Trump just nominated a climate change skeptic to USDA’s top science post

 July 19

This story has been updated.

President Trump on Wednesday nominated Sam Clovis, a former college professor and talk radio host who has challenged the scientific consensus that human activity has been the primary driver of climate change, to serve in the Agriculture Department’s top scientific post.

“Dr. Clovis was one of the first people through the door at USDA in January and has become a trusted advisor and steady hand as we continue to work for the people of agriculture,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement Wednesday evening. “He looks at every problem with a critical eye, relying on sound science and data, and will be the facilitator and integrator we need. Dr. Clovis has served this nation proudly since he was a very young man, and I am happy he is continuing to serve.”

Clovis, whose expected nomination has been previously reported by The Washington Post and several other outlets, is a former economics professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, who served as one of Trump’s first campaign policy advisers. In a 2014 interview with Iowa Public Radio, he said he was “extremely skeptical” about climate change and added that “a lot of the science is junk science.”

“It’s not proven; I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers,” Clovis said in the interview. “So I’m a skeptic.”

This position represents a departure from the scientific consensus. In its most recent report, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it is “extremely likely” that, since the 1950s, humans and their greenhouse gas emissions have been the “dominant cause” of the planet’s warming trend.

Neither USDA nor Clovis responded to inquiries earlier this week about the prospect of his appointment, and his views on climate science.

Clovis — who started at USDA as a senior White House adviser just after Trump was inaugurated  — possesses a B.S. in political science, an MBA degree and a doctorate in public administration, according to the White House. The post for which he is being nominated, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for research, education and economics, has traditionally been occupied by a string of individuals with advanced degrees in science or medicine.

The overall portfolio that would be managed by Clovis, if he is confirmed by the Senate, is worth about $ 3 billion, with $ 2 billion devoted to research and $ 1 billion to education, according to Catherine Woteki, a nutrition scientist who held the job before Clovis. The person holding the position administers the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The undersecretary also serves as the USDA’s chief scientist. The 2008 farm bill specifies that appointees to the post should be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” The measure noted that the job is “responsible for the coordination of the research, education, and extension activities of the Department.”

“There’s a huge amount of science that goes into the setting up of the programs, implementation of various policies, and the chief scientist role is to coordinate those policies across the entire department and to represent agricultural science in the decisionmaking that goes on with other departments and is coordinated with the white house science office,” said Woteki.

Furthermore, the Agriculture Department’s chief scientist is also tasked with administering its policies to ensure “scientific integrity” in the department, which means examining whether any abuses or misuses of science may have occurred in the agency.

Climate change is a major issue in the agricultural sector, as shifts in both temperatures and precipitation have a major impact on food production. Agricultural operations also rank as a major emitter of greenhouse gases linked to climate change, because of methane emissions from livestock and carbon emissions from heavy farm equipment.

Under the Obama administration the Agriculture Department had elevated the issue of climate change, seeking to curb agricultural emissions as well as help farmers adapt to changing conditions by creating regional “climate hubs” across the United States. Then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sought to enlist farmers, ranchers and forest owners in the effort to capture and store carbon nationwide.

Since Trump took office, the agency has shifted the description of some of these efforts. On Wednesday, for example, the department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced nine grants totaling more than $8 million “to study and develop new approaches for the agriculture sector to adapt to and mitigate the effects of changing environmental conditions.” But the same press release noted that four of them were directed toward “climate outreach and extension” and another five were focused on “climate and land use.”

Clovis, an Iowa political activist who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014, has emphasized his military and foreign policy experience in the past. During the 2016 presidential race Clovis advised Trump on Russia and other matters.


“I think that if you look at my experience … 25 years in the military, and the various jobs and opportunities I had while serving the nation, my experience as a business man, and my academic preparation … my experience in a variety of other fields, including homeland security, foreign policy, national security policy, creating jobs and all those things,” Clovis said.

The White House announcement of his nomination emphasizes his military background, noting, “After graduating from the [U.S. Air Force] Academy, Mr. Clovis spent 25 years serving in the Air Force. He retired as the Inspector General of the North American Aerospace Defense Command  and the United States Space Command and was a command pilot.”

The position for which Clovis has been appointed ranks among “the most critical” science and technology roles in the federal government, according to a 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences. The position requires Senate confirmation.

The Trump administration has been slow to fill top Senate-confirmed science jobs — only 10 out of 45 across the government had a nominee prior to the Clovis appointment, according to a Post analysis that is based on that same NAS report. Clovis makes 11.

on the climate change apocalypse

Excerpts: AUSTRALIAN scientists have said a hugely controversial article that predicts a climate change driven apocalypse is “scary” and “embellished” but entirely plausible despite the extreme scenario dividing climatologists worldwide.
David Wallace-Wells’ startling — and unashamedly doom ridden — essay in New York magazine, entitled ‘ The Uninhabitable Earth ’, has ruffled feathers.
“I promise, it is worse than you think,” he says in the opening line of the article published last week.
But Australian climate scientists spoke to said while some of the descriptions of the future earth were fanciful (one called them “dramatised”), fanciful didn’t mean they were false.
“It’s absolutely true these things could happen,” said Dr Liz Hanna, President of the Climate and Health Alliance and a researcher into the health impacts of climate change at the Australian National University (ANU).
“It’s alarming but not alarmist.”
Professor Will Steffen of the Climate Council of Australia said the predictions were not from “ultra greenies” but were a sober assessment of the societal collapse extreme climate change could bring.
Mr Steffen, an ANU emeritus professor, told there were issues with the piece but it still painted a realistic picture.
“These are not wild risks being put forward by ultra greenies — they are sober risks understood by people in the Pentagon and Australian military,” Prof Steffen told
“By the end of the century the population could drop from seven billion to one billion because what you’re facing is a changing rainfall regimen that will wreak havoc with global food systems and see sea level rises which could inundate industrial areas,” he said.
End excerpts, full article here:

Cattle Grazing on Federal Public Lands Contributes to Global Climate Change

by Mike Hudak

10 November 2008

Revision dates: 5 February 2013, 21 July 2015,
7 February 2017, 10 July 2017




In this essay I will estimate the annual contribution to atmospheric green-house gases from methane (CH4) that results from enteric fermentation1 in cattle that graze on U.S. federal public lands. I’ll also compare the CH4 con-tribution of public lands cattle to that of several other sources and sinks of CH4, including emission of CH4 due to oil and gas production on federal lands.
The amount by which the public lands contribution to atmospheric CH4would change as a result of cattle removal is a more complex matter than are the above-mentioned topics. In the absence of ranching operations, the re-covery of native flora and fauna would provide many new sources and sinks of atmospheric CH4. Although a detailed greenhouse gas analysis of such re-covered ecosystems is beyond the scope of this essay, I will note a few factors that such an analysis should include.


Calculation of Cattle-Emitted CH4 Based on Amount of Forage Consumed


Based on the measurement that a typical grass-fed cow emits 600–700 liters (L) of CH4 per day,2 the mass of this gas annually produced by cattle that graze on 250 million acres of federal public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can be estimated.3 In the interest of producing a conservative estimate, I will perform the calculation using the lower limit (i.e., 600 L) of a cow’s daily CH4 production.
The BLM4 and U.S. Forest Service5 report annual forage utilization from their lands by cattle of 7,920,576 and 6,380,872 animal unit months (AUMs) respectively, with the combined forage utilization being 14,301,448 AUMs.
As each AUM represents 31 days of a cow’s forage consumption, it likewise represents 31 days of that animal’s CH4 production, and therefore each AUM consumed produces 18,600 L of CH4.6
Based on the total number of AUMs used per year and the mass of CH4emitted per AUM, the annual volume of CH4 produced by public lands cattle is equal to 266,006,932,800 L.7 Since 1,000 L are equivalent in volume to 1 cubic meter (m3), public lands cattle produce 266,006,932 m3 of CH4 per year.
Based on the density of CH4 being 0.68 kg/m3, under assumed conditions of 1.013 bar (one atmosphere) and 15°C (59°F),8 the mass of this volume is 180,884,714.3 kg.9
Gases, such as CH4, contribute to global warming. The relative ability of CH4 to trap heat in the global climate system over a given time frame (com-pared to CO2) is expressed by CH4’s “global warming potential” (GWP).10Internationally accepted values for CH4’s GWP (with climate-carbon feedback) are “34” over a 100-year interval (GWP100) and “86” over a 20-year interval (GWP20).11 Stated otherwise, over a 20-year interval, a given mass of CH4would have the same effect in the global climate system as a mass of CO2 that is 86 times greater than that mass of CH4.12
Authors of climate-related articles have often chosen to consider CH4’s impact over a 100-year period. But in 2013, the IPCC noted that “there is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices.”13Moreover, the IPCC found that at the 20-year timescale, total global emissions of CH4 are equivalent to over 80% of global CO2 emissions.14 In that light, Howarth (2014) argued for focusing on the 20-year rather than the 100-year period based on “the urgent need to reduce methane emissions over the coming 15–35 years.”15
Applying GWP20 for CH4 of 86, the environmental impact of the mass of CH4 produced by public lands cattle is equivalent to 15,556,085,430.14 kg of CO2 (over a 20-year interval).16


Sources of Emissions and Sequestrations of Greenhouse Gases Equivalent to the CH4 Emitted by Cattle on Public Lands


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s online Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator17 reports that the 15,556,085,430.14 kg of CO2-equivalent annually cow-emitted CH4 is equivalent to any of the following:


•  Annual greenhouse gas emissions from 3,288,813 passenger vehicles
•  Carbon (C) sequestered by 398,873,984 tree seedlings grown for 10 years
•  C annually sequestered by 14,675,552 acres of U.S. forests
•  C annually sequestered by 123,992 acres of forest preserved from conversion to cropland.


CO2 emissions from


•  1,750,431,574 gallons of gasoline consumed
•  36,176,942 barrels of oil consumed
•  205,931 tanker trucks’ worth of gasoline
•  the electricity use of 2,297,118 homes for one year
•  the energy use of 1,642,670 homes for one year
•  burning 16,602,012,166 pounds of coal
•  burning 82,842 railcars’ worth of coal
•  648,170,225 propane cylinders used for home barbecues
•  4.5 coal-fired power plants for one year.


CH4 Emissions from Cattle Viewed in the Context of CH4 Wasted During Gas and Oil Production


In addition to providing forage for livestock, federal lands produce sig-nificant quantities of oil and natural gas. In FY2014 these lands produced 148,802.95 thousand barrels of oil and 2,499,845.86 million cubic feet of natural gas.18
In the course of their installation and operation, these oil and gas wells waste natural gas (primarily consisting of CH4) through venting, flaring, and leaks. An Environmental Defense Fund report dated September 201519 cites an analysis by ICF International20 that estimates these losses for 2013. Based on a graphic produced from the ICF report,21 I compute that these lands accounted for CH4 emissions of approximately 47.2 billion ft3, or equivalently 1,336,555 m3. The 266,006,932 m3 year-1 of CH4 emitted by the cattle on these lands therefore amounts to 19.9% of the CH4 emissions from current oil and gas production.22
On 15 November 2016, the BLM issued a rule that the agency has stated would annually reduce by between 175,000 and 180,000 tons the CH4 that is wasted during the construction and operation of gas and oil wells on public and tribal lands.23 Assuming the less optimistic, lower, value of the range, the CH4annually emitted by the public lands cattle represents 113.9% of this antici-pated annual reduction.24


Would Removing Cattle from Public Lands Reduce the Lands’ Greenhouse Gas Contribution?


Having determined the quantity of CH4 produced by cattle that graze on public lands, one might ask whether removing these cattle would reduce the greenhouse gas contribution of these public lands by that amount. Although the answer to that question is beyond the scope of this essay, I will indicate a few of the factors that must be considered in seeking the answer.
Removing cattle from public lands would allow several ecosystem com-ponents to begin their recovery from more than a century of harmful impacts. In particular, vegetation that had been consumed by cattle would now be available for wildlife. Consequently, we would expect wildlife populations to increase. And among that wildlife would be native ruminant mammals, such as elk, pronghorn and deer, which, like cattle, emit CH4 as a by-product of their digestion. But such animals produce the gas in much smaller quantities than cattle. For example, an individual deer produces on average only 31.5 grams of CH4 per day25—approximately 7.7% of the amount produced by a cow.26
Perhaps the removal of ranching from federal public lands would reduce much of the public opposition to restoration of predator populations, especially wolves. If predator populations were to increase, they would tend to limit the populations of native ungulate CH4 producers.27
Following the exclusion of cattle, research shows that land-based sources of atmospheric C sequestration may increase. For example, a Chinese temperate grassland after 20 years of grazing exclusion had increased its C storage in the top 40 cm of soil by 35.7%.28 Other research performed on a semiarid, 17-year grazer-excluded grassland in northwest China found similar benefits to sequestration of C and nitrogen (N). The researchers state: “Our results showed that the aboveground biomass, root biomass and plant litter were 70–92%, 56–151% and 59–141% higher, respectively, in grazer excluded grass-land than in grazed grassland. Grazing exclusion significantly increased C and N stored in plant biomass and litter and increased the concentrations and stocks of C and N in soils. Grazing exclusion thus significantly increased the C and N stored in grassland ecosystems. The increase in C and N stored in soil contributed to more than 95% and 97% of the increases in ecosystem C and N storage.”29
Microbiotic crusts,30 which were once prevalent across deserts of the American West, “can be dominant sources of productivity and C sequestration in extremely dry environments.”31 But more than a hundred years of trampling by cattle has markedly reduced the presence of these crusts. And even when cattle impacts are removed, crusts may require from 40 to 250 years to fully recover,32 depending on environmental conditions. Consequently, significant C sequestration by the crusts may not be achieved until many years after the removal of cattle.
Quantifying the biological and chemical processes of these and other greenhouse gas sources and sinks following the cessation of cattle grazing would be a daunting task—one made even more difficult by the need to anticipate impacts on vegetation and wildlife from global climate change.




The author thanks T. Shuman for his comments on previous drafts of this essay.

The Uninhabitable Earth

Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.


I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories every day, like last month’s satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought. Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the geological record shows that temperature can shift as much as ten degrees or more in a single decade. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.

II. Heat Death

The bahraining of New York.

In the sugar­cane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. Photo: Heartless Machine

Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem; in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

Climate-change skeptics point out that the planet has warmed and cooled many times before, but the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history. At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually. This century, and especially in the tropics, the pain points will pinch much more quickly even than an increase of seven degrees. The key factor is something called wet-bulb temperature, which is a term of measurement as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the heat registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air (since the moisture evaporates from a sock more quickly in dry air, this single number reflects both heat and humidity). At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees. What is called heat stress comes much sooner.


If we stopped emitting greenhouse gases right now, would we stop climate change?

Best-case scenario, how much are we locked into

Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, University of Michigan

Earth’s climate is changing rapidly. We know this from billions of observations, documented in thousands of journal papers and texts and summarized every few years by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The primary cause of that change is the release of carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

One of the goals of the international Paris Agreement on climate changeis to limit the increase of the global surface average air temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial times. There is a further commitment to strive to limit the increase to 1.5℃.

Earth has already, essentially, reached the 1℃ threshold. Despite the avoidance of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions through use of renewable energyincreased efficiency and conservation efforts, the rate of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remains high.

International plans on how to deal with climate change are painstakingly difficult to cobble together and take decades to work out. Most climate scientists and negotiators were dismayed by President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

But setting aside the politics, how much warming are we already locked into? If we stop emitting greenhouse gases right now, why would the temperature continue to rise?

Basics of carbon and climate

The carbon dioxide that accumulates in the atmosphere insulates the surface of the Earth. It’s like a warming blanket that holds in heat. This energy increases the average temperature of the Earth’s surface, heats the oceans and melts polar ice. As consequences, sea level rises and weather changes.

Global average temperature has increased. Anomalies are relative to the mean temperature of 1961-1990. Based on IPCC Assessment Report 5, Working Group 1. Finnish Meteorological Institute, the Finnish Ministry of the Environment, and Climateguide.fiCC BY-ND

Since 1880, after carbon dioxide emissions took off with the Industrial Revolution, the average global temperature has increased. With the help of internal variations associated with the El Niño weather pattern, we’ve already experienced months more than 1.5℃ above the average. Sustained temperatures beyond the 1℃ threshold are imminent. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than the preceding decade, as well as warmer than the entire previous century.

The North and South poles are warming much faster than the average global temperature. Ice sheets in both the Arctic and Antarctic are melting. Ice in the Arctic Ocean is melting and the permafrost is thawing. In 2017, there’s been a stunning decrease in Antarctic sea ice, reminiscent of the 2007 decrease in the Arctic.

Ecosystems on both land and in the sea are changing. The observed changes are coherent and consistent with our theoretical understanding of the Earth’s energy balance and simulations from models that are used to understand past variability and to help us think about the future.

A massive iceberg – estimated to be 21 miles by 12 miles in size – breaks off from Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. NASACC BY

Slam on the climate brakes

What would happen to the climate if we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide today, right now? Would we return to the climate of our elders?

The simple answer is no. Once we release the carbon dioxide stored in the fossil fuels we burn, it accumulates in and moves among the atmosphere, the oceans, the land and the plants and animals of the biosphere. The released carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Only after many millennia will it return to rocks, for example, through the formation of calcium carbonate – limestone – as marine organisms’ shells settle to the bottom of the ocean. But on time spans relevant to humans, once released the carbon dioxide is in our environment essentially forever. It does not go away, unless we, ourselves, remove it.

In order to stop the accumulation of heat, we would have to eliminate not just carbon dioxide emissions, but all greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. We’d also need to reverse deforestation and other land uses that affect the Earth’s energy balance (the difference between incoming energy from the sun and what’s returned to space). We would have to radically change our agriculture. If we did this, it would eliminate additional planetary warming, and limit the rise of air temperature. Such a cessation of warming is not possible.

So if we stop emitting carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels today, it’s not the end of the story for global warming. There’s a delay in air-temperature increase as the atmosphere catches up with all the heat that the Earth has accumulated. After maybe 40 more years, scientists hypothesize the climate will stabilize at a temperature higher than what was normal for previous generations.

This decades-long lag between cause and effect is due to the long time it takes to heat the ocean’s huge mass. The energy that is held in the Earth by increased carbon dioxide does more than heat the air. It melts ice; it heats the ocean. Compared to air, it’s harder to raise the temperature of water; it takes time – decades. However, once the ocean temperature is elevated, it will release heat back to the air, and be measured as surface heating.

Scientists run thought experiments to help think through the complex processes of emissions reductions and limits to warming. One experiment held forcing, or the effect of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s energy balance, to year 2000 levels, which implies a very low rate of continued emissions. It found as the oceans’ heating catches up with the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature would rise about another 0.6℃. Scientists refer to this as committed warming. Ice, also responding to increasing heat in the ocean, will continue to melt. There’s already convincing evidence that significant glaciers in the West Antarctic ice sheets are lost. Ice, water and air – the extra heat held on the Earth by carbon dioxide affects them all. That which has melted will stay melted – and more will melt.

Ecosystems are altered by natural and human-made occurrences. As they recover, it will be in a different climate from that in which they evolved. The climate in which they recover will not be stable; it will be continuing to warm. There will be no new normal, only more change.

Runaway glaciers in Antarctica.

Best of the worst-case scenarios

In any event, it’s not possible to stop emitting carbon dioxide right now. Despite significant advances in renewable energy sources, total demand for energy accelerates and carbon dioxide emissions increase. As a professor of climate and space sciences, I teach my students they need to plan for a world 4℃ warmer. A 2011 report from the International Energy Agency states that if we don’t get off our current path, then we’re looking at an Earth 6℃ warmer. Even now after the Paris Agreement, the trajectory is essentially the same. It’s hard to say we’re on a new path until we see a peak and then a downturn in carbon emissions. With the approximately 1℃ of warming we’ve already seen, the observed changes are already disturbing.

There are many reasons we need to eliminate our carbon dioxide emissions. The climate is changing rapidly; if that pace is slowed, the affairs of nature and human beings can adapt more readily. The total amount of change, including sea-level rise, can be limited. The further we get away from the climate that we’ve known, the more unreliable the guidance from our models and the less likely we will be able to prepare.

It’s possible that even as emissions decrease, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase. The warmer the planet gets, the less carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb. Rising temperatures in the polar regions make it more likely that carbon dioxide and methane, another greenhouse gas that warms the planet, will be released from storage in the frozen land and ocean reservoirs, adding to the problem.

If we stop our emissions today, we won’t go back to the past. The Earth will warm. And since the response to warming is more warming through feedbacks associated with melting ice and increased atmospheric water vapor, our job becomes one of limiting the warming. If greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated quickly enough, within a small number of decades, it will keep the warming manageable and the Paris Agreement goals could be met. It will slow the change – and allow us to adapt. Rather than trying to recover the past, we need to be thinking about best possible futures.

This article was updated on July 7, 2017 to clarify the potential effects from stopping carbon dioxide emissions as well as other factors that affect global warming.

This article has been updated from an original version published in December 2014, when international climate talks in Lima were laying the foundation for the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Why are fire seasons longer? People.

New research finds illegal campfires, cigarette butts and other accidental ignitions have nearly tripled the wildfire season.

Over three months in 2016, the Soberanes fire burned 132,127 acres of central California’s coast, blazing through dry swaths of dense chaparral, mixed hardwood timber and redwoods. Costing $260 million to suppress, it became the most expensive fire in the country’s history. And it wasn’t caused by lightning, which is relatively scarce in that part of the country, but by an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park.

Human-caused climate change has meant more, and bigger, wildfires throughout the country. But as astute pyrologist Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” According to new wildfire research, the source of that spark is, more often than not, a person. What’s more, due to these human-caused ignitions, the country’s conflagrations have grown significantly larger and more frequent, while the overall fire season has tripled in length.

Firefighters work to contain the Soberanes Fire in California, which was started by an illegal campfire.

Jennifer Balch, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder, quantified just how significant humans’ role in providing that spark is. Balch and her colleagues investigated federal, state and local records provided by the Forest Service of wildfires on public and private lands from 1992 to 2012. They determined that 84 percent of the 1.5 million wildfires that burned nationally over those two decades were lit by humans, not including controlled burns intentionally lit for fire management. In total, humans started more than 1.2 million fires.

Even in parts of the country where lightning strikes cause the most fires — such as the Intermountain West — humans have increased the number, size and length of the season for wildfires overall.

By mapping the Forest Service data, Balch’s team found that fires primarily ignite in areas of human-wildland interface: roads, urban encroachment into wild spaces and the edges of agricultural fields. Areas of high human population density and fewer lightning-caused fires experience more wildfires overall. These include central and southern California, where lightning is dry but rare, and the East Coast, where lightning is common but often accompanied by fuel-soaking storms.

And in urbanizing areas of the Intermountain West, human-ignited wildfires are increasing. This pattern can be seen along Colorado’s Front Range, where human-caused wildfires cluster where people have moved into wildlands near cities such as Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.

Wildfires are larger and more common in areas of greater human density. This pattern is clear in coastal regions. New research shows that it’s true in urbanizing regions of the West as well.
Bethany Bradley/University of Massachusetts Amherst

Fire, as Balch pointed out, is a normal part of life. “From making breakfast on a gas-powered stove in the morning, to turning over the car’s combustion engine ignition, people use fire every day,” Balch said. The causes of wildfires often are part of daily life, too: a cigarette flung from a car window; a power line arcing when everyone runs the air conditioner at once; a spark hitting dried vegetation when a motorist on the side of the road starts her engine.

And while lightning-caused fires typically occur during the summer, human-caused fires are spread out throughout the year. Nationally, the fire season has grown by three months on average.

Balch suggests her research points to the need to rethink current fire management practices. “Over a hundred years of fire suppression hasn’t worked. We haven’t put fire out,” Balch said. “We need to think through how we sustainably live with fire and promote more prescribed burns.”

In the past, people have been resistant to controlled burns near communities. People don’t like living near the “patchwork patterns” of a burned landscape, Balch said.

And yet humans invite fire into their lives, sometimes just for the fun of it: The most common day for wildfire ignitions in the United States was July 4, with 7,762 fires burning more than 350,000 acres in 21 years.

“Things might have been different if Independence Day was in winter,” Balch said.

Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of fires started by humans between 1992 and 2012.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News.

A quick update on oceans, oxygen, and fish habitat


Not only does warm water hold less dissolved oxygen than cool water, it also tends to divide into layers that don’t readily mix. According to one recent study, the ocean has been losing oxygen since the mid-1980s, likely because rising temperatures have impeded circulation

 “When oxygen goes way down, it’s effectively habitat loss,” Levin says. “They might move north, they might move upslope into shallower water.” Species that can’t easily relocate, like muck-dwelling invertebrates, may perish.

The cruel corollary to deoxygenation is that warmer waters also drive up animals’ metabolic rates, forcing them to use more oxygen to breathe. As Curtis Deutsch,  a chemical oceanographer at the University of Washington, puts it, “They need more, at the same time that they have less.”

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies


 “The factor that best explained variation in extinction risk was the level of future climate change. The future global extinction risk from climate change is predicted not only to increase but to accelerate as global temperatures rise (regression coefficient = 0.53; CIs, 0.46 and 0.61) (Fig. 2).”

Mark C. Urban

Accelerating extinction risk from climate change.

SCIENCE 1 MAY 2015 • VOL 348 ISSUE 6234


“Between 1C and 2C increases in global mean temperatures most species, ecosystems and landscapes will be impacted and adaptive capacity will become limited.”

Rik Leemans and Bas Eickhout. Another reason for concern: regional and global impacts on ecosystems for different levels of climate change. Global Environmental Change 14 (2004) 219-228

Meet Jane, a climate scientist who fled Trump’s government

Worries about science censorship drove her from her post at the Energy Department.

The day after President Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, Jane Zelikova was “crying her eyes out” in her office at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. As a scientist researching how big fossil-fuel industries can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, she feared that her work would be stymied because of the new president’s skepticism about climate change. As a Jewish refugee who came to the United States as a teen, she felt threatened by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign. The election also created a rift in her family: Her father voted for Trump; her mother sat out the election. “Every part of me that I identify with felt fear and anger combined into outrage,” Zelikova said.

She texted furiously with three close friends — other women scientists she had known since they went to graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. At first, they simply shared their alarm. But by the second day, they wondered what they could do about it.  “We moved into an email thread and added women scientists we knew,” Zelikova recalled. “It grew very quickly — from five people to 20 to 50 to 100 — within a matter of a couple of days.”

Representatives of a new activist group, created after President Donald Trump’s election, participate in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on Earth Day. The group, 500 Women Scientists, co-founded by Jane Zelikova (blue scarf in the center) has gathered nearly 20,000 signatures from women scientists, calling for scientific integrity in government policy as well as inclusivity and diversity in science.
Sophia Roberts

They drafted an open letter from women scientists. “We fear that the scientific progress and momentum in tackling our biggest challenges, including staving off the worst impacts of climate change, will be severely hindered under this next U.S. administration,” they wrote.  The letter rejects the “hateful rhetoric” of the campaign and commits to overcoming discrimination against women and minorities in science. Then they built a website and gathered signatures. Thousands signed on, and a new activist group was born: 500 Women Scientists.

Zelikova’s experience mirrors a broader phenomenon. Many scientists felt threatened enough by Trump’s victory to abandon their usual detached objectivity. They wrote members of Congress to defend science funding and scientific advisory panels and used their knowledge of government research to protect data they feared could be erased from websites. They set up alternative Twitter sites for government agencies and planned and participated in protests. “The election mobilized scientists in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Gretchen Goldman, who leads research on science in public policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group. “I’ve personally been blown away by the scientists who want to be engaged in a new way.”

Previously, Zelikova, a 39-year-old Ph.D. soil ecologist, had envisioned a future as a research scientist, working in academia or in government. But Trump’s election, she said, is changing her in ways she never could have imagined. Her whirlwind metamorphosis provides a glimpse into just how disruptive the last six months have been for some in federal government. Zelikova — who is intense, articulate and has an engaging smile — doesn’t have a permanent federal job. She took a leave from the University of Wyoming, where she’s a research scientist, for a two-year fellowship at the Energy Department. She had less to lose than career civil servants with mortgages and government pensions, so she felt freer to speak out.

The Trump administration has proposed deep staff and budget cuts for the Energy Department, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies whose mission involves safeguarding the environment. Many federal workers committed to protecting the environment share Zelikova’s angst but won’t say so publicly for fear of retribution.

For weeks after the election, Zelikova barely slept, working late into the night on her new group. “I am a Jewish, refugee, immigrant, woman scientist. At some level, this felt really personally offensive to me, and like an attack on all the parts of me that make me a complete human,” Zelikova recalled. She had always been skeptical of political protests. She grew up in Eastern Ukraine, where Communist leaders used to orchestrate demonstrations in the 1980s. But Trump’s election moved her to join protests. Her first was the Women’s March the day after the Inauguration in Washington, D.C. After that, she frequently joined demonstrations, protesting Trump’s travel ban and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Meanwhile, things were changing in Zelikova’s day job at the Department of Energy. In early December, Trump’s transition team sent out a questionnaire that attempted to identify employees who worked on climate change. Staffers feared the new administration would target people who had worked on former President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda. The day after the inauguration, with the Obama team gone, Zelikova attended a staff meeting at which, she said, only white men talked. “The backslide was immediate,” she said. Trump’s budget proposal, which came out in March, slashed funding for science and research. The morale at the agency was low and dropping.

Still, Zelikova kept working on her research. She was part of a team responding to Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s request that the Energy Department analyze options for keeping the state’s largest coal-fired power plant, Colstrip, in business. Zelikova’s team came up with scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent or more by installing equipment to capture carbon dioxide emissions.

Capturing carbon takes a lot of energy, however. So Zelikova went to Colstrip last fall to talk about using renewable energy — wind or solar — to power the carbon-capture process and thereby cut emissions even further. “Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of sucking that parasitic load off the plant, you powered it with renewable energy?” she said. She thinks the idea holds great promise for other fossil-fuel plants. “We went to national labs and universities, and we talked to people about how do we make this happen,” Zelikova said. “And then the election happened, and it felt like this isn’t going to happen.” Trump is determined to eliminate Obama’s Clean Power Plan, removing a major incentive for plants like Colstrip to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. His budget proposal recommends slashing funding for the Energy Department’s renewable energy and fossil fuel research programs. “I’m seeing all that work become really threatened,” Zelikova said. “It feels like betrayal, because I got so personally invested.”

Her boss at the time, David Mohler, recalls her reaction: “She was distraught clearly and for understandable reasons; the Trump team is really not appreciative of science, and certainly they don’t believe in climate science.” Before becoming deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management, Mohler was chief technology officer for the country’s biggest electric utility, Duke Energy. Trump will probably slow reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Mohler says. But even Trump can’t stop progress on climate change: Utilities won’t reopen closed coal-fired power plants, and low-priced natural gas will keep replacing coal. And Mohler believes that wind and solar will continue to expand because of declining costs, state mandates and tax incentives, which have bipartisan support in Congress.

Mohler, an Obama appointee, left government on Jan. 20, and moved back to South Carolina. Zelikova started thinking about leaving Washington, too. “Resistance as daily existence was starting to diminish my ability to function,” Zelikova recalled. She talked her supervisor into letting her move to Colorado in February for the rest of her fellowship. She continued to work for the Energy Department at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. In her spare time, she kept building 500 Women Scientists. The group grew quickly, spawning nearly 150 local branches around the globe in just a few months.

One branch was founded in Seattle by Sarah Myhre, a 34-year-old climate change scientist at the University of Washington’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences. The group gave Myhre the courage to stand up to a prominent professor, Cliff Mass, from her own department.

In January, at a state legislative committee hearing, Myhre criticized Mass for stressing uncertainties about how much human-caused climate change is affecting wildfires and ocean acidification in the Pacific Northwest. Myhre described Mass as an “outlier” in the department whose views did not represent the broad scientific consensus. In online comments to a Seattle Times opinion piece Myhre wrote in February with Zelikova and another woman scientist, Mass called them three idealistic young scientists (none of them really are climate scientists, by the way).” When Myhre traveled to Washington, D.C., at the end of April for the People’s Climate March, one of the women she marched with carried a sign that read: “Idealistic Young Real Scientists.”

A week earlier, on Earth Day, Zelikova joined other members of 500 Women Scientists for the March for Science in Washington, D.C., waiting for hours in a chilly rain to get through security screening for the rally at the Washington National Monument. Shivering in her watermelon-red ski shell, Zelikova reflected on the ways her life would be different if Trump had not been elected. “I would have never founded a big group — ever,” she said. “I would have never been a loud advocate for things. I would have never protested. These are now the hugest part of my life.”

At the end of May, Zelikova quit her fellowship at the Energy Department. In July, she will start a new job for a tiny nonprofit called the Center for Carbon Removal, based in Berkeley, California. She hopes to help states move forward on capturing carbon from fossil fuel plants. “Western states are perfectly poised to lead on climate action,” she said. “In terms of federal action, there’s going to be very little, so we need to work with states, so that when the political climate changes and there can be federal action, we can be ready to go.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

Al Gore: Trump’s Paris decision ‘indefensible’

Gore: Trump ‘reckless’ on climate change 00:58

Story highlights

  • Gore said he thought Trump would “come to his senses” on the Paris agreement
  • He cast Trump’s decision as an abdication of leadership

Washington (CNN)Former Vice President Al Gore expressed disappointment Sunday over his failure to persuade President Donald Trump to keep the US in the Paris climate agreement.

Gore said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump’s decision was a threat to humanity and bad for the US position in global politics. “I think it was reckless,” Gore said. “I think it was indefensible. It undermines America’s standing in the world. It threatens the ability of humanity to solve the climate crisis in time.”
Trump announced on Thursday his decision to initiate the nation’s withdrawal from the landmark agreement of which nearly every country on earth is a member. His speech came after weeks of internal White House debate.
Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka, was among those who supported the US remaining in the agreement.
Gore met with both Trumps in December at Trump Tower in New York. At the time, he called their discussion “lengthy and very productive.”
In his CNN interview Sunday, Gore said he had spoken with Ivanka Trump several times since that meeting but that they had not spoken since Trump’s announcement.
“I thought that he would come to his senses on it, but he didn’t,” Gore said.
Gore also said the trend of the future would be toward clean energy and away from carbon-emitting fuels. He said there was progress happening “all over the world.”
“The direction to move in the future is very clear,” he said.
“We’re now seeing governors and mayors and businesses and civic leaders really beginning to move regardless of what the White House says. … The American people are going to provide leadership, even if President Trump will not.”



Over the years, Jethro Tull has explored issues relating to the environment, including climate change.
My interest in climate change goes back to about 1974. There was a track released on the War Child album called “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day,” which was a piece talking about climate change. Albeit in the 1970s, it was thought that we were possibly heading towards another age of global cooling—a mini ice age. In fact, scientists then had got it wrong because when the ice core samples started to kick in in the ’80s, and the reality began to emerge, of gradual incremental change, then global heating became the likely prediction, and of course that, for the last 10, 15 years, has been the agreed likely future of the planet aggravated in part, I’m sure, with what we would call natural change in climate but certainly by the effects of human activity. If it wasn’t for the fact that many Chinese cities have absolutely been deviled by smog and terrible atmospheric conditions, I doubt the Chinese would be doing what they’re beginning to do now, which is to, in some cases, lead the charge towards more environmentally conscious ways of producing energy. But I’m afraid the trend is in the opposite direction in your country right now. It should be scaring the proverbial out of you.

It is.
And in other ways it isn’t because you always find ways to unfortunately excuse the dependency that you have on fossil fuels. And the dependency you have on personal transport, for example. And the dependency that you have or you think you have on eating vast amounts of meat, which is very expensive to produce, very energy intensive, very damaging to the environment. In South America and North America, there is a culture of eating really, really a lot of meat. I’m not a vegetarian, I mean I eat meat, I should be having some meat tonight in a pie. But I don’t eat meat every day. I enjoy it when I eat it but I’m very conscious of placing some restriction on the amount that I eat. And I choose not to drive a car. I choose not to be dependent on transport, which is very inefficient in terms of its impact on the environment and its costs. I use public transport. I travel in the back of the airplane; on short and medium journeys I travel in the train. I should be on the train tomorrow traveling into London. I use the underground, the tube, the subway system, or a bus, or I walk. But I’ve never been interested in owning a motorcar. Being a passenger in a car, and gas-guzzling my way 200 miles to go to London and back—I think it a little inefficient.

What happens when you have to get somewhere in a pinch and you can’t get there by bike, walking or public transport?
I change my plans usually. Like everybody else, I think the answer you’re looking for is, “I get out my smartphone and I ask Mr. Uber to to send me a car.” But these “What do you do when?” circumstances are exceptions. When you have the choice, when you can make the choice about traveling more economically, and more consciously, then I use public transport out of preference. I know there’s a lot of people who can’t do that because there isn’t any public transport. Of course that does apply in much of America, where it is a car-based society; there aren’t too many options. You have Greyhound buses but not much of a train network compared to Europe and other countries. You can argue that you don’t really have those options, but it’s time they were there.

In April, you traveled to Australia to perform, and made the trip by plane.
Being in the company of 300 other passengers, on a very large airplane, is the most economic way to do that. If I were to do that in private jet, then I think you could accuse me of the same hypocrisy as we might apply to certain other people who do that. On the one hand, to espouse concerns about the environment and then on the other hand jump into their private jet to go to the next climate change conference—plenty of hypocrites like that around.