are being remiss. Photo courtesy NPS/Eric Johnston
By 2016, an article in Earth’s Future reported that “… the historically hottest summers would become the norm for more than half of the world’s population within 20 years.”
In 2017, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association published findings that the record-breaking heat of  2015  “will be the new normal by 2040.”
Since then, the assorted sciences gathered under the banner of climate science have reported that it will be extremely difficult to halt the heat at 2C, let alone 1.5. And in May, 2018, an article in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences cited evidence that, if the world economy continues on it’s business-as-usual dependency on burning fossil fuels, we’re on course to the 4C scenario.
That study was no outlier, no weird departure from the rest of reports on a future of increasing heat. In 2017, scientists describing their work were saying, ”Our study indicates that if emissions follow a commonly used business-as-usual scenario, there is a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.”
If we let it our carbon dumping force heat to 4C, very much is very, very screwed.
In September of 2017, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed Clive Hamilton, an experienced observer of climate science. According to Hamilton, ”No one wanted to pay attention to the implications of a world four degrees warmer… Then a few scientists said let’s have a conference and actually talk about it. …. It was then that I would buttonhole a couple of scientists and say: ‘Well, you know we’re speculating about this. But what do you really think is the situation?’ And one of them just looked at me and said: ‘We’re f–ked.'”
As more and more people begin to get their heads around the urgency of our climate crisis, the odds of avoiding 4C will likely improve. The bottom line here is that saving forests and wildlife requires — yes, requires — actual effort aimed at saving the atmosphere.
This new responsibility for conservation would keep wild habitats and species out of the fire but, sad to say, it won’t keep them out the frying pan. Even if the world does halt the heat short of 4C, a lot will remain at risk at 3, or even 2.
As with drought, conservation strategy that doesn’t account for heat is conservation with its head in the sand. Alas, again, the recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is a prime example. Again, in running a search of its 300-plus pages, I found only three pages that make reference to temperature, and those few references left a lot unsaid about the risk grizzlies will be facing in an increasingly hotter world.
Some conservationist are beginning to shift gears
Noting that “Climate Change may undermine the effectiveness of current efforts to conserve wildlife and ecosystems,” a 2018 Wildlife Conservation Society report cites “examples of how conservationists are strategically altering their approaches to keep pace with climate change.”
WCS biologists say “our hope is that this report will help conservationists learn how to move beyond business-as-usual conservation approaches and make their work climate informed.”
They spell out a basic necessity for moving beyond business-as-usual conservation. “The first step is to consult the latest science on observed and projected climate impacts.”
The need for conservationists to get ready for change was identified three years earlier, in 2015. Writing for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Paul R. Arnsworth  et al asked “Are conservation organizations configured for effective adaptation to global change? They opened their discussion by saying, “Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.”

“They opened their discussion by saying, ‘Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.'”

Amen to that. Global warming’s effect on climate is and for a long time will be forcing increasingly extensive change not just on trees but also on soils, grasses, shrubs, and the lives of wild animals.
These changes are and will be adding up to impact far in excess of anything logging could do in its wildest dreams of deregulation and subsidy. There is plausibly no better illustration of this sobering reality than in Figure 5 and Table 1 of Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk (see below).
Where’s the hope? 
There’s serious potential of heartbreak, despair and even a sinking feeling of hopelessness for conservationists who’ve devoted a career to saving familiar forests and wildlife from the excesses of logging, only to come face-to-face with losing them to the excesses of a fossil fuels economy. In a conversation with a wildlife biologist about this, he said if we level with people about the dangers of the climate situation, they’ll see it as a hopeless cause, throw their arms up in despair and walk away.
That’s a real risk. But there it is, and the bitterest pill takes form in the scenario of losses it’s already too late to stop, because of future heat that’s coming down the pipeline in the next few decades. When hotter and drier conditions are already forcing change on Rocky Mountain forests at only 1 Celsius above the fossil fuels era, there’s increasingly little reason to expect that upping the heat to 2 or 3C won’t endanger a lot of what we love.
Have a look at the graphic that speaks to forest cover outlook again, above. Among other things, that graphic illustrates the importance of latitude. For example, Glacier National Park is a higher latitude than Yellowstone, which raises hope that it will take less damaging hits to fir, pine, spruce — and the animal life associated with them.
Looked at another way, Yellowstone is at a higher latitude than points south, where the loss of familiar conifers is set to be even greater than for Yellowstone. IPCC’s 2007 report made that point pretty well. ”For widespread species such as lodgepole pine, a 3C temperature increase would increase growth in the northern part of its range, decrease growth in the middle, and decimate southern forests.”
One take-home message is relatively simple. As with real estate, hope for the the survival of species and systems is increasingly going to be partly a matter of location, location, location.
But there’s another, equally simple message that needs to be taken into account. Hope will also rest partly on traits of the species involved, and species differ in their tolerance for drought. This difference in species’ traits will be playing an increasingly decisive role in deciding the winners and losers that our fossil fuel economy and its creation of climate change will force on the Northern Rockies ecosystem
Many mountain forests could be transformed into savanna as they die or burn and conditions become too warm for "normal natural succession" to continue. It has consequences for many species. Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick
Many mountain forests could be transformed into savanna as they die or burn and conditions become too warm for “normal natural succession” to continue. It has consequences for many species. Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick
It’s worth repeating that key sentence that I referenced at the beginning: “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”
This scenario carries a third simple message. Drought tolerant species might make it, but others will face higher risk of defeat — even with conservationists’ very best business-as-usual attempts to save them from logging.
This potentially discouraging scenario can be enough to thrust a conservation-minded individual — or group — into denial. Why? Psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman offers an answer. “Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?” I think she’s onto something important with that question.

Psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman offers an answer. ‘Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?'”

Alternatively, where denial yields to acceptance, the result doesn’t have to be enlightenment. Acceptance of painful new realities can, as my biologist friend worried, usher us into a feeling of hopelessness.
Barbara Betz wrote in the May 1968 issue of International Journal of Psychiatry, “Hopelessness is often derived from unfulfillable, rather than from merely unfulfilled, desires and wishes focused on impossible aims.” Anna Freud, the savvy psychologist daughter of famed father Sigmund Freud, put it succintly; In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can’t eat them.
But our responses don’t need to end at hopelessness. In her 1968 article, Betz pointed out that the feeling of hopeless “diminishes with the development of capability to change aim.” She added the counterpart to hopelessness “is not just ‘hope’ but enthusiasm and zest.”
The time is now to change business-as-usual thinking
In his popular tune, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers says “Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
The question of when shows up four times in that chorus, and it’s critical to the hopes we can hold in a world that favors the persistence of drought tolerant ecosystems — at the expense of ecosystems close to our hearts’ desires. Is it time to walk away from forests and wildlife we hold dear, and devote our time and efforts to species that have a chance in a hotter, drier Northern Rockies region?
In 2007, Nature published “What to let go,” by Emma Marris. “Triage,” Marris wrote, “is a dirty word in some conservation circles, but,” she reminds us, “conservationists have long had to make decisions about what to save.” Amen.
“As more and more admit it,” she adds, “open discussion about how the decisions are best made — by concentrating on particular species, or particular places, or absolute costs, or any other criterion — becomes possible.”
Given what we know about the importance of drought tolerance and latitude, Marris’ references to “particular species” and “particular places” seem particularly apropos.
“Whichever criteria come into play,” Marris reminds us, “one thing remains constant. The decisions have to be made quickly.”  I’d only add that these decisions should have been made years ago, but that normal human resistance to change has kept the brakes applied.
 Aiming for a forest of drought tolerant trees
Picking my way through the Montana State Nursery’s catalog, I found four trees specifically described as drought tolerant, one of them “very drought tolerant.” Juniper was one of them, and it’s a familiar tree on many dry sites.
Big toothed maple and prairie poplar, according to the state nursery, usually establish themselves along waterways but, once established, tolerate drought pretty well. These two trees may thus have some potential for persistence of riparian systems important to many plant and animal species.
The fourth tree was bur oak, and what the state nursery said about that tree got my attention more than any of the others. While the others are capable of providing shade that will be increasingly valuable to many species as heat firms its grip, and shade cast on streams could grant added value to the prairie poplar and big toothed maple, the bur oak was for me a standout.
The nursery describes bur oak as “very drought tolerant.” Equally striking, it describes characteristics recognized for the whitebark pine. Just as the  pine periodically casts off cones with nuts providing food for bird, squirrel, and bear, the oak periodically casts off acorns. Birds and small mammals pounce on his periodic plenty, and bears have been known to pull down bur oak branches to eat acorns directly from the tree when they and other beneficiaries have already gobbled up the goodies fallen on the ground.
Business-as-usual conservation in the Northern Rockies has long been organized around the familiar fir, spruce, and pine ecosystems. These are the systems we know and love and, for many, perpetuating these forest is the desired future. A forest of juniper, prairie poplar, big toothed maple and bur oak would clearly be a novel forest and, for some conservationists, a heresy.
And yet, for at least some others, including me, a novel forest would just as clearly be preferable to no forest at all. Getting from here to there will plainly require departure from business as usual.
Given the latitude of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the national forests around the Park seem a reasonable enough place to start, so I’ve been pestering the Custer-Gallatin Forest to at least start thinking and talking out loud about it.
This will require a shift from the Forest Service business-as-usual approach of managing for ecosystems’ desired future conditions. The need for this shift was strongly underscored in no less a journal than Forest Ecology and Management. An article there by S.W. Golladay et al makes a forceful case for shifting our aims away desired future conditions, and aiming instead for achievable future conditions.
“We contend that traditional approaches to forest conservation and management will be inadequate given the predicted scale of social-economic and biophysical changes in the 21st century. New approaches … are urgently needed …,” they wrote. “These approaches acknowledge that change is inevitable and sometimes irreversible, and that maintenance of ecosystem services depends in part on novel ecosystems, i.e., species combinations with no analog in the past.”

Europe Drives Destruction of US Forests in the Name of Fighting Climate Change

Europe is often considered to be a global leader on climate action. For over a decade, the European Union (EU) has been actively promoting the need for action on climate change, pushing policies that scale back carbon emissions and support the growth of renewable energy.

On the bright side, this has led to the retirement of a large number of coal-burning power plants and increased adoption of solar and wind power. However, a number of countries have embraced biomass electricity, a short-term fix that is at best a false solution, and at worst is speeding up carbon emissions, pollution and forest destruction. In fact, though many may believe that solar and wind power are the main sources of the EU’s renewable energy, it is actually biomass, which represents nearly 60 percent of the total.

Biomass electricity is generated by burning organic matter. Forests have rapidly become a primary source of biomass fuel in the EU. Flawed carbon accounting assumes burning trees is carbon-neutral if a tree is planted to replace the one that has been chopped down, but biomass imported from the U.S. to the EU is never properly accounted for. This faulty logic has led to massive renewable energy subsidies for biomass under the EU Renewable Energy Directive program. It has further encouraged countries like the U.K., Netherlands and Denmark to subsidize the destruction of forests for fuel at a time when we need to let forests grow to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, protect biodiversity and shore up natural protections against extreme flooding and droughts. For example, thanks to an average £2.1 million in subsidies every day, Drax, the largest carbon emitter in the U.K., is now also the world’s largest burner of wood for power.

To add insult to injury, in the absence of sufficient supplies of wood from its own forests, the EU is heavily reliant on importing wood pellets from forests far away. In fact, biodiverse and carbon-rich forests across the United States’ Southern Coastal Plain — a region that encompasses coastal North and South Carolina, southern Georgia and Alabama, and northern Florida — have become the primary global target for supplying biomass fuel to the EU. The Southern U.S. is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of wood pellets. Under the guise of “renewable energy,” the voracious European demand for wood pellets has put forests and communities in this region at increased risk.

Nearly 800 scientists warned members of the European Parliament that burning trees releases more carbon than coal or gas per unit of energy generated (making climate change worse), and they also pointed out that logging degrades critical ecological services that standing forests provide, such as natural flood control. Standing forests act like sponges, slowing the rate of water flow into streams and rivers, helping to prevent flooding. When a forest is cleared, the volume of water and soil erosion entering streams and rivers is accelerated during periods of heavy rain, causing rivers and streams to overflow. Tropical storms and hurricanes are common in the U.S. Southeast and are becoming more intense in the era of climate change.

In recent years, the communities of the Southern Coastal Plain have experienced some of the most devastating and costly flooding events in the world, with disproportionate impacts to low-income, rural communities of color. Protecting wetland forests, which provide natural flood protections, has become a regional priority among conservation groups and communities across the region.

Despite the industry’s best attempts to greenwash wood pellets as a “sustainable, renewable” fuel, numerous investigations by the media and environmental organizations have provided hard evidence of the industry’s toxic air pollution and destruction of biodiverse forests. Once clear-cut, these forests can take up to a century to fully regenerate and recapture the carbon that was emitted from the logging and burning of biomass. The science is clear that we don’t have the luxury of waiting a century to draw down carbon — we must do it now. Additionally, the process of turning trees into wood pellets releases toxic pollution into the air, further compromising the health of nearby communities, which are already overburdened by other sources of industrial pollution. For example, in one small community in eastern North Carolina, there are other polluting industries besides the Enviva wood pellet plant: a natural gas pipeline, a chicken processing facility and a natural gas-fired power plant, all dumping pollution on a community that is predominantly low-income and Black.

Thankfully, despite the biomass and wood pellet industries spending millions of dollars to lobby and promote this false solution to climate change, more elected officials, environmental organizations and frontline communities are starting to see the light, and the days of burning our forests for electricity may be numbered.

Impacted Communities Fight Back

For years now, the EU’s burning of forests for electricity has flown under the radar, and the EU is often praised for its move away from coal.

Thankfully, more and more organizations working to end the use of fossil fuels have started to see how important our forests are for protecting us from the worst impacts of climate change and how destroying them to make electricity is not the right path forward. For example, leaders in the anti-coal movement, including Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, and founder Bill McKibben, have recently publicly denounced biomass as a false solution that must be stopped, reinforcing the need to protect forests while staying focused on renewable energy like solar and wind.

In addition to the growing biomass opposition from high-profile organizations leading the charge to phase out fossil fuels, the frontline communities that are facing new wood pellet production facilities in the United States — and communities facing the conversion of dirty coal plants to dirty biomass plants or brand new biomass power plants in Europe — are fighting back. Those who suffer the most from this pollution and destruction are rising up.

In North Carolina, for example, Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, applied to expand production at three of its facilities. In each of those communities, local leaders and affected residents showed up at public hearings, demanding the state take action to stop Enviva’s expansion. Even in rural Mississippi and Alabama, where local citizens had little warning of proposed new facilities, Enviva was met with opposition.

“We believe that everyone should have a clean, safe place to live, work, and play,” said Belinda Joyner, a Northeastern organizer for Clean Water for North Carolina. “Enviva has come in and detracted the living conditions of the community. This is what the community has to live with and it’s an injustice to them.”

And in Europe, despite the fact that many of the big environmental groups have ignored biomass for fear it would impact their fight against coal, local communities in Irelandthe Netherlands and France have come out strong in their opposition to burning wood for electricity in their backyards — and have even stopped new facilities from being constructed. Collectively, residents in the U.S. and EU are tired of empty rhetoric on climate change and are calling out biomass as a false solution while taking a stand for forests.

As the scientific evidence and public opposition mounts, elected officials on both sides of the pond are starting to express concern and take action. In March, the Virginia legislature passed the Clean Economy Act, which explicitly excludes biomass from the renewable energy list. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper expressed concern about biomass at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. The state’s newly developed Clean Energy Plan stated that biomass would not be a part of the state’s clean energy future, noting that the EU policy treating biomass as carbon neutral “should be challenged at the national and international level.” In Georgia, there is currently a bipartisan forest resolution before the state House and Senate that criticizes biomass as a climate solution and calls for greater protection for forests.

Additionally, more European leaders at the EU and national levels are expressing concern about biomass. Vice President of the EU Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of the European Green Deal, has noted that the “issue of biofuels needs to be looked at very carefully” to ascertain whether it “does not do more harm than that it does good.”

Most importantly, in May, the EU announced that it will assess its biomass strategy as part of its biodiversity action plan. This could lead to a revision of current biomass policy 10 years ahead of schedule, with the aim of eliminating controversial sources like wood from the mix. Ideally, this would also incorporate more accurate accounting for carbon emissions from burning wood to generate electricity. Currently, carbon emissions from wood are about three times higher than “emissions from a similar-sized natural gas electric power plant,” according to one 2010 study.

Belgium and Ireland have both denied recent applications for new biomass facilities. In the U.K., the Netherlands and Denmark — three of the largest biomass electricity-producing countries — there is growing opposition from all levels of government, which is vital because economically, the subsidies from these countries are all that keeps this industry going. A recent national opinion poll in the Netherlands found that 98 percent of the country’s citizens “agree that biomass subsidies should be stopped.”

As can be expected from any dirty industry that is one policy change away from toppling like a house of cards, biomass advocates are in attack mode on the organizations, elected officials and even the media that are exposing the truth about this deceptive and destructive energy source. Starting astroturfed not-for-profit groups, running expensive greenwashing ad campaigns and attacking the credibility of its critics are just a few of the dirty tricks that the industry has employed in recent months. They have even attacked the credibility of investigative reporters who have written balanced stories on their industry.

It seems the growing movement to stop the destruction and burning of forests for electricity may be winning, but it’s not out of the woods yet. The light at the end of the dark biomass tunnel is a 21st-century energy economy powered by clean, renewable energy and a forest economy that is restorative rather than destructive. There needs to be political will to double down on new climate policies that focus on the right priorities like protecting and restoring our forests, not just planting trees. We need climate policies that stay focused on investing in renewable energy like solar and wind rather than false solutions like biomass and natural gas. And as we transition to a regenerative economy, it must be powered by the people, building opportunity for those who have suffered the most at the hands of the industries that have reaped tremendous profits while creating the climate crisis we find ourselves in today.

Collectively defeating the insidious side of EU renewable energy is essential to avoid utter climate chaos. The sooner governments around the world can unite to move away from all dirty fuels — including coal, fracked gas and biomass — and lean toward actually protecting nature, the better.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.