WHAT EXACTLY ARE GREENHOUSE GASES, ANYWAY?

Here at Climate Reality, we sometimes need to take a step back.

You know how your good friend Dave can rattle off pre-season stats with the precision of a brain surgeon, always seems to win your fantasy football league, and can’t begin to understand why you’re still rooting for [insert “Your Team” here]? Well, we’re kind of the Dave of climate action.

We’re so in the thick of climate everything that we can forget the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report isn’t exactly flying off the shelves, so to speak, like Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming.

But every so often, a headline will pop up that brings us right back down to the very Earth we’re working so hard to protect.

Citing a survey done by Yale and George Mason universities, Vox declared last year, “Almost 90 percent of Americans don’t know there’s scientific consensus on global warming.” More recently, the Verge proclaimed: “About half of Americans don’t think climate change will affect them — here’s why.”

These headlines are far from an aberration and come as no surprise: amid near-constant partisan squabbles and a lack of uniform learning standards, climate change education is uneven at best – and woefully lacking at worst. It doesn’t help that it can also feel like such an overwhelming worry that many simply tune it out entirely.

So, that’s why we’re getting back to basics to answer one of the most foundational questions a person can have about our warming world: What exactly are greenhouse gases, anyway?

WELL, THEY’RE GASES, SILLY BILLY

That’s right! They’re also largely naturally occurring. But they act a little differently than non-greenhouse gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and argon.

You see, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide (the main GHG driving climate change), include “any gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiating it back to Earth’s surface.”

Did you get all that? Some but not all? Same.

In more straightforward speak, here’s the gist: GHGs like CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone let sunlight in to heat the Earth’s surface but they don’t let all that heat energy back out. Think about it like the global equivalent of wrapping yourself up in a big blanket – or the way the glass walls and roof of an actual greenhouse let sunlight in during daylight hours and retain that warmth at night.

Actually, it’s exactly like that. Hence their name. Get it?

SO THEY “TRAP” HEAT IN THE ATMOSPHERE?

Yes. And under normal circumstance, this is a great, necessary thing – and it’s exactly how the planet is built to work.

“Earth’s surface warms up in the sunlight. At night, Earth’s surface cools, releasing the heat back into the air,” NASA’s Climate Kids explains. “But some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s what keeps our Earth a warm and cozy 59 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.”

This is known as the “greenhouse effect,” and without it the planet would be too cold to support life. NASA estimates that without naturally occurring GHGs, Earth’s average temperature would be near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (a very chilly negative 18 degrees Celsius).

Brrrrrrr.

>> Learn more: What Is the Greenhouse Effect? <<

WELL, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM THEN?

The concern with GHGs isn’t the gases themselves – at least not on their own. Like we mentioned, most are naturally occurring and their action to retain heat is imperative for life on Earth. The problem has to do with the amount of certain GHGs in our modern atmosphere.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our burning of fossil fuels for energy has emitted hundreds of billions of tons of heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere, where it stays for a very long time. More and more CO2 (and other GHGs) means more and more heat.

Unlike the naturally occurring CO2 that acts as part of the normal greenhouse-effect process, this added carbon and the extra heat are more than the Earth’s finely balanced systems can handle. At least without changing our climate and making storms more violent, oceans more acidic, and on and on.

With all the coal, oil, and gas being burned, it’s unsurprising then that CO2 levels as of 2017 (the most-recent complete year) stood at 405.0 parts per million (ppm), higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

If history is any guide here, that’s not good news for the Earth – or for us.

“The last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today,” according to NOAA.

Remember the bottom line here: Burning fossil fuels creates GHGs, polluting the atmosphere. More GHGs equals more heat and more climate change. More dangerous storms. More terrible wildfires. More farms drying out. More diseases spreading further across the Earth. You get the picture.

Watch:

WHAT CAN I DO?

Our movement is at a critical turning point in the fight for common-sense solutions to the climate crisis. The good news is, the power to make meaningful progress on climate is in our hands.

But it all starts with understanding what is happening to our planet.

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Carbon emissions spiked in 2018, research firm finds

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
January 08, 2019, 12:48:01 PM EST

Carbon emissions US

In this June 1, 2016, photo, piles of wood chips sit near a paper mill in Tacoma, Wash. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/carbon-emissions-spiked-in-2018-research-firm-finds/70007095

United States carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rose sharply last year. This incline follows three years of decline.

The Rhodium Group, a research firm, released preliminary estimates that showed emissions increased by 3.4 percent in 2018 based on preliminary power generation, natural gas and oil consumption data.

This marks the second largest annual gain in more than two decades, surpassed only by 2010 when the economy bounced back from the Great Recession.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at just over 6 billion tons. Between then and the end of 2015, emissions fell by 12.1 percent, an average rate of 1.6 percent per year.

The Great Recession played a significant role in the decline along with a significant drop in carbon intensity of U.S. energy supply, primarily due to a switch in power generation from coal to cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas, wind and solar.

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Since 2016, the pace of U.S. emissions decline has slowed, from 2.7 percent in 2015 to 1.7 percent in 2016 to 0.8 percent in 2017. This slowdown in progress was noted in the group’s annual Taking Stock report from June 2018.

The group noted at the time that this slowdown and a lack of new climate policy action at the federal level would make U.S. emissions fall short of Paris Agreement targets, which would require a reduction in emissions of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.

President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017, but the Paris Agreement provides emissions goals that policymakers can use as a guideline.

The recent preliminary report by the group states that the U.S. was already off track in meeting Paris Agreement targets, and the gap is even wider headed into 2019.

The group does not expect a repeat of 2018 this coming year. However, the data provides some important insights into the emission reduction challenges facing the U.S.

US climate action 2018

In this Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 photo, wind turbines stand in a field near Northwood, Iowa. With global temperatures rising, superstorms taking their deadly toll and a year-end deadline to firm up the Paris climate deal, leaders at this year’s U.N. General Assembly are feeling a sense of urgency to keep up the momentum on combating climate change. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

While a record number of coal-fired power plants were retired in 2018, natural gas beat out renewables to replace most of this lost generation and also fed most of the growth in electricity demand.

“Natural gas-fired generation increased by 166 million kWh during the first 10 months of the year. That’s three times the decline in coal generation and four times the combined growth of wind and solar,” the preliminary report reads.

As a result, power sector emissions overall rose by 1.9 percent, according to the report.

The transportation sector held its title as the largest source of U.S. emissions for the third year running. A strong growth in demand for diesel and jet fuel offset a modest decline in gasoline consumption.

“This highlights the challenges in decarbonizing the transportation sector beyond light-duty vehicles,” the preliminary report reads.

The buildings and industrial sectors also had significant emissions gains, partially as a result of the unusually cold weather at the start of the year.

Direct emissions from residential and commercial buildings increased by 10 percent in 2018 to their highest level since 2004. This comes from sources including fuel oil, diesel and natural gas combusted on site for heating and cooking.

The increase highlights the limited progress made in developing decarbonization strategies for these sectors.

“While buildings have begun to attract some creative policy thinking, the industrial sector is still almost entirely ignored,” the preliminary report reads.

california stacks climate ap

The stacks from the Valero Benicia Refinery are seen as a pedestrian walks in a nearby neighborhood, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Benicia, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The estimates provided in the preliminary report are for energy-related CO2emissions only, which account for roughly three-quarters of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S.

Official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2018 inventory numbers for all GHGs will not be available until 2020.

To meet the Paris Agreement target, the U.S. would need to reduce energy-related COemissions by 2.6 percent on average over the next seven years, which is more than twice the pace the U.S. achieved between 2005 and 2017 and significantly faster than any seven-year average in U.S. history.

“It is certainly feasible, but will likely require a fairly significant change in policy in the very near future and/or extremely favorable market and technological conditions,” the preliminary report reads.

Arctic permafrost might contain ‘sleeping giant’ of world’s carbon emissions

Muostakh Island is part of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf which is the most vulnerable part of the Arctic coastline when it comes to permafrost thaw. Image credit – Prof. Igor Semiletov.

As temperatures rise in the Arctic, permafrost, or frozen ground, is thawing. As it does, greenhouse gases trapped within it are being released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, leading to previously underestimated problems with ocean acidification and potential mercury poisoning.

About one quarter of the region is covered in permafrost, which is soil, sediment or rock that has been frozen for at least two years. With its retreat, the carbon that is released could contribute significantly to global warming.

‘We call it the sleeping giant of the global carbon cycle,’ said Professor Örjan Gustafsson, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University in Sweden. ‘It’s not really accounted for in climate models.’

Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues are trying to determine exactly what permafrost consists of, how quickly it is warming and what happens when it thaws. To do this, they are drilling into three types of permafrost around the East Siberian Sea as part of a project called CC-Top.

In addition to the most common type found in soil on land, they will also be looking at high-carbon permafrost that formed about 50,000 years ago called Yedoma, and another type found under the seafloor of shallow coastal shelf areas that were flooded as sea levels rose about 11,650 years ago. ‘(This) subsea permafrost is the most vulnerable of the three so that’s the major focus of the project,’ Prof. Gustafsson said.

The researchers have been comparing the temperatures of permafrost on land and underwater. About 10,000 years ago, the temperature of both permafrost types was about -18˚C. They found that permafrost on the ground has now warmed up to about -10˚C but under the sea it has reached 0˚C. ‘That was surprising,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘I had no idea that subsea permafrost was thawing so quickly.’

Ocean acidification

They’ve also examined what happens when thawed permafrost from land reaches the sea. Some of the released carbon reacts with water to form carbonic acid – the same gas present in fizzy water. Although it’s a weak acid, Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues found that it contributes significantly to acidification of the Arctic ocean. This affects marine biodiversity. Acidic water, for example, dissolves the carbonate skeletons of organisms such as plankton.

The team’s findings point to much higher levels of ocean acidification than that predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their report published in 2014, which largely considered the effect of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

‘Acidification could be 100 times more severe,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’

Next, the team plans to investigate the methane that is escaping from subsea permafrost. In many parts of the Arctic, the concentration of the gas in seawater is high but the researchers aren’t exactly sure of its source. It could be the result of thawing permafrost soil or methane hydrates – solid methane buried underwater. Or it might originate from natural gas much deeper down that is reaching the surface through cracks in permafrost as it melts.

‘We really need to understand that to predict how methane releases will develop in the coming decades or centuries,’ said Prof. Gustafsson.

Permafrost thaw is already a growing concern for those living in the region who experience its effects. In coastal areas, where it is particularly prone to thawing, buildings constructed on permafrost are collapsing or becoming damaged due to thaw while roads are cracking. Escaping carbon and organic matter are also likely to have an impact on the wildlife that communities rely on for food.

‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’

 

Prof. Örjan Gustafsson, environmental scientist, Stockholm University, Sweden

Dr Hugues Lantuit, a researcher at Alfred-Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and his colleagues are interested in what happens to carbon and other substances that seep out from permafrost in these coastal areas as part of a project called Nunataryuk. They will be conducting fieldwork in Russia, Svalbard, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.

The project is involving local communities in their work. In Aklavik, a hamlet on the Yukon coast in Canada, for example, the team is consulting Inuit communities to pin down relevant sites for their research, such as areas where fish is plentiful or where erosion is pronounced.

Through meetings, the researchers gain insight into local issues that could be addressed in their research. In Svalbard, for example, where the coastline is rocky, permafrost thaw is mostly affecting infrastructure on land whereas coastal erosion is more of a concern in Russia and North America. At the same time, locals can learn scientific techniques from researchers. ‘It’s truly a learning experience on both sides,’ Dr Lantuit said.

Subsistence

Some communities are worried about the effect of climate change on wildlife, which they depend on for subsistence. One of the project’s goals is therefore to investigate the release of organic matter from thawing permafrost into the Arctic Ocean. ‘This has a direct impact on the fish population but we do not exactly understand how,’ Dr Lantuit said.

The team is trying to figure out whether thawing permafrost will make the sea cloudy by releasing sediment into the water, thus allowing less light to penetrate. This could result in fewer fish as the algae and plants they depend on for food can’t photosynthesise in dark water. Alternatively, it could have a positive effect. ‘More carbon could also mean more nutrients, so big party time for microorganisms, phytoplankton and potentially fish,’ said Dr Lantuit.

Thawing permafrost is also a health concern as it is expected to release contaminants and pathogens. In a study published earlier this year, members of the team found that permafrost contains more mercury than any other source on the planet when it was previously thought to contain an insignificant amount. Since mercury is a poison, it could have serious health implications, ranging from impaired memory to vision problems if it gets out. ‘Now we’re trying to quantify the release of mercury and to see which regions are susceptible,’ said Dr Lantuit.

Eventually, the team hopes to come up with solutions to manage the effects of thawing permafrost. They’re developing models that should help. In one project, they are looking at what would happen if permafrost was the source of an outbreak of Anthrax – a bacteria that can infect the skin, lungs and intestines. They are also creating models to predict damage to infrastructure.

Improvements are already underway. Nunataryuk researchers have been working on developing buildings that can better resist thawing permafrost by getting communities in North America and Russia to exchange strategies. In North America, for example, there was a tendency to build lightweight constructions using wood or metal whereas buildings are made from concrete in Russia.

‘There is a move towards using some of the knowledge on both sides to create new and better infrastructure,’ said Dr Lantuit. ‘We now have 40 to 50 years of warming in some areas so we can really see what works and what doesn’t.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please share it on social media.

Scary picture of past global warming event painted in UW study

Harsh drought conditions in parts of the American West are pushing wild horses to the brink and forcing extreme measures to protect them. Federal land managers have begun emergency roundups in the deserts of western Utah and central Nevada. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Curtis Deutsch recently released a study in the journal Science that is the stuff of nightmares, or at least a major motion picture about a dystopian past.

The associate professor of oceanography at the University of Washington essentially ran a computer simulation of the end of the Permian geological period to try to determine why most of the Earth’s species were snuffed out 252 million years ago.

What’s extraordinary is what happened when Deutsch combined his model with data from fossils and information that scientists at Stanford have collected on animal species. They were able to conclude that greenhouse gases released from massive volcanoes warmed the Earth and depleted oxygen from the oceans, thus cooking or suffocating 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial species.

“Today, of course, we are the volcanoes,” Deutsch said. “We are accessing deep reservoirs of carbon stored in the Earth and we’re releasing that carbon dioxide in those fuels into the atmosphere. That’s ultimately what warms up the climate.”

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But, unlike the volcanoes of the Permian Period, humans can control how much carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. Deutsch says there’s more promise now that humans have the ability to move away from fossil fuels and harness the power of solar and wind.

“It’s true that we are well behind schedule and in many cases, including in this country, often lack the political willpower to do it, but scientifically and technologically, we can do it,” Deutsch said.

If humans end up dragging their feet and have to deal with another near-total extinction, there’s pretty good past evidence that shows the Earth will rebound and life will flourish once again. But, of course, paleontologists say it’ll take a few million years to build back the diversity of life that existed pre-mass extinction.

“Even knowing that diversity will return, I still think it’s better not to induce a large extinction event,” Deutsch said.

Fortunately for us, we’re smarter than marine life and we’re not living in a massive cloud of volcanic ash. So can’t we just invest in more air conditioning?

Deutsch says humans certainly have the ability to adapt to many of the results of global warming. For example, we’re able to plan for droughts, fight summer forest fires, and sit in front of air conditioners.

“The Permian Period extinction is a good example because there is a very clear signal in the data that shows us that when you push the climate to that level – 10 degrees of warming on the Celsius scale – you clearly are beyond the limits of adaptation. Temperatures get beyond what species would accommodate today and oxygen gets extremely low – beyond what most species can handle today.”

The problem with the extinction of the ocean is there is nothing we know of that will reverse the damage, according to Deutsch. It’s technologically infeasible to cool off the ocean and add more oxygen. The only way to avoid major disruption is to not allow the ocean to warm in the first place while also hoping that marine life is able to adapt. They must also contend with avoiding large fishing nets, which obviously weren’t around during the Permian Period.

U.S. REFUSES TO ‘WELCOME’ LANDMARK CLIMATE CHANGE REPORT, ALONGSIDE RUSSIA AND SAUDI ARABIA

The U.S. joined Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait in blocking the incorporation of a key scientific study into global climate talks in Poland. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a landmark report released in October, warned of the dire effects of a global average temperature rise of 1.5 Celsius, and outlined ways to avoid it.

On Saturday, the four major oil and gas producing nations acted together to block endorsement of the study, which was commissioned at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Read More: Al Gore: Trump administration tried to “bury” climate change report by releasing it on Black Friday

“I think it was a key moment,” Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Associated Press. “The fact that a group of four countries were trying to diminish the value and importance of a scientific report they themselves, with all other countries, requested three years ago in Paris is pretty remarkable.”

The chart below by Statista shows how global carbon dioxide emission levels have risen since 1990.

20181210_CO2_EmissionsThis chart shows how global carbon dioxide emission levels have risen since 1990. COP24 is attempting to build on the Paris climate deal and develop more climate-conscious policies to limit damaging emissions.STATISTA

The report was widely hailed by world leaders as a key step in efforts to tackle climate change. But negotiations at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, hit an obstacle on Friday when the U.S., Russia, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait objected to the conference “welcoming” the study.

Instead, they had wanted the conference to “note” the study, as they didn’t endorse its findings.

“The United States was willing to note the report and express appreciation to the scientists who developed it, but not to welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “As we have made clear in the IPCC and other bodies, the United States has not endorsed the findings of the report.”

Delegates criticized the countries for blocking the report’s endorsement.

“It’s not about one word or another. It is us being in a position to welcome a report we commissioned in the first place,” said Ruenna Haynes, a diplomat from St. Kitts and Nevis.

“If there is anything ludicrous about the discussion it’s that we can’t welcome the report,” she said to applause, reported the BBC.

In a tweet on Sunday, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California emphasized the need for the U.S. to take action to tackle climate change.

“America can—and must—meet the challenge of climate change head-on. It’s up to us to do what is necessary to secure a safe, healthy future for generations to come,” she tweeted.

The move casts doubt on whether delegates will be able to reach a consensus on measures to tackle climate change by Friday, when the conference concludes.

“It’s really an embarrassment for the world’s leading scientific superpower to be in this position of having to disbelieve a report that was written by the world’s scientific community, including a large number of pre-eminent U.S. scientists,” Meyer said.

Indisputable Facts On Climate Change

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In this Nov. 17, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump talks with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, left, as California Gov. Jerry Brown listens during a visit to a neighborhood impacted by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif. For US governors, including 19 taking office early next year, fires, floods and other climate-related emergencies could become top policy concerns. For some, the concern is often trying to curtail global warming. But other leaders also have taken steps to mitigate damage from future disasters. Photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last Friday the National Climate Assessment Report was quietly unveiled. It contained dire warnings about the consequences to the U.S. as a result of climate change.

President Trump, who once called climate change a hoax, said that he doesn’t believe the findings of potentially devastating impacts. The President has since backed away from his assertion that climate change is a hoax, but apparently feels that the threat is overstated.

Let’s review what we know to be true, what is understood about the greenhouse effect, and how models can be effectively used to make predictions. In a follow-up article, I will address a frequently overlooked tool for helping to address climate change.

Indisputable Facts

Here are facts, accepted by almost everyone. I still encounter some people who don’t accept them, but that doesn’t change that these facts are demonstrated by multiple lines of evidence.

First, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen steadily since humans began to use large quantities of coal during the Industrial Revolution. The atmosphere has now reached levels of carbon dioxide that have never been seen in the history of human civilization. The record over the past 60 years looks like this:

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Atmospheric carbon dioxide record since 1960.NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION

Second, carbon dioxide is known to be a greenhouse gas. I will explain more about what this means in the next section.

Third, the average surface temperature of the earth is rising. That doesn’t mean it’s rising everywhere, and it doesn’t mean the temperature rise is responsible for every significant weather event.

Global temperatures are rising.NASA

I live in Phoenix, and this summer it seemed that we broke new temperature records every week. The past two years have been two of the hottest on record in Phoenix, and that has been the case for many cities, and for the U.S. as a whole.

Fourth, the world’s sea levels are rising. This is understandable because as water warms, it expands. And as the temperature increases, glaciers melt. Both factors add to the sea level, which has already risen by four to eight inches. This results in loss of coastline, and ultimately the loss of some islands.

Climate Change Science Made Simple

Now for a short primer on greenhouse gases.

The surface of the earth is warmed by visible solar radiation that passes through the earth’s atmosphere. As solar radiation causes surfaces to warm, energy is reemitted from those surfaces in the form of infrared radiation. Infrared radiation has longer wavelengths than the visible radiation from the sun, and it doesn’t simply pass through the atmosphere.

The earth’s atmosphere contains certain gases—water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide, to name a few—that absorb the infrared radiation from the surface of the earth and radiate some of that energy back toward the earth.

Civilization likely only exists because of the greenhouse effect. Primarily because of the water vapor in the atmosphere (the most important greenhouse gas), the earth is about 60°F warmer than it would be without a greenhouse effect.

But, since greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are responsible for the greenhouse effect, it stands to reason that if the atmospheric concentration of those greenhouse gases increases, then so should the surface temperature of the earth.

So, there is a mechanism that explains why the temperature is increasing (rising greenhouse gases) and we have the actual observation that the temperature is increasing (and the supporting observation that sea levels are rising).

Understanding Models

So far, this is pretty straightforward. None of what I have written thus far is controversial. So, why can’t we all agree that there is a problem? There are multiple reasons, but let me focus on the simplest.

Even though we have an understanding of why rising carbon dioxide levels should impact the temperature, the ecosystem is complex. We have to rely on computer models to predict and project possible outcomes. When there are discrepancies between what the models predict and what is measured, critics seize on those discrepancies to cast doubt on climate science.

But speaking as someone who has developed and used computer models numerous times, this is how models are built and refined. You can build a model of a system (like a chemical reactor), but then you have to measure that model against reality.

For example, I can develop a model that may predict that the outlet concentration of a reactor should contain 10% methane. If the actual measurement in the outlet is 25% methane, I need to look at the assumptions of the model. I may need to revise equations that went into the model. Eventually, I will produce a model that matches what is actually observed.

But I am still not finished. I now have to do tests to further validate the model. I can change the temperature or pressure of the reactor, and see if the model can accurately predict the output under the new conditions. Over time, and through experimentation, I gain confidence in the model’s ability to predict changes — which is my ultimate objective.

This is the case with climate models. If a model incorrectly predicts a temperature, it may be that we simply don’t fully understand some of the feedback loops. So, we revise and tweak the model until it better replicates reality. Then we can extrapolate into the future with a higher degree of confidence.

There is uncertainty in modeling, and that’s seized upon by critics to overstate the uncertainty about the possible outcomes.

Conclusions

Make no mistake. The earth is warming. Some want to argue about how much of that impact is man-made, and how much is a function of natural fluctuations in the climate. But carbon dioxide concentrations are also climbing, and we know humans are responsible for that. So we know that humans are making at least some impact.

The bottom line is we are conducting an unprecedented experiment on the ecosystem, and we can say with a high degree of confidence that further warming is in store. Given the risks, we should use every tool in our arsenal to address this issue.

In the next article, I will address one largely overlooked approach.

Robert Rapier is a chemical engineer in the energy industry. Robert has 25 years of international engineering experience in the chemicals, oil and gas, and renewable energy industries, and holds several patents related to his work. He has worked in the areas of oil refining,…

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Robert Rapier has over 20 years of experience in the energy industry as an engineer and an investor. Follow him on Twitter @rrapier or at Investing Daily.

Vegetation ‘browning’ threatens Arctic carbon balance

Photo of Rachael Treharne in the Lofoten archipelago
Rachael Treharne in the Lofoten archipelago (Courtesy: Rachael Treharne)

The Arctic is already under severe threat from climate change. Now, research has revealed that damage to Arctic vegetation hampers its ability to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

An increasing number of extreme climatic events are taking place in the Arctic, ranging from fire to unusual winter conditions such as sudden temperature fluctuations and changes in snow cover. These extreme conditions damage plants by killing them or by causing a stress response, visible as high levels of brown anthocyanin pigments. Extreme events cause huge areas of the Arctic to turn brown and bring major disturbances to Arctic ecosystems.

Despite the growing frequency and obvious adverse effects of these “browning” events, until now little was known about how they change the ecosystem’s carbon balance – the equilibrium between emission and absorption of carbon dioxide. New research led by Rachael Treharne of the University of Sheffield, UK, with colleagues from Norway and Italy, has revealed a steep drop in the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by plants affected by an extreme climatic event, regardless of whether the plants were killed or just stressed.

Photo of Arctic vegetation showing anthocyanin pigments after a browning event

The research focused on the Lofoten archipelago in northern Norway, an area that has suffered numerous browning events. A sealed chamber placed over an area of ground allowed measurement of the gas exchange of the plants and soil inside. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, while both plants and soil release it.

The study found a reduction in COuptake of 48% in areas where extreme climatic events had killed many plants, but also a 50% reduction in areas where plants had been stressed and produced protective anthocyanins.

“The large reductions in net CO2 uptake have implications for the whole ecosystem,” says Treharne. A large reduction across the growing season severely decreases the ecosystem’s capacity as a carbon sink; it cannot absorb as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as undamaged vegetation.

Damaged vegetation usually recovers its green colour by the peak of the growing season, the researchers point out, complicating attempts to quantify the severity of browning by remote sensing from satellites.

“Many climate models assume an arbitrary level of greening — and therefore increasing carbon dioxide uptake — across the Arctic,” Treharne says. “The scale of the browning we’ve seen in recent years suggests the reality may be more complex.”

Scientists may need to reassess their predictions of future climate change to account for Arctic browning.

“It couldn’t be clearer that our current efforts to tackle climate change are deeply and dangerously inadequate,” says Treharne. “However, if we take ambitious action now, we can cut how much the Arctic is expected to warm by as much as 7°C. This is critical to minimizing the impacts of climate change in these globally important ecosystems.”

Treharne and colleagues reported their research in Global Change Biology.

UN warns of ‘destructive and irreversible impacts’ as greenhouse gases hit level not seen for millions of years

‘The urgency and extent of the actions needed to address climate change have not sunk in’

Climate change: How do we know?

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct  measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased  since the Industrial Revolution.  (Source: [[LINK||http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/icecore/||NOAA]])
This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Find out more about ice cores (external site).

https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.1

Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century.2 Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.3

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling:


Global temperature rise

  • The planet's average surface temperature has risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century
    The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.4 Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year — from January through September, with the exception of June — were the warmest on record for those respective months. 5

Warming oceans

  • The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
    The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.6

Shrinking ice sheets

  • The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass
    The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 281 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 119 billion tons during the same time period. The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.7Image: Flowing meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet


Glacial retreat

  • Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.
    Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.8Image: The disappearing snowcap of Mount Kilimanjaro, from space.


Decreased snow cover

  • Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier
    Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier.9

Sea level rise

  • Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year
    Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year.10Image: Republic of Maldives: Vulnerable to sea level rise


Declining Arctic sea ice

  • Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades
    Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.11Image: Visualization of the 2012 Arctic sea ice minimum, the lowest on record


Extreme events

  • Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.
    The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.12

Ocean acidification

  • Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent
    Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent.13,14This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.15,16

References

  1. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers

    B.D. Santer et.al., “A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere,” Nature vol 382, 4 July 1996, 39-46

    Gabriele C. Hegerl, “Detecting Greenhouse-Gas-Induced Climate Change with an Optimal Fingerprint Method,” Journal of Climate, v. 9, October 1996, 2281-2306

    V. Ramaswamy et.al., “Anthropogenic and Natural Influences in the Evolution of Lower Stratospheric Cooling,” Science 311 (24 February 2006), 1138-1141

    B.D. Santer et.al., “Contributions of Anthropogenic and Natural Forcing to Recent Tropopause Height Changes,” Science vol. 301 (25 July 2003), 479-483.

  2. In the 1860s, physicist John Tyndall recognized the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect and suggested that slight changes in the atmospheric composition could bring about climatic variations. In 1896, a seminal paper by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first predicted that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.

  3. National Research Council (NRC), 2006. Surface Temperature Reconstructions For the Last 2,000 Years. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page3.php

  4. Levitus, S.; Antonov, J.; Boyer, T.; Baranova, O.; Garcia, H.; Locarnini, R.; Mishonov, A.; Reagan, J.; Seidov, D.; Yarosh, E.; Zweng, M. (2017). NCEI ocean heat content, temperature anomalies, salinity anomalies, thermosteric sea level anomalies, halosteric sea level anomalies, and total steric sea level anomalies from 1955 to present calculated from in situ oceanographic subsurface profile data (NCEI Accession 0164586). Version 4.4. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Dataset. doi:10.7289/V53F4MVP

  5. National Snow and Ice Data Center

    Robinson, D. A., D. K. Hall, and T. L. Mote. 2014. MEaSUREs Northern Hemisphere Terrestrial Snow Cover Extent Daily 25km EASE-Grid 2.0, Version 1. [Indicate subset used]. Boulder, Colorado USA. NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center. doi: https://doi.org/10.5067/MEASURES/CRYOSPHERE/nsidc-0530.001. [Accessed 9/21/18].

    http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/snow_extent.html

    Rutgers University Global Snow Lab, Data History Accessed September 21, 2018.

  6. R. S. Nerem, B. D. Beckley, J. T. Fasullo, B. D. Hamlington, D. Masters and G. T. Mitchum. Climate-change–driven accelerated sea-level rise detected in the altimeter era. PNAS, 2018 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1717312115
  7. USGCRP, 2017: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp, doi: 10.7930/J0J964J6

  8. C. L. Sabine et.al., “The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2,” Science vol. 305 (16 July 2004), 367-371

How you can fight climate change when the government won’t

How you can fight climate change when the government won’t
© Getty Images

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the global steps needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius is a clarion call to action. Global emissions must drop by nearly 50 percent in just over a decade to stay on track to meet this target. The secondary target of 2 degrees Celsius will involve substantially greater adverse impacts, and will still require substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the coming decade.

This call to action has renewed debate about appropriate collective and governmental actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions. There are renewed proposals for carbon taxes, fee and dividend plans, and renewable energy investments. Even Exxon Mobil has announced its support for some form of carbon tax — if it gets liability relief for fossil fuel harms at the same time.

But the national political climate remains hostile to effective climate action in the United States, as the Republican Party, remains in a position to block all legislative and administrative efforts to reduce emissions. And the fact that Exxon Mobil supports a carbon tax gives a hint that any national carbon policy that is going to be on the table is unlikely to achieve the necessary drastic reductions in fossil fuel-related greenhouse emissions.

In the absence of national action, attention focuses on “bottom-up” actions by states and municipalities. New York and San Francisco were rightly applauded when they pledged to meet the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas reduction commitments even in the face of the Trump administration’s planned withdrawal from that agreement. Hundreds of municipalities across the country have joined that pledge.

But the ultimate bottom-up climate action is individual action. If you live in the developed world, your lifestyle choices make an outsized contribution to climate change. Basic ethical principles of avoiding harm to others and a variation of the golden rule compel us to take a look at our own carbon footprint and commit to reducing it. We should strive to live in a way that limits our harm to others as we would have others live in a way that limits their harms to us. Just as cities and states can commit to the Paris accord reductions, so can individuals commit significantly to reduce their own footprints.

Start by going to an online calculator and see what

parts of your carbon footprint are largest. Electricity, heat, gasoline, food, and air travel are likely to be the biggest items for many Americans. Zero out your electricity footprint by signing up for a renewable energy supplier. Plan to convert to a lower carbon heating system, such as an electric heat pump, within the next decade. Choose a hybrid when the time comes to replace your car. If you are already driving a hybrid, replace it with an electric vehicle. Reduce red meat consumption. And fly only when absolutely necessary. By taking these simple measures, the average climate-concerned American can easily cut their direct carbon footprint in half.

Despite these easy steps, many climate activists remain ambivalent about calling for carbon footprint reductions at the individual level. They argue that individual footprint reductions are such an infinitesimally small part of the problem as to be meaningless, or that it is not fair to ask struggling working Americans to buy expensive hybrid or electric cars or pay to install solar panels on their houses. Climate leaders are reluctant to alienate supporters by calling for sacrifice.

In fact, many carbon footprint reductions come at little or no cost — renewable electricity contracts barely cost more than other suppliers, solar leasing companies will install solar panels on your house for free, and my two-seater smart electric car leases for about $140 a month.

No one expects the working poor to take the lead in individual climate reductions. Since climate footprints are directly proportional to income, people who are wealthy enough to choose to fly places on vacation should be the leaders in individual climate reductions.

It is true that no individual reduction can achieve a measurable reduction in global climate change. But an infinitesimally small contribution to an infinitely large climate catastrophe is still significant. There is no argument for inaction. At least when you cut your own carbon footprint, you can see a significant percentage change in your own contribution to global warming.

Individual lifestyle changes also have a persuasive effect – undecided listeners find climate action arguments more convincing when the advocate has made lifestyle changes, such as giving up air travel.

Collective action starts with individual action. While the individual increment may be small, if everyone alarmed by the IPCC report cut their footprint by 50 percent within the next five years, the emissions reductions would be more significant by those achieved by fossil fuel divestment or blocking the pipeline development.