Methane, explained

Cows and bogs release methane into the atmosphere, but it’s by far mostly human activity that’s driving up levels of this destructive greenhouse gas.

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.

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.

Methane’s sources

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.

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There are a variety of other natural methane sources. It seeps out of the ground naturally near some oil and gas deposits and from the mouths of some volcanoes. It leaks out of thawing permafrost in the Arctic and builds up in the sediments under shallow, still seas; it wafts away from burning landscapes, entering the atmosphere as CO2; and it is produced by termitesas they chow through piles of woody detritus. But all of these other natural sources, excluding wetlands, only make up about ten percent of the total emissions each year.

Human sources of methane

Today, human-influenced sources make up the bulk of the methane in the atmosphere.

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.

The small flask holds as much methane as the large one, as a powder rather than a gas.PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK THIESSEN, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

Methane also leaks into the atmosphere at gas and oil drilling sites. There are strict rules in place in many states and countries about how much leakage is allowed, but those rules have proven difficult to enforce. Recent studies suggest that wells in the U.S. alone are producing about 60 percent more methane than previously estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Worldwide, the energy sector contributes about a quarter of the annual methane budget.

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.

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.

In the modern atmosphere, methane concentrations have risen by more than 150 percent since 1750. It’s not clear whether this rise will continue, or at what rate, but the IPCC warns that keeping methane emissions in check is necessary in order to keep the planet from warming further.

Don’t “Make War” on Climate Change

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.

Climate crisis: extremely hot days could double in US, study shows

Amid widespread US heatwave, experts predict dangerous extremes in summer temperatures will only get worse

Without further action to reduce global heat-trapping pollution, parts of Florida and Texas could feel like 100F or hotter for over four months out of the year.

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.

Guardian Graphic | Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

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.”

*Historical average represents 1971-2000. 

Oceans Need Geoengineering, Not The Atmosphere

July 17th, 2019 by 


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.

And that’s already happening. The Center for Investigative Reporting published a lengthy assessment of the climate change skeptics close to President Trump, who were backing geoengineering efforts early in 2018. Keith is on record as being unnerved by the potential for this, saying in a 2017 conference:

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.

Oceanic carbon cycle

 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.

Trump’s USDA buried sweeping climate change response plan

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.

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.

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.

‘Breaking’ the heat index: US heat waves to skyrocket as globe warms, study suggests

As the temperatures start to heat up, make sure you are staying safe. USA TODAY

If you think it’s hot now, just wait awhile.

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.

Extreme heat is one of the clearest signs of global warming, according to the National Academy of Sciences. 

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.”

The One Viable Solution To Climate Change

The current existential question facing the human race is climate change. If we continue on the current path, some currently populated areas of the planet will become uninhabitable. For instance, coastal cities will be submerged and the whole nation of Bangladesh will be displaced. Everyone will be affected.

Something has to be done. But what? The problem is that none of the paths presently under consideration are viable, except one.

Cloudscape with eye of hurricane

Cloudscape with eye of hurricane

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The Limits Of Wind, Solar And Batteries

As explained in a paper from the Manhattan Institute, we are near the theoretical limits of what is possible from efficiency improvements in existing hydrocarbon technology or from wind, and solar energy and battery storage: those technologies are radically inadequate to handle the challenge of climate change.

Hydrocarbons collectively supply 84% of the world’s energy. wind, solar, and batteries provide about 2% of the world’s energy and 3% of America’s.

There have been suggestions that the technologies of wind and solar power and battery storage could be significantly enhanced in the way that improvements in computing and communications have been drastically lowering costs and increasing efficiency. These suggestions ignore profound differences between systems that produce energy and those that produce information.

For instance, as the Manhattan Institute report points out:

Solar technologies have improved greatly and will continue to become cheaper and more efficient. But the era of 10-fold gains is over. The physics boundary for silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells, the Shockley-Queisser Limit, is a maximum conversion of 34% of photons into electrons; the best commercial PV technology today exceeds 26%.

Wind power technology has also improved greatly, but here, too, no 10-fold gains are left. The physics boundary for a wind turbine, the Betz Limit, is a maximum capture of 60% of kinetic energy in moving air; commercial turbines today exceed 40%.

The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could store three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand.”

There is simply not enough room for improvement in these technologies to make a big enough difference.

Nuclear Power

Other experts push for greater investment in nuclear power, which is the second largest low-carbon power source after hydroelectricity. It supplies about 10% of global electricity generation. While these experts push for nuclear power as “the answer”, disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima dominate the popular imagination about nuclear power and make wider implementation politically difficult.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Photo Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Photo Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

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While experts claim that the technological and safety obstacles that once affected the nuclear sector have largely been overcome, laymen continue to worry about the safety of storing nuclear waste for thousands of years. Presently, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites and there are over 400 locations around the world where radioactive material continues to accumulate. It would be an improvement if there were centralized underground repositories which are well-managed, guarded, and monitored, but no one can guarantee the fail-safe longevity of those arrangements for thousands of years. Unless and until the storage question of nuclear waste is resolved, nuclear power can hardly be seen as a rational answer to climate change. Pursuit of this option could be jumping out of a climate frying pan into a nuclear fire.

More Regulatory Action And Voluntary Efforts

Meanwhile, regulatory action or voluntary efforts will be utterly insufficient to make a difference. The 2015 Paris Agreement called on countries to individually make their best efforts to contain the damage. This was perceived as a positive step, but it was not enough to stay climate change, even if the Agreement were to be fully implemented.

Jean-Dominique Senard, CEO Michelin in Paris 2015. Photo Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

Jean-Dominique Senard, CEO Michelin in Paris 2015. Photo Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

© 2015 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

Under the Paris Agreement, each country is to determine, plan, and regularly report on the contribution that it undertakes to mitigate global warming. No mechanism forces a country to set a specific target by a specific date, but each target should go beyond previously set targets.

Introducing further regulations and controls with ever more intrusive impacts on lifestyles would require enormous political support, which is unlikely to be forthcoming in the current divisive political climate.

The more important problem is that the best efforts by countries individually, even in the unlikely event that all fulfilled their obligations, would not be nearly enough to deal with the issue. That’s because the countries don’t have the technology that would enable them to make enough impact. The current technologies, even with the best will and motivation in the world, will not get the job done. No amount of Paris Agreements can change that. It’s like agreeing to try to fly to the moon on a bicycle.

The Paris Agreement 2015 was a setback in the sense that it fueled the illusion that the problem of climate change can be solved by government regulation in each individual country. It can’t. It’s not that kind of problem.

The Only Viable Solution

The human race didn’t succeed in handling big challenges in the past by upgrading yesterday’s technologies or passing new laws. The Internet didn’t emerge from improving the dial-up phone or regulating phone calls. The electric light bulb didn’t appear from efforts to develop better candles or telling people to use less light. The automobile didn’t arrive by trying to breed faster horses.

The human race solved big problems through basic research that led to radically new technical solutions that changed everything.

A New Manhattan Project

So what if a massive effort in basic research with the best minds and adequate funding was undertaken to find new technology for creating non-polluting energy for the planet?

What if it was launched by one country to get it started and then other countries were invited to join it so as to make it a multinational effort.

Is there any real alternative, except denial?

When do we stop our magical thinking and work on the one thing that will sustain the human race? Is there anything more urgent or important?

When do we start?

And read also:

A Roadmap For Reshaping Capitalism

The most important thing you can do right now to fight climate change, according to science

It is “massively important” we all start talking about climate change, a Yale researcher explains.

SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS RESULTS ON THE QUESTION OF HUMAN-CAUSED GLOBAL WARMING. CREDIT: JOHN COOK.
SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS RESULTS ON THE QUESTION OF HUMAN-CAUSED GLOBAL WARMING. CREDIT: JOHN COOK.

Climatologist Michael Mann said that this study “casts doubt on claims in some quarters that the climate change issue has become too ideologically-driven for facts to matter.”

“[It] confirms what might seem common sense,” Mann wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “The more people actually understand about the science of climate change, the more they are likely to accept the scientific consensus — that climate change is real, human-caused, and a threat to human civilization.”

“Meaningful discussions and dialogue is how humans learn,” environmental sociologist Robert Brulle told ThinkProgress over email. “This study clearly shows that non-polarized discussions within a trusted social network can lead to increased understanding and acceptance of climate science.”

Brulle, who has authored numerous studies on climate communications, added, “Engaging in, rather than avoiding, climate change discussions is something that we should all be doing.”

Yet, most Americans “rarely” or “never” talk about climate change with family and friends, according to the latest research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Most Americans “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends. CREDIT: Yale.
MOST AMERICANS “RARELY” OR “NEVER” DISCUSS GLOBAL WARMING WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS. CREDIT: YALE.

This climate silence leads the public to underestimate how many other Americans realize climate change is happening. They “underestimate the social consensus on global warming,” as the Yale researchers explained. Remarkably, the Yale survey found that the public estimates that just 54% of other Americans realize climate change is happening, but in reality, 69% do.

At the same time, a 2018 study found that “only 11 percent of the U.S. public correctly estimate the scientific consensus on climate change as higher than 90 percent.” It also found that telling people how big the actual consensus is “increases their perception of the scientific norm by 16.2 percentage points on a 100-point scale.”

SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS RESULTS ON THE QUESTION OF HUMAN-CAUSED GLOBAL WARMING. CREDIT: JOHN COOK.
SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS RESULTS ON THE QUESTION OF HUMAN-CAUSED GLOBAL WARMING. CREDIT: JOHN COOK.

Inspired by the fact that increased awareness increases acceptance, the authors of the PNAS study decided to find out what would happen if they tracked over time “changes in perceptions of scientific consensus as a result of discussion with family and friends.”

They also tracked how perceptions of the consensus affect climate change discussions as well as how discussions indirectly affect people’s understanding of, and concern about, climate change.

The study concluded that “increased perceptions of scientific agreement led to increases in discussions about climate change.” This suggests that “climate conversations can initiate a positively reinforcing cycle between learning, worry, and further conversation.”

In other words, talking about the climate crisis to family and friends motivates them to learn about the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is happening and humans are the cause — along with other key facts. Increased understanding of the consensus in turns leads to an increase in understanding and concern about the climate.

The study’s lead author, Yale social psychologist Matthew Goldberg, told The Los Angeles Times Monday that talking more about climate change is “massively important, particularly because we are not doing it enough.”

There are a variety of ways to communicate the consensus message to friends and family. The simplest version is to state that 97% of climate scientists understand that humans are causing climate change.

A more specific version: The overwhelming majority of climate scientists  — 97% — understand that humans are the primary cause of global warming since 1950.

And a good analogy? We are as certain that humans are responsible for recent climate change as we are that cigarettes are dangerous to your health.

However you say it, experts agree: It’s vital everyone talk about climate change with as many of their friends and family as possible.

7 dead whales were found in Alaska over the weekend, and experts blame the climate crisis

(CNN)Dead gray whales keep showing up along the west coast of North America, from Alaska to Mexico, and it has become a concern for marine biologists.

And you guessed it: The climate crisis is theorized as the leading cause for these deaths.
Over the July 4 weekend, seven dead gray whales were discovered in Alaska: four near Kodiak Island, two at Egegik and another at Takli Island.
These findings raise the death toll for gray whales in Alaska to 22 this year.
Takli Island
Egegik
Kodiak Island
Map data ©2019 Google

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<img src="data:;base64,

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an unusual mortality event for gray whales on May 31.
The criteria to define an unusual mortality event
  1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records.
  2. A temporal change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  3. A spatial change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  4. The species, age or sex composition of the affected animals is different than that of animals that are normally affected.
  5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs or general physical condition.
  6. Potentially significant morbidity, mortality or stranding is observed in species, stocks, or populations that are particularly vulnerable.
  7. Morbidity is observed concurrent with or as part of an unexplained continual decline of a marine mammal population, stock or species.
According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event is defined as “as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.” A set of seven criteria has been developed to determine such an event, and at least one of the seven must be met for an official declaration.
“We have already exceeded the 1999 number of gray whale mortalities along the U.S. West Coast, including Alaska,” NOAA public affairs officer Julie Speegle wrote in an email. “In 1999, there were 91 gray whale mortalities (including 12 in Alaska). So far in 2019, the total for the U.S. West Coast (including 22 in Alaska) is 96. Only time will tell if we will approach the numbers for 2000 (U.S. West Coast 131, including 45 in Alaska).”
Gray whales migrate in the summer from warm breeding lagoons near Mexico to feeding grounds in the Arctic. They can grow as large as 90,000 pounds, and during feeding season, they typically eat up to 1.3 tons of food per day.
Many of the gray whales were found malnourished, which leads scientists to believe that they are not eating enough.
Alaska's 16th dead gray whale of 2019 was found stranded on Kodiak Island.

Instability in Antarctic ice projected to make sea level rise rapidly

https://phys.org/news/2019-07-instability-antarctic-ice-sea-rapidly.html

Instability in Antarctic ice projected to make sea level rise rapidly
Part of Thwaites Glacier crumbles into the ocean. It is part of the normal life of a glacier, but the rate of ice flow into the ocean of some Antarctic glaciers has markedly accelerated, raising concerns. Credit: NASA/OIB Jeremy Harbeck

Images of vanishing Arctic ice and mountain glaciers are jarring, but their potential contributions to sea level rise are no match for Antarctica’s, even if receding southern ice is less eye-catching. Now, a study says that instability hidden within Antarctic ice is likely to accelerate its flow into the ocean and push sea level up at a more rapid pace than previously expected.

In the last six years, five closely observed Antarctic glaciers have doubled their rate of ice loss, according to the National Science Foundation. At least one, Thwaites Glacier, modeled for the new study, may be in danger of succumbing to this instability, a volatile process that pushes ice into the ocean fast.

How much ice the glacier will shed in coming 50 to 800 years can’t exactly be projected due to unpredictable fluctuations in climate and the need for more data. But researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of Washington have factored the instability into 500 ice flow simulations for Thwaites with refined calculations.

The scenarios diverged strongly from each other but together pointed to the eventual triggering of the instability, which will be described in the question and answer section below. Even if  were to later stop, the instability would keep pushing ice out to sea at an enormously accelerated rate over the coming centuries.

And this is if  due to warming oceans does not get worse than it is today. The study went with present-day ice melt rates because the researchers were interested in the instability factor in itself.

Glacier tipping point

“If you trigger this instability, you don’t need to continue to force the  by cranking up temperatures. It will keep going by itself, and that’s the worry,” said Alex Robel, who led the study and is an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Climate variations will still be important after that tipping point because they will determine how fast the ice will move.”

“After reaching the tipping point, Thwaites Glacier could lose all of its ice in a period of 150 years. That would make for a  of about half a meter (1.64 feet),” said NASA JPL scientist Helene Seroussi, who collaborated on the study. For comparison, current sea level is 20 cm (nearly 8 inches) above pre-global warming levels and is blamed for increased coastal flooding.

Instability in Antarctic ice projected to make sea level rise rapidly
Thwaites Glacier’s outer edge. As the glacier flows into the ocean, it becomes sea ice and drives up sea level. Thwaites Glacier ice is flowing particularly fast, and some researchers believe it may have already tipped into instability or be near that point, though this has not yet been established. Credit: NASA/James Yungel

The researchers published their study in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, July 8, 2019. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

The study also showed that the instability makes forecasting more uncertain, leading to the broad spread of scenarios. This is particularly relevant to the challenge of engineering against flood dangers.

“You want to engineer critical infrastructure to be resistant against the upper bound of potential sea level scenarios a hundred years from now,” Robel said. “It can mean building your  and nuclear reactors for the absolute worst-case scenario, which could be two or three feet of sea level rise from Thwaites Glacier alone, so it’s a huge difference.”

Q&A

Why is Antarctic ice the big driver of sea level rise?

Arctic sea ice is already floating in water. Readers will likely remember that 90% of an iceberg’s mass is underwater and that when its ice melts, the volume shrinks, resulting in no change in sea level.

But when ice masses long supported by land, like , melt, the water that ends up in the ocean adds to sea level. Antarctica holds the most land-supported ice, even if much of that land is seabed holding up just part of the ice’s mass, while water holds up part of it. Also, Antarctica is an ice leviathan.

“There’s almost eight times as much ice in the Antarctic ice sheet as there is in the Greenland ice sheet and 50 times as much as in all the mountain glaciers in the world,” Robel said.

Instability in Antarctic ice projected to make sea level rise rapidly
Ice melt at the grounding line contributes to seawater and thus sea levels, but the larger effect is to send more ice above it out into the water, where it also drives up sea level. When sea bottom behind the grounding line, under the ice, slopes downward going inland, it exacerbates the process, which can become unstable, perpetually pushing ice out to sea. Credit: antarcticglaciers.org, Creative Commons non-commercial license

What is that ‘instability’ underneath the ice?

The line between where the ice sheet rests on the seafloor and where it extends over water is called the grounding line. In spots where the bedrock underneath the ice behind the grounding line slopes down, deepening as it moves inland, the instability can kick in.

On deeper beds, ice moves faster because water is giving it a little more lift. Also, warmer ocean water hollows out the bottom of the ice, adding a little more water to the ocean. More importantly, the ice above the hollow loses land contact and flows faster out to sea.

“Once ice is past the grounding line and just over water, it’s contributing to sea level because buoyancy is holding it up more than it was,” Robel said. “Ice flows out into the floating ice shelf and melts or breaks off as icebergs.”

“The process becomes self-perpetuating,” Seroussi said, describing why it is called “instability.”

How did the researchers integrate instability into sea level forecasting?

The researchers borrowed math from statistical physics that calculate what random variables do to predictability in a physical system, like ice flow, acted upon by outside forces, like temperature changes. They applied the math to simulations of possible future fates of marine  like Thwaites Glacier.

They made an added surprising discovery. Normally, when climate conditions fluctuate strongly, Antarctic ice evens out the effects. Ice flow may increase but gradually, not wildly, but the instability produced the opposite effect in the simulations.

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Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology, PNAS (2019). doi/10.1073/pnas.1904822116

“The system didn’t damp out the fluctuations, it actually amplified them. It increased the chances of rapid ice loss,” Robel said.

How rapid is ‘rapid’ sea level rise and when will we feel it?

The study’s time scale was centuries, as is common for sea level studies. In the simulations, Thwaites Glacier colossal ice loss kicked in after 600 years, but it could come sooner.

“It could happen in the next 200 to 600 years. It depends on the bedrock topography under the ice, and we don’t know it in great detail yet,” Seroussi said.

So far, Antarctica and Greenland have lost a small fraction of their ice, but already, shoreline infrastructures face challenges from increased tidal flooding and storm surges. Sea level is expected to rise by up to two feet by the end of this century.

For about 2,000 years until the late 1800s, sea level held steady, then it began climbing, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The annual rate of sea level rise has roughly doubled since 1990.


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Near-term ocean warming around Antarctica affects long-term rate of sea level rise