I write about Agile management, leadership, innovation & narrative.When and how will we begin implementing the one and only viable solution to climate change? Time is running short to seize the opportunity and choose our own future, rather than have it dictated to us by events. Will we as a species embrace climate change as a challenge that we must undertake, one that we must begin at once, one in which we must prevail? Or not?
The Earth seen from the Moon 1969
WIKIPEDIA CREATIVE COMMONS
Last month, June 2019, was the hottest June ever recorded. Nine of the 10 warmest Junes in recorded history have occurred since 2010. As I write this article today, most of America is suffering an extreme heatwave. The frequency and intensity of extreme heat, excessive rainfall, hurricanes, floods and gigantic wildfires are increasing. Climate change, once a mere statistical figment of scientific prediction, is now happening as a matter of universally experienced fact.
This, scientists tell us, is just the beginning. The future is far more disquieting. For many years, public discussion has been focused, somewhat arbitrarily, on a possible increase in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the estimated threshold for “dangerous” climate change.
While climatology is not yet a precise science, there is increasing evidence that the average global temperature is heading inexorably beyond 2 degrees Celsius and heading towards a threshold of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Such a trajectory would have dire social and economic consequences. In the cautiously ominous words of the World Bank, “the limits for human and natural adaptation are likely to be exceeded.”
Almost all climate scientists now believe that this trajectory is primarily a result of human action, mainly, burning hydrocarbons, although other factors like deforestation have contributed. In principle, what is caused by human behavior can be changed by changes in human behavior. Yet coherent effective action to deal with, or respond to, the man-made global climate crisis has yet to happen, for several reasons.
Why We Have Not Acted Yet
The core of the problem is that the burning of hydrocarbons is the foundation of many of the huge improvements in the material well-being of the human race over the last century. We hesitate to set aside immediate tangible benefits that we experience many times every day, merely to avoid some distant future risk explained by some supposed expert whom we don’t know and whose thinking is difficult to figure. We hesitate to bear an immediate loss of well-being and comfort in the here and now merely to avoid a loss sometime in the distant future, which may in fact never happen.
This is not because we are stupid or evil. It’s our very nature. Our brains have been created to ignore risks that appear distant in time and place. Research shows that we all have built-in biases that limit a rational response. For instance, as a result of the “confirmation bias,” facts and reasons not only do not change our current convictions: they often make us even more resistant to change. Moreover, the “bystander effect” causes us to defer action in the hope that someone else will solve the problem: with climate change, the problem is that thatsomeone else is us. As veteran ABC journalist Bill Blakemore has said, “Climate
Imagine, if you will, the engineers of the king’s court after Humpty Dumpty’s disastrous fall. As panicked men apparently competed with horses for access to the site of the accident, perhaps the engineers were scoping out scenarios, looking for a better method of reassembling the poor fellow. But presumably none of those plans worked out, given the dark ending to that fairy tale.
A recent study published in Science Advances might be relatable for those fairy tale engineers. Published by Johannes Feldmann, Anders Levermann, and Matthias Mengel at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the study tackles a remarkable question: could we save vulnerable Antarctic glaciers with artificial snow?
Keeping our cool
Antarctica’s ice is divided into two separate ice sheets by a mountain range, with the smaller but much more vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet representing one of the biggest wildcards for future sea level rise. In 2014, a study showed that two of the largest glaciers within that ice sheet—known as the Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier—had likely crossed a tipping point, guaranteeing a large amount of future ice loss that would continue even if global warming were halted today.
Much of the bedrock beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is actually below sea level, though it’s buried below kilometers of solid ice. This makes for situations where the bed beneath the ice slopes down as you go inland from the coast. That’s inherently unstable, and once a glacier starts retreating downslope, the invading water provides an increasing floating force that reduces the sliding friction that slows the seaward flow of ice.
In the case of the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers, it seems that this is exactly what’s happening. Although this process can take centuries to fully play out, this portion of the ice sheet contains enough ice to raise global sea level by more than a meter.
Is there some extraordinary measure that could prevent that loss and preserve these glaciers? It’s the kind of question people will often ask, and scientists (who know the scale of these things) generally ignore as implausible.
But in this case, the researchers decided to go wild. Using a computer model of the ice sheet, they simulated the effects of adding huge amounts of ice near the front of these two glaciers. The idea works like this: Where a glacier meets the sea, it transitions from grounded to floating. Behind this “grounding line,” the glacier sits on the bedrock and sediment beneath; in front it gets thinner and floats as an ice shelf. To preserve the glacier, you need to keep that grounding line from retreating downhill. Thicken the ice on the inland side of the grounding line, and the thickness of ice flowing over the line and into the ice shelf increases—its weight keeps the grounding line pinned in place.
The researchers played around with different amounts of ice added to the glaciers for different periods of time, ranging from 10 year treatments to 50 years. Spreading it out over a longer period could mean a less preposterous addition of ice each year, but they found that the total amount has to increase if you do it that way. So in the end, the scenario they selected was 7,400 billion tons of ice added over 10 years. That was enough to restabilize these glaciers, preventing their inexorable decline.
Two for one special
To put that into context, removing that much seawater from the ocean would lower global sea level by about 2 millimeters per year. Current total sea level rise is a little over 3 millimeters per year, so it would be like nearly halting sea level rise… by bailing water out of the ocean. We can call that a bonus positive.
This analysis is more about what it would take than what such a scheme would look like, but the basic options are to pump water up and hose it around—hoping it freezes quickly—or to freeze it into snow like the world’s most awkwardly located ski resort.
Here, the researchers transition to listing all the reasons this is impractical and all the negative impacts it could have. For starters, the seawater would have to be desalinated since salt would probably affect the physics and behavior of the ice. Simply pumping that much water up the 640 meters and spreading it over an area nearly the size of West Virginia would require the power of something like 12,000 wind turbines—and that’s without the very substantial energy requirements for desalination and snow-making.
“The practical realization of elevating and distributing the ocean water would mean an unprecedented effort for humankind in one of the harshest environments of the planet,” the researchers write.
The impacts on Antarctic ecosystems could also be huge. Pumping that water out of the sea near the coast would significantly alter the circulation of water, which might even become somewhat self-defeating, as it could bring more warm water up against the ice shelf, increasing melt.
In the Potsdam Institute’s press release, Levermann puts it this way: “The apparent absurdity of the endeavour to let it snow in Antarctica to stop an ice instability reflects the breath-taking dimension of the sea-level problem. Yet as scientists we feel it is our duty to inform society about each and every potential option to counter the problems ahead.”
And to be clear, this is in addition to halting climate change—the scenario the numbers are based on assumes the temperatures don’t keep rising. But as the alternative is eventual inundation of parts of the world’s coastal cities, an argument can be made that the cost could be worth paying. It least it gives us an idea just how hard it would be to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Every time a cow burps or passes gas, a little puff of methane wafts into the atmosphere.
Each of those puffs coming out of a cow’s plumbing, added together, can have a big effect on climate because methane is a potent greenhouse gas—about 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth, on a 100-year timescale, and more than 80 times more powerful over 20 years. The effects aren’t just hypothetical: Since the Industrial Revolution, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled, and about 20 percent of the warming the planet has experienced can be attributed to the gas.
PHOTOS OF GLOBAL WARMING IMPACTS
An iceberg melts in the waters off Antarctica. Climate change has accelerated the rate of ice loss across the continent.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
As sea levels rise, salty ocean waters encroach into Florida’s Everglades. Native plants and animals struggle to adapt to the changing conditions.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEITH LADZINSKI, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
The western U.S. has been locked in a drought for years. The dry, hot weather has increased the intensity and destructiveness of forest fires.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
Bunches of oil palm fruit are harvested by hand and then trucked to a mill in mainland Malaysia, where they are processed. Ancient forests around the tropics are being cut down to
… Read MorePHOTOGRAPH BY PASCAL MAITRE, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
In the high plains of Bolivia, a man surveys the baked remains of what was the country’s second largest lake, Lake Poopó. Drought and management issues have caused the lake to dry up.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAURICIO LIMA, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
Climate change is impacting flora and fauna across the Arctic. Although scientists don’t know specifically what killed this individual polar bear, experts warn that many of the bears are having trouble finding food as the sea ice they historically relied on thins and melts earlier.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CRISTINA MITTERMEIER, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
Lake Urmia, in Iran, is a critical bird habitat and used to be a popular tourist destination. It is drying up because of climate change and management issues.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
The Scherer power plant in Juliet, Georgia, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. It burns 34,000 tons of coal daily, pumping over 25 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBB KENDRICK, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
Ice melts on a mountain lake. Lakes around the world are freezing less and less over time, and in a few decades, thousands of lakes around the world may lose their winter ice cover entirely.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ORSOLYA HAARBERG, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
The Amazon is losing the equivalent of nearly one million soccer fields of forest cover each year, much of which is cut down to make way for agriculture. When forest is lost, the carbon it sequestered ends up in the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANS LANTING, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
In Glacier National Park, forests are feeling the effects of early snowmelt and long, dry summers. The stresses on the park’s flora are exacterbated by climate change.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEITH LADZINSKI, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
There’s not that much methane in the atmosphere—about 1,800 parts per billion, about as much as two cups of water inside a swimming pool. That’s about 200 times less concentrated in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the most abundant and dangerous of the greenhouse gases. But methane’s chemical shape is remarkably effective at trapping heat, which means that adding just a little more methane to the atmosphere can have big impacts on how much, and how quickly, the planet warms.
Methane is a simple gas, a single carbon atom with four arms of hydrogen atoms. Its time in the atmosphere is relatively fleeting compared to other greenhouse gases like CO2—any given methane molecule, once it’s spewed into the atmosphere, lasts about a decade before it’s cycled out. That’s a blip compared to the centuries that a CO2 molecule can last floating above the surface of the planet. But there are many sources of methane, so the atmospheric load is constantly being regenerated—or increased.
Today, about 60 percent of the methane in the atmosphere comes from sources scientists think of as human caused, while the rest comes from sources that existed before humans started influencing the carbon cycle in dramatic ways.
Most of methane’s natural emissions come from a soggy source: wetlands, which includes bogs. Many microbes are like mammals in that they eat organic material and spit out carbon dioxide—but many that live in still, oxygen-deprived spots like waterlogged wetland soils produce methane instead, which then leaks into the atmosphere. Over all, about a third of all the methane floating in the modern atmosphere comes from wetlands.
Today, human-influenced sources make up the bulk of the methane in the atmosphere.
Cows and other grazing animals get a lot of attention for their methane-producing belches and releases. Such grazers host microbes in their stomachs, gut-filling hitchhikers that help them break down and absorb the nutrients from tough grasses. Those microbes produce methane as their waste, which wafts out of both ends of cows. The manure that cattle and other grazers produce is also a site for microbes to do their business, producing even more methane. There are 1.4 billion cattle in the world, and that number is growing as demand for beef and dairy increases; together with other grazing animals, they contribute about 40 percent of the annualmethane budget.
Other agricultural endeavors pump methane into the atmosphere, too. Rice paddies are a lot like wetlands: When they’re flooded, they’re filled with calm waters low in oxygen, which are a natural home for methane-producing bacteria. And some scientists think they can see the moment when rice production took off in Asia, about 5,000 years ago, because methane concentrations—recorded in tiny bubbles of ancient air trapped in ice cores in Antarctica—rose rapidly.
Another major source? Waste. Microbes in landfills and sewage treatment centers chomp through the detritus humans leave behind and in the process pump out tons of methane each year—about 14 percent of the U.S.’s annual footprint.
Methane’s impact on climate, past and future
Methane may also have been the cause of rapid warming events deep in Earth’s history, millions of years ago. Under high pressure, like the pressures found deep at the bottom of the ocean, methane solidifies into a slush-like material called methane hydrate. Vast amounts of methane are “frozen” in place at the bottom of the sea in this chemical state, though the exact amounts and locations are still being studied. The hydrates are stable unless something comes along to disturb them, like a plume of warm water.
A massive warming event that occurred about 55 million years ago may have been kicked off by destabilized hydrates, some scientists think. Methane percolated up from the seafloor into the atmosphere, flooding it with the heat-trapping gas and forcing the planet to warm drastically and quickly.
Talk of the next world war is in the air. In this iteration, however, those sounding the battle horns aren’t pushing for a clash between the planet’s civilizations but a campaign to save the planet itself. “We need to literally declare war on climate change,” environmentalist Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, has urged. “This is our World War Two,” declared the wildly popular Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
World War II is frequently cited as an inspiration for the scale of concerted effort required to avert atmospheric Armageddon. Writing in The Guardianon June 4, for example, economist Joseph Stiglitz proclaimed: “The climate emergency is our third world war. Our lives and civilization as we know it are at stake, just as they were in the second world war.”
Further, McKibben has also exhorted, “Fighting this war would be socially transformative … just as World War II sped up the push for racial and gender equality.”
While fighting the “good war” against Germany’s racist ideology was heroic indeed, it’s also true that allied forces themselves perpetuated racism. The U.S. (and Canada) turned back boats of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi government and interned more than 100,000 citizens of Japanese descent in camps, setting a precedent for racist policymaking that continues to haunt the present.
Indigenous nations were dispossessed of 1 million acres of their territory, including for the purpose of Japanese internment. Black American soldiers were confined to segregated regiments and denied veterans’ benefits; several who survived the war returned home only to be lynchedby white mobs.
What Stiglitz described as a fight for “civilization as we know it” was premised on the colonial divide between “civilized” Europeans and the non-Europeans they ruthlessly dominated and exploited. The uranium for the U.S.’s nuclear bomb, for example, was obtained using forced African labor from mines in the Congo, where Belgian colonizers enforced their rule by notoriously vicious means.
World War II also spurred the U.S. military to construct hundreds of overseas bases, most of which still remain 60 years later. Built on land expropriated from local residents, these bases pollute the soil, deforest the land and contaminate the drinking water, such as the Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. Islands belonging to the United States but inhabited by people of color, such as the Marshall Islands and the Bikini Atoll became the testing grounds for nuclear weapons, and their inhabitants still experience exceedingly high rates of cancer. The Cold War that followed WWII also led to the U.S. and the Soviet Union sinking enormous resources into the nuclear arms race, and other countries, including China, the U.K. and France, developing their own nuclear weapons.
World War II liberated Europe, but back in the U.S. it prompted Congress to pass a series of laws suppressing dissent — all of which remained on the books long after the war was over. National security agencies took advantage of the opportunity to extend their tentacles of surveillance, including by warrantless wiretapping. Some 6,000 conscientious objectors were imprisoned, comprising a full one-sixth of the federally incarcerated population at the time.
Even the fabled war-time emancipation of women is only a partial truth. While white women constituted 40 percent of all aircraft industry workers, for instance, Black women and men combined never amounted to more than 6 percent, and many workplaces prohibited Black employees from even using the same bathrooms as their white co-workers.
Meanwhile, the biggest economic beneficiaries of the war were a select group of corporate interests: According to a Senate report on “Economic Concentration and World War II,” 40 percent of the $1 billion invested by the government in scientific research went to just 10 large corporations.
The persistent refrain that we need to wage war on climate change obscures how some of the worst state responses to climate disruption already look like war. Militaries have been conducting “war games” to train for climate disasters. Soldiers and private military contractors are being deployed to manage the aftermath of natural disasters intensified by global warming. This has frequently involved brutality against the very people they purport to be protecting — as in 2005, when Black New Orleanians left destitute by Hurricane Katrina were fired on by troops fresh from the killing fields of Iraq.
Governments around the world are expanding their state of emergency laws to encompass climate-related upheavals, perversely facilitating the repression of environmental activists who have been branded as “eco-terrorists” and subjected to counterinsurgency operations. In France, for example, the government applied emergency powers to place dozens of activists under house arrest in advance of the international climate summit in 2015. In Germany, protesters resisting the razing of the ancient Hambach forest for a lignite coal mining project have been met with one of the largest policing operations in the country since World War II.
Migrants fleeing situations of extreme violence and hardship exacerbated by climate change, from Central America to the Middle East, are being locked in cages, stranded in camps, or left to die in the sea by the thousands — while the same arms dealers fueling conflicts in these regions are now also profiting handsomely from securing the borders against them.
Also making a killing are the corporations devising techno-fixes for environmental problems they are in large part responsible for creating, and the investors buying up increasingly scarce resources of land, forests, water and food — while the Indigenous and peasant communities being dispossessed continue to pay the price.
As the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty warned in a reportreleased on June 25, our world is descending into a “climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
Just as in previous wars declared in the name of the social good, such as the war on drugs, the primary casualties are those already most vulnerable and disenfranchised. But rather than breaking this vicious circle, many of the proposed solutions spiral deeper into it instead.
Some have suggested that a future U.S. president could declare a national emergency on climate change: a move that would allow the president to unilaterally invoke up to 136 extraordinary statutory powers that “could be disastrous for our democracy,” in the words of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Others have put their hopes in a greater role for the U.N. Security Council — which would further concentrate decision-making away from the former colonies that have contributed the least to the causes of climate disaster but bear the overwhelming brunt of its effects.
As novelist and activist Arundhati Roy predicted in her recent Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture for PEN: “Once again, the Global North, the creators of the problem, will see to it that they profit from the solution that they propose. A solution whose genius will, no doubt, lie deep in the heart of the ‘Market’ and involve more selling and buying, more consuming, and more profiteering by fewer and fewer people.”
War and preparations for war are not only environmentally catastrophic enterprises in their own right — the U.S. military is the largest single consumer of fossil fuels on Earth — but they also represent the apotheosis of the predatory, exploitative, anti-democratic logic that has brought the world to the brink of existential ecological crisis.
Far from needing to be more like war, our responses to climate change need to be the exact opposite of war. They should be less like the elite political and corporate structures profiting from militarism, and more like the grassroots social movements struggling to gain power and keep it where it rightfully belongs: in the hands of the people closest to the pain.
Those on the leading edges of the movement for climate justice are precisely those who have been most socially subjugated and marginalized, especially in times of war: women, children, Indigenous nations, and the communities of the global South. From Standing Rock to Morocco, from Bolivia to Nigeria, people are not only confronting the current crisis but challenging its deep capitalist and colonialist underpinnings. We dishonor these climate protectors by making them part of a war analogy.
The pervasive assumption that taking a problem seriously means treating it like a war shows how militarism has not only captured outsized portionsof government spending but has colonized our social imaginations as well. We can’t save a burning planet with the same paradigms that have repeatedly set it on fire.
As the climate crisis progresses, the number of extremely hot days around the US could more than double, according to a peer-reviewed study and report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By mid-century, an average of 36 days a year could feel like 100F (37.7C) or hotter. Toward the end of the century, 54 days a year could feel that hot, researchers with the science advocacy group found.
The new data comes as an oppressive heat wave spreads across the eastern two-thirds of the United States, with heat warnings and advisories issued in nearly half of all US states. The heat index – or how hot people feel from air temperatures and moisture combined – will be as high as 110F (43C) in some places, according to the National Weather Service.
“We basically are looking at increases in the kinds of conditions we’re seeing this week across the country,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, lead climate analyst for the UCS.
The group’s report “shows a hotter future that’s hard to imagine today,” said Kristina Dahl, a co-author. “Nearly everywhere, people will experience more days of dangerous heat even in the next few decades.”
The data shows what would happen under current climate policies. Global reductions in the heat-trapping pollution from power plants, cars and other human activities would keep summers from becoming as hot.
For example, even slow action to cut emissions could help Washington DC avoid 11 days a year that feeler hotter than 100F by the middle of the century. It could help the city avoid 32 days a year of heat that high by the end of the century.
Average global temperatures have already risen about 1.8F (1C) hotter since industrialization, and research shows they are on track to rise as much as almost 6F (3.3C) by the end of the century.
Without further action to reduce global heat-trapping pollution, parts of Florida and Texas could feel like 100F or hotter for a total of five months out of the year. Most of those days would surpass a heat index of 105F.
Some days could exceed the upper limit of the National Weather Service’s heat-index scale, which tops out at 127F. These “off-the-charts” days in the US now occur only in the Sonoran Desert, on the border of southern California and Arizona. By the end of the century more than one-third of the US population could experience at least a week of those days.
The south-east US and southern Great Plains could bear the brunt of the extreme heat, the study found.
Phil Duffy, a climate scientists and director of the Woods Hole Research Center, called this week’s heat wave “a sweltering demonstration of how growing carbon pollution in our atmosphere is pushing summer heat to dangerous extremes”.
In preparation for rising temperatures, the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre this week launched a heat wave guide for cities.
Julie Arrighi, a lead author, said cities will need to create more green spaces, paint roofs white to reflect heat, and design buildings to stay cooler, as well as providing places for vulnerable people to cool off.
“Heat risk is on the rise,” Arrighi said. “The positive message is that we can prevent the deaths that are associated with [heat waves] with relatively simple, low-cost actions. We just need to take those actions and to be ready for that hotter future.”
Geoengineering is the study, and potential practice of, intentional large-scale changes to the Earth’s systems. Most ethicists are very cautious about it, but recent news of potential carbon-spikes suggests an area where it may be absolutely necessary: the oceans.
We have solutions for the causes of global warming. Geoengineering as it’s commonly understood is a bandaid on the symptoms of it, in my opinion.
I had this conversation with one of the pre-eminent global geoengineering advocates and engineers, David Keith of Harvard, recently. He saw the potential need long ago, and his first paper on the subject was published in 1992. That makes him one of the pre-eminent authorities on the subject, so please understand that I’m not asserting that I know more than he does. However, my opinion (which he disagreed with) is that if we have to use geoengineering as he envisions it, we’ve probably failed and the results will be worse. I’m sure if we’d had more time and that had been the focus of the discussion as opposed to a sideline, our views would more substantially overlap.
Let’s define geoengineering briefly. The premise Keith and others advance is that we can increase the albedo — reflectivity — of the Earth’s atmosphere slightly to decrease the energy from the Sun that reaches the ground. This in turn reduces the infrared that the ground emits that’s trapped by greenhouse gases. The technology proposed uses sulphur dioxide in the high atmosphere, millions of tons of it a year.
In theory, it’s possible. In practice, the downsides are unknown and we are trying to stabilize a chaotic system by directly controlling it. The odds of unexpected feedback oscillation and other adverse effects are high. Further, ethicists point out the likelihood that using it to mask the impacts of fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions would lead to both more use of fossil fuels, and to an inevitable failure in the future when we stop the geoengineering effort. Part of my concern is that fossil fuel companies will jump on the geoengineering bandwagon as they have jumped on the carbon capture bandwagon, and prevent the actually necessary actions.
In some ways the thing we fear the most is a tweet from Trump saying, “Solar geoengineering solves everything! It’s great! We don’t need to bother to cut emissions.”
In our recent conversation, Keith seemed unaware that this was already underway, although President Trump’s tweets have focused more on vicious attacks than global warming in the past year.
Of course, putting 20 million tons of anything into the high atmosphere every year is non-trivial as well. Who will pay for the program? What countries will host the fleets of planes? Where will the chemicals come from?
My preference for thinking related to solar geoengineering is best embodied in the Oxford Principles. (Full disclosure: I have a degree of separation on that as well, as I was speaking recently with the CEO of a firm whose chief scientist, Tim Kruger, collaborated on the Principles)
The Principles basically say that it’s an incredibly complex and risky thing to do, that independent actors have to be prevented from doing it, and that it should only be done under the auspices of a global governance agency, if at all. There’s a case for keeping it in our back pockets and using it after we’ve done the real job of eliminating CO2 emissions, following Mark Z. Jacobson’s prescriptions for 100% renewables by 2050 for every US state, and for 139 countries globally. (More degrees of separation: Jacobson wrote the preface to my upcoming CleanTechnica case study on Keith’s Carbon Engineeringcompany, which as been described hyperbolically and inaccurately as a ‘magic bullet’ by none other than the BBC)
Enter the work of Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and co-director of MIT’s Lorenz Center. He’s one of a small number of climate scientists exploring the potential for truly catastrophic outcomes of our current unintentional geoengineering (global warming due to massive burning of fossil fuels). His most recent publication (peer-reviewed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2019), Characteristic disruptions of an excitable carbon cycle, quantifies his observation that mass extinction events historically are tied to spikes in ocean carbon uptake. Whether very slow but steady increases of atmospheric carbon or very abrupt changes in atmospheric carbon can cross the threshold to cause very large changes to ocean chemistry in very brief periods of time, per his models.
I have been thinking recently that some form of geoengineering might be necessary to reduce ocean acidity, and Rothman’s work suggests that the effort might be even more important. Let’s look at the oceanic acidification problem briefly.
Graphic via Australian-governmental-funded CoastAdapt site.
Oceans are key to the carbon cycle. They’ve absorbed between a third and half of the CO2 that humans have emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the process lags atmospheric CO2 increases. More CO2 will end up in the oceans. The challenge is that CO2 binds with carbonate in the ocean to make carbonic acid, reducing the amount available for shellfish to make their shells. That leads to weaker shells, and species-level threats for key components of the food chain, in addition to the direct impacts of the increased acidity.
That is a very big problem of a very different nature than warming, but with the same root cause. We have to stop emitting CO2 so that oceans don’t acidify even more than absolutely necessary, but even if we stopped now, oceans would be getting more acidic for the next century or two, and that could be fatal to pretty much all of us.
I reached out to Jacobson for his thoughts. There is both good news and bad news in his opinion:
I am not aware of any way to draw down carbon from the oceans that is not energy intensive. Once energy is required to remove anything from anywhere, then the question always becomes, where does that energy come from? If the answer is fossils, the proposal fails. If the answer is renewables, then the proposal also fails because that renewable energy could instead replace fossil fuels at lower cost while also eliminating air pollution and energy security, which removing carbon from the oceans or air does not do, no matter how efficient it is.
Also, I’m not sure I agree with Rothman’s premise. The K-T extinction was not caused by a massive flux of carbon to or from the oceans, it was caused by a comet or asteroid kicking up debris to the stratosphere, spreading horizontally and blocking the sun.
The bad news is that like air carbon capture approaches, money and energy spent on oceanic geoengineering to reduce the impacts would reduce the amount of money and energy necessary to fix the cause of the problem. The good news is that at least one globally respected scholar in this space is skeptical of one aspect of the oceanic carbon challenge.
We obviously have to stop emitting CO2. Solar geoengineering is a bandaid on the symptoms, not a cure for the causes. It’s like putting out the fires caused by an arsonist wandering around with a flamethrower instead of confiscating and shutting off the flamethrower itself. Global heating would slow and stabilize if we stopped forcing more CO2 into the system.
But it’s unclear if that’s as true for oceanic carbon uptake. Between the basic acidification and Rothman’s working on extinction-level events, more might be required there.
Rothman has been asked for comments as well, and the article will be updated if he replies.
The Agriculture Department quashed the release of a sweeping plan on how to respond to climate change that was finalized in the early days of the Trump administration, according to a USDA employee with knowledge of the decision.
Staff members across several USDA agencies drafted the multiyear plan that outlines how the department should help agriculture understand, adapt to and minimize the effects of climate change.
Top officials, however, decided not to release the plan and told staff members to keep it for internal use only, the employee told POLITICO. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
The goal was to map out “the science that USDA needs to pursue over the next five to eight years for the department to meet the needs of the nation,” according to the plan, a copy of which was shared with POLITICO.
The revelation comes after a recent POLITICO investigation found that the department had largely stopped promoting its own scientific findings about the consequences of climate change. The USDA has also moved away from using phrases like climate change, climate, and greenhouse gas emissions in press releases and social media posts.
The scuttled plan, prepared in 2017, liberally uses those terms. The document also calls on USDA to help farmers, ranchers and forestland owners “understand their effect on climate change.”
A spokesperson for the department declined to answer specific questions about the plan but said that USDA has no policy in place to discourage dissemination of climate science or use of climate-related terms. The spokesperson also noted President Donald Trump repealed an Obama era executive order that required government agencies to conduct climate planning and that the current administration has different requirements in place.
The USDA’s climate resilience plan was supposed to be an update to a 2010 plan on climate science — a document that was released publicly during the Obama administration.
The plan had begun to go through an internal clearance process before a senior official quashed its release, according to the person familiar with the decision.
The 33-page plan sets ambitious goals for addressing a broad range of climate change effects. It proposes “moving agriculture and natural resource systems to carbon neutral and beyond” by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through practices such as increasing carbon storage in crops and soils.
It also notes the importance of studying the “human dimensions” of climate change — such as how it affects production, trade, pricing, and producer and consumer behavior.
The agenda proposes to make climate change “an explicit and functional component” of “all USDA mission areas through the timely development, delivery, and application of relevant science.”
The document acknowledges that climate change is already affecting farmers and ranchers as well as forests.
“Changing temperatures and precipitation, along with altered pest pressures, influence rates of crop maturation and livestock productivity,” the document states.
“Forests are already experiencing increased disturbance, including widespread wildfires and pest-related die-offs, as a result of changing climactic conditions and prolonged drought,” the plan continues. Elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already affecting the quality of grassland forage, the report notes.
But the plan also suggests farmers can make money by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adopting practices that promote carbon sequestration.
The document also says that USDA should be working to “increase public awareness of climate change” and how it is likely to affect agriculture and forestry in particular.
News of the report comes as USDA’s chief scientist is scheduled to testify before the Senate Agriculture Committee this morning.
Scott Hutchins, deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, is expected to field pointed questions from lawmakers about burying climate science at the department as well as on plans to relocate two research agencies out of Washington to Kansas City, as recently announced by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Both those agencies — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — were cited as important partners in carrying out the climate change plan.
As the globe warms in the years ahead, days with extreme heat are forecast to skyrocket across hundreds of U.S. cities, a new study suggests, perhaps even breaking the “heat index.”
“Our analysis shows a hotter future that’s hard to imagine today,” study co-author Kristina Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Nearly everywhere, people will experience more days of dangerous heat in the next few decades.”
By 2050, hundreds of U.S. cities could see an entire month each year with heat index temperatures above 100 degrees if nothing is done to rein in global warming.
The heat index, also known as the apparent temperature, is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. This is the first study to take the heat index – instead of just temperature – into account when determining the impacts of global warming, Dahl said.
The number of days per year when the heat index exceeds 100 degrees will more than double nationally, according to the study, which was published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Communications.
On some days, conditions would be so extreme that they’d exceed the upper limit of the heat index, rendering it “incalculable,” the study predicts.
“We have little to no experience with ‘off-the-charts’ heat in the U.S.,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, lead climate analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists and report co-author. “These conditions occur at or above a heat index of 127 degrees, depending on temperature and humidity. Exposure to conditions in that range makes it difficult for human bodies to cool themselves and could be deadly.”
Man-made global warming, aka climate change, is caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as gas, coal and oil, which emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the atmosphere. This extra CO2 causes temperatures of the atmosphere and oceans to rise to levels that cannot be explained by natural factors, scientists say.
Adam Kalkstein, an climatology professor and expert on heat at the U.S. Military Academy who was not involved in the research, told USA TODAY, “The report highlights the very real threat of (human-caused) climate change increasing the number of dangerously hot days across the United States.
“Heat is already a leading cause of weather-related mortality across the country and is frequently called a ‘silent killer’ since its impacts on human health are often underestimated,” Kalkstein said. “If the models used here are correct, this research leaves little doubt that the number of potentially dangerous days across the country will increase dramatically.”
A different metric should be used to measure methane emissions for climate change policy, according to a recent paper published by the Oxford Martin School, in the University of Oxford.
The paper, published last year, highlights that the current ‘one size fits all’ climate change policy does not take into account that there are two types of emissions that contribute to climate change – long-lived and short-lived pollutants.
Explaining the difference, Dr. Michelle Cain from the Oxford Martin Programme on Climate Pollutants, said: “Long-lived pollutants, like carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere, building up over centuries.
The CO2 created by burning coal in the 18th century is still affecting the climate today. Short-lived pollutants, like methane, disappear within a few years.
“Their effect on the climate is important – but very different from that of CO2: Yet current policies treat them all as ‘equivalent’.”
Prof. Myles Allen, who led the study, said: “We don’t actually need to give up eating meat to stabilise global temperatures.
“We just need to stop increasing our collective meat consumption. But we do need to give up dumping CO2 into the atmosphere.
“Every tonne of CO2 emitted is equivalent to a permanent increase in the methane emission rate. Climate policies could be designed to reflect this.”
Prof. Dave Frame, head of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, added: “Under current policies, industries that produce methane are managed as though that methane has a permanently worsening effect on the climate.
But this is not the case. Implementing a policy that better reflects the actual impact of different pollutants on global temperatures would give agriculture a fair and reasonable way to manage their emissions and reduce their impact on the environment.
“Implementing a policy like this would show New Zealand to be leaders and innovators in climate change policy,” says Professor Allen.
“Implemented successfully, it could also completely stop New Zealand’s contribution to global warming.”
The work, which is a collaboration between researchers at Victoria University of Wellington, the Universities of Oxford and Reading, and the Centre for International Climate Research in Norway (CICERO), “shows a better way to think about how methane might fit into carbon budgets”, according to the Oxford Martin School.
The flooding comes as India was still reeling from a weeks-long water crisis amid heavy droughts and heatwaves across the country which killed at least 137 people. Experts said the country has five years to address severe water shortages, caused by steadily depleting groundwater supplies, or over 100 million people will left be without ready access to water.
In Afghanistan, drought has devastated traditional farming areas, forcing millions of people to move or face starvation, while in Bangladesh, heavy monsoon flooding has marooned entire communities and cut-off vital roads. Especially at risk are the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in fragile, makeshift camps along the country’s border with Myanmar.
This is the sharp edge of the climate crisis. What seems an urgent but still future problem for many developed countries is already killing people in parts of Asia, and a new refugee crisis, far worse than that which has hit Europe in recent years, is brewing.
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Agriculture in South Asia has depended on the annual monsoon for centuries. If the rains arrive late, as they did this year, they can cause widespread drought and water shortages. Since the late 19th century, scientists and government agencies have sought to model and predict when the monsoon will come, a vital task in apportioning relief and assistance to the two billion or so people who depend on the monsoon for sustenance.
Cruelly, as the overall amount of rain has decreased, leading to drought, the frequency of extreme rainfall, causing flooding and landslides, has actually gone up, the Nature study found.
Researchers said there had been a threefold increase in “widespread extreme rain events” over central India between 1950 and 2015, which brought with them a potentially “catastrophic impact on life, agriculture and property.”
“The overall intensity and frequency of extreme events are increasing over the region,” the study said, adding that projected changes showed “further intensification of extreme precipitation over most parts of the subcontinent by the end of the century.”
The unfolding climate emergency will affect the entire world, but it will not do so equally, or all at the same time. Parts of the globe will see manageable temperature spikes or variable weather, as others face deadly droughts, heatwaves, flooding and extreme weather. Those who survive these climate shocks may find local agriculture and infrastructure devastated, making them all the more vulnerable in future.
Rising sea levels and coastal flooding is expected to effect millions more in some of the world’s least developed countries.
According to the United Nations, more than 120 million people could slip into poverty within the next decade because of climate change, forcing them to “choose between starvation and migration.”
“We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer,” said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, last month.
But while the air conditioned, hurricane and typhoon-proofed cities in the developed world may be able to better cope with the immediate effects of climate change, they will not escape the ramifications of how the crisis unfolds in other countries.
Climate change could make this country disappear04:05
People affected by climate change will not stay put as their children drown or die of heat stroke or thirst. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that 26 million people are displaced by disasters such as floods and storms every year, or one person every second. By 2045, according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, some 135 million people could be displaced as a result of land and soil degradation.
According to government documents published by the ABC this week, Australia alone may face up to 100 million climate refugees in the coming years, as large parts of the Indo-Pacific is hit by rising sea levels and extreme weather.
Making matters worse, the UN’s Refugee Convention currently does not recognize those fleeing climate change as entitled to protection by international law. This could enable countries to refuse to offer sanctuary, or regard those entering the country as illegal immigrants.
South Asia is already suffering as a result of climate change, a crisis caused by the developed world’s consumption patterns and fossil fuel-driven capitalism. The effects of that crisis will not remain confined to the region for long, however, nor will the people already dealing with the sharp end of it.