Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Thomas Stocker, a lead author of the IPCC report, got grilled by reporters in Stockholm today over the issue of the so-called warming "hiatus," which he dismissed as an "inappropriate" focal point.
Check back throughout the day for live updates.
Gerald Meehl, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the slowdown of surface warming seen in the last 15 years is unlikely to continue much longer. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
Activists erect a tribute to melting ice outside the IPCC's meeting hall in Stockholm.
Today, on a walkway above Stockholm's Riddarfjärden bay, four activists in red jumpsuits wrestled with three 2,400-pound chunks of ice. The ice, which will melt onto the sidewalk over the next two days, is meant as a reminder of melting glaciers above the Arctic Circle some 700 miles north of here—although this particular ice was hand-delivered by the same company that maintains Sweden's famous ice hotel. A few steps away, dozens of top climate scientists from across the globe were sealed in a conference room inside an imposing brick compound that was once one of the city's largest breweries. They've come to hash out last-minute details of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report, the last day of a week of tweaks and edits to cap off over five years of work.
"We want to show that the climate change is real," one of the activists, Valentina Restrepo, said. She's not likely to face much resistance to that argument from the women and men behind the report: A leaked draft stated that global warming is "extremely likely" (or 95 percent certain) to be caused by human activities. When the report is officially released tomorrow morning, it will be the IPCC's first global assessment of the state of climate science since 2007, and it's expected to include updates on everything from how long carbon dioxide hangs out in the atmosphere, to the dangers posed by sea level rise, to the alleged "slowdown" in warming many climate skeptics have trumpeted in recent weeks.
Stockholm's Münchenbryggeriet, a former brewery where dozens of the world's top climate scientists gathered this week to put the finishing touches on the next IPCC report. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
But one question we'll be asking scientists tomorrow goes beyond the science itself: Is a report like this really necessary? A criticism voiced by many scientists, both within and outside of the IPCC, is that while early iterations of the report were essential tools for alerting policymakers to the dangers of climate change, this fifth report is unlikely to differ significantly from the last report six years ago (which won a Nobel Prize for laying "the foundation" for climate solutions), calling into question the value of dedicating time and resources to re-producing it in its current format.
There is no original science conducted for these reports; instead, scientists meticulously aggregate, review, and summarize existing literature. While that sounds like a worthwhile endeavor in theory, the amount of time required means that some science (like, as my colleague Chris Mooney reported, on the effects of warming on hurricanes) might be already obsolete by the time it comes out.
Of course, the policymakers who rely on the IPCC to inform their practical approaches to climate change aren't suggesting that the group disband, but rather break the massive report into more manageable and regularly-issued chunks, according to a survey of participating countries the IPCC conducted earlier this year. This way, the government bureaus that deal with, say, ocean issues, wouldn't have to sift through a stack of papers on volcanoes to find what's relevant for them. A new format is one thing that'll be on the table when members of the group re-convene in Batumi, Georgia, next month.
No matter what form the report takes in the future, its top-line findings tomorrow will form the backbone of climate talking points for at least the next five years, and in Stockholm the coffee is flowing as scientists gear up for a long night of finishing touches (into the "early a.m.," one wrote to us). Climate Desk will be on the scene all day tomorrow, with live updates from IPCC scientists and other analysis, so stay tuned.
One of the biggest question marks hanging over climate studies right now is about the role of clouds and the aerosols, or tiny airborne particles, that shape them. The problem is clouds move fast, making them hard to model, and depending on their concentration at different altitudes, clouds can cool or heat the planet. Scientists agree that before they can build the best models to predict climate change, they first have to understand clouds.
This summer, NASA has been working to crack this problem, at 30,000 feet, aboard a custom-equipped flying laboratory. Climate Desk was invited onboard for an eight-hour mission to suck the secrets out of clouds.
Pine beetles like this aren't the only pests driven north by climate change.
In 1996 Colorado received a very unwelcome—and hungry—house guest, the mountain pine beetle, whose voracious appetite for pine has since killed off millions of acres of trees there. A few years later, the beetles came knocking in British Columbia and have now knocked out over half the province's pine timber. The full-bore invasion of these critters, each no bigger than a grain of rice, is now one of the most pressing ecological disasters in the West, and their spread, scientists believe, is driven by climate change.
The beetles aren't alone: Rising equatorial temperatures have pushed a menagerie of pests north at an alarming rate of nearly 10,000 feet every year since 1960, according to a new survey out today in Nature. Researchers led by biologist Dan Bebber at the UK's University of Exeter combed through databases hosted by the non-profit CABI, which aggregates scientific and trade literature on agriculture, for the first documented appearance of over 600 kinds of pests (including insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria), over a 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere. They found, averaged across 14 taxonomic groups, a distinctive northward migration, wherein species first noticed at southern latitudes were, at a later date, discovered anew at northern latitudes.
The chart below, from the paper, shows the distribution range of the different pest groups Bebber examined, with the vertical axis indicating distance from the equator (positive distances indicate north; negative distances indicate south) and the horizontal axis indicating time, from 1960 to the present. Overall, the groups show a gradual northward migration over time (up and to the right):
Species like the endangered least tern could find their lives disrupted by Keystone XL.
In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And yesterday, ThinkProgressuncovereda letter from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc to plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route.
The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."
"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure…impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."
Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:
The Ross' goose depends on Nebraska's Rainwater basin, which the pipeline would pass through, as a key migratory stopover. A spill in the basin could "severely impact critical habitat," the letter says.
Although the letter praises State Department plans to protect these endangered ferrets, it nonetheless raises concerns about the potential for infectious diseases from domestic pets at construction camps and worksites in Montana and South Dakota to spread to this population of 1,000 or less left in the wild.
Already endangered, least terns depend for nesting on plot of protected federal land just 40 miles downstream from where the pipeline will cross Nebraska's Niobrara River. Nests could fail, the letter warns, if construction activities cause fluctuations in the river's water level.
In 2010 the Fish & Wildlife Service found the tiny Sprague's pipit qualified for endangered status, but hasn't yet been able to officially list it because of higher-priority species. But the pipit breeds in Montana's North Valley Grassland, which the pipeline would pass through, raising concerns about impact from a spill.
While not exactly the cutest on this list, pallid sturgeons are also endangered; the letter raises concern that as water is withdrawn from the Platte River during the construction process, the fish and their eggs could suffocate. An assertion by the State Department that no plan is needed to mitigate damage to sturgeons, the letter says, "seems unsupported and requires further documentation."