Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Climate deniers like to point to the so-called global warming "hiatus" as evidence that humans aren't changing the climate. But according a new study, exactly the opposite is true: The recent slowdown in global temperature increases is partially the result of one of the few successful international crackdowns on greenhouse gases.
Back in 1988, more than 40 countries, including the US, signed the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase out the use of ozone-depleting gases like chlorofluorocarbons (today the Protocol has nearly 200 signatories). According to the EPA, CFC emissions are down 90 percent since the Protocol, a drop that the agency calls "one of the largest reductions to date in global greenhouse gas emissions." That's a blessing for the ozone layer, but also for the climate. CFCs are a potent heat-trapping gas, and a new analysis published today in Nature Geoscience finds that slashing them has been a major driver of the much-discussed slowdown in global warming.
"The recent decrease in warming, presented by global warming skeptics as proof that humankind cannot affect the climate system, is shown to have a direct human origin."
Without the Protocol, environmental economist Francisco Estrada of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México reports, global temperatures today would be about a tenth of a degree Celsius higher than they are. That's roughly an eighth of the total warming documented since 1880.
Estrada and his co-authors compared global temperature and greenhouse gas emissions records over the last century and found that breaks in the steady upward march of both coincided closely. At times when emissions leveled off or dropped, like during the Great Depression, the trend was mirrored in temperatures; likewise for when emissions climbed.
"With these breaks, what's interesting is that when they're common that's pretty indicative of causation," said Pierre Perron, a Boston University economist who developed the custom-built statistical tests used in the study.
The findings put a new spin on investigation into the cause of the recent "hiatus." Scientists have suggested that several temporary natural phenomena, including the deep ocean sucking up more heat, are responsible for this slowdown. Estrada says his findings show that a recent reduction in heat-trapping CFCs as a result of the Montreal Protocol has also played an important role.
"Paradoxically, the recent decrease in warming, presented by global warming skeptics as proof that humankind cannot affect the climate system, is shown to have a direct human origin," Estrada writes in the study.
Federal agencies are required to clear the way for more climate change adaptations, like this house being raised out of the floodplain in Virginia. James West/Climate Desk
Just a few days after the Treasury Department announced it would no longer back funding for most overseas coal-fired power plants, today President Obama issued a new executive order that lays the groundwork for how the US will prepare for climate change within its borders. The order is the latest in a series of policies stemming from the president's Climate Action Plan; earlier this year, for example, the administration issued new greenhouse gas emission limits for power plants and cars. But rather than addressing carbon pollution, per se, today's plan focuses on how cities and states can prepare for the climate impacts already on the way.
"We need to work on bipartisan solutions, and put politics aside," said Mayor James Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, a Republican who is one of the local officials taking part in a new advisory task force created by today's order. "The climate is changing, and we need to be prepared for it."
So what does the order call for? Here's what you need to know:
Prioritize climate-ready projects: In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many civic planning experts called for future infrastructure plans—for bridges, roads, housing development, and the like—to emphasize climate resilience (a popular buzzword among climate wonks that means being able to quickly bounce back from disasters).
Today's order requires federal agencies to support and incentivize "smarter, more climate-resilient investments" through grants, guidance, and other forms of assistance. These could include moving roads away from crumbling coasts or requiring seaside homes to be built higher above the floodplain. The order also directs agencies to "identify and seek to remove or reform barriers that discourage" resilient investments—for example, policies that currently encourage cities to apply weak rebuilding standards after natural disasters.
"What we're seeing here is a promise that resources that might have been dedicated just to rebuilding, there would now be a mandate to rebuild in a more resilient fashion," said Rachel Cleetus, a climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The order gives a nod to natural systems, too: Federal agencies are required to look for ways to protect places like watersheds, marshes (which are themselves an important protective barrier from sea level rise), and forests from climate impacts and are directed deliver specific recommendations to the White House within nine months.
One year ago tomorrow, storm surge from Hurricane Sandy set off a fire in Breezy Point, Queens, that leveled more than 100 homes. Now, construction is underway to rebuild the community from the ground up. But in July 2012, Congress decided to slash subsidies for federal flood insurance, and many residents now worry that rising rates could soon make this quiet beachside neighborhood unaffordable.
One of the next big items on President Obama's green agenda is a new set of caps on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Set to roll out over the next few years, the rules aim to slash the climate impact of the nation's biggest polluters. But statistics released yesterday from the federal Energy Information Administration show that even without these new caps, energy-related carbon emissions—those that come from powering factories, homes, cars, and businesses—dropped almost four percent between 2011 and 2012, marking the fifth out of the last seven years for these emissions to decline:
Antarctic researcher Gretchen Hoffman, left, says consequences of the shutdown "could completely scuttle some projects."Courtesy Gretchen Hofmann
The government shutdown might be over, but for some climate scientists the headache is just beginning. During the shutdown, National Science Foundation-funded research facilities in Antarctica—where some of the world's most important climate research takes place—were left with a skeleton staff at just the time of year they would normally be coming back to life after a long, dark winter.
On its first day back online, NSF released a statement saying it would salvage the research season "to the maximum extent possible," without giving a definite timeline. NSF warned that "certain research and operations activities may be deferred until next year's austral research season." For scientists studying everything from ocean acidification to earthquakes to seal pups, the 16 days of the shutdown were 16 missed opportunities to collect irreplaceable data.
One of those scientists was Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who published a column today in Nature about her frustration with the shutdown and its long-term impacts on basic research. As Hofmann and her peers stand by for word from NSF, we spoke to her about how some of the worst pain from the last two weeks could be felt by the next generation of up-and-coming scientists.
Climate Desk: What have the last couple weeks been like for you?
Gretchen Hofmann: We have a research project that's funded to study ocean conditions and ocean acidification in the Southern Ocean, the area around McMurdo Sound. That project was supposed to start October 10, and we were going to deploy one of our field team members down there to go retrieve sensors from under the sea ice. The government shut down and we just sat there and thought, 'Well, I guess she's not going,' and sure enough 24 hours before Lydia Kapsenberg, my grad student, was supposed to deploy, her travel was canceled. A week earlier, my post-doc Amanda Kelley, an NSF funded research fellow, was supposed to go down; she flew down there, landed on the sea ice, and literally was told that the station had gone into caretaker mode. So right away, right in my face, front row center, I had two junior scientists that were really heavily impacted by this. Not only because they stand to lose to data and progress in their careers; it was also really upsetting. I mean, they felt really threatened and jeopardized.
"The shutdown, with respect to Antarctic science, was as poorly timed as you could possibly manage."
CD: You make the point that while there are impacts for everyone working down there, it's especially a problem for young scientists, post-docs and grad students. Explain why. What's different about being in that position that makes a missed opportunity like this even more problematic?
GH: The reason that it's a sensitive life history stage is because, if we talk about Dr. Kelley, she's a post-doc, and that's kind of like being an apprentice electrician: You already have your license, in this case a PhD, and she now comes to work with me to really learn about how to be a scientist. During that time, these jobs are really competitive, and you need to be productive. By that I mean you need to do experiments, you need to publish papers, you need to go to science meetings and get out there. And with no data, with a canceled field season, she will not have that. And so that puts her back incredibly.
And grad students, well, forget about it. Many of them have planned to be at McMurdo to do a specific thing that will give them their PhD or their masters degree. And that's been completely canceled. It's even worse sometimes for grad students because if they know they're going to do something down there, they might spend the whole year training to do that; frankly, they're not doing anything else. They spent a whole bunch of time getting ready to be there, and when that gets canceled, then they've got nothin'. And so a year of their life could be delayed, they might have to stay in school for another year, their advisor might not have funding for them, so it throws them into a really difficult situation that can also involve financial problems. I worry about this every day. People send you their children, and our country depends on this new talent. And so it's kind of like we're eating our young in the Antarctic science community if we can't rescue the field season.
"We're eating our young in the Antarctic science community if we can't rescue the field season."
Amanda Kelley is an unfortunate example of this. She has a two-year fellowship from NSF that just started this summer. She was supposed to work at McMurdo for the field season this October/November, and October/November, 2014, and that's all the money she has for those two years. And so now, if she loses this field season, she'll run out of money before she can get a full set of research done. And everyone [at NSF] will do their utmost to rectify the situation, but whereas I stand to lose some data and an instrument and that's a drag and sets my research back, you know, I'm protected, I'm tenured. And these guys are not.