Blue Marble - March 2013

How Climate Change Worsened Violence in Syria

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 2:56 PM EST
Syrian rebels rally in Aleppo last November.

In October 2010, just months before a Tunisian street vendor self-immolated and sparked what would become the Arab Spring, a prolonged drought was turning Syria's verdant farmland into dust. By last month, more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, had been killed in the brutal and ongoing conflict between President Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime and a coalition of opposition forces; just today, the UN announced that over one million refugees fled the country in the last two years. International security experts are now looking at the connection between recent droughts in the Middle East and the protests, revolutions, and deaths that followed, and building a body of evidence to suggest that climate change played a key role in Syria's violence and the Arab Spring generally.

The possibility that climate change could affect security is nothing new: The US Department of Defense has proven to be surprisingly progressive on planning for global warming. But Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia, co-founders of the Washington-based Center for Climate and Security, argue that if you want to see the connection between climate and conflict in action today, look no further than Syria. The pair contributed to a series of essays released last week by the Center for American Progress, all arguing that the Arab Spring is a textbook example of the link between climate change and social instability. Climate Desk called them up to discuss how lack of rainfall leads into violent uprising, and how the international community can prepare for the future of extreme weather.

Climate Desk: How does climate change play into civil unrest? Where does it rank compared to other violence-causing factors?

Caitlin Werrell: We use the term "threat multiplier" or "accelerant of instability," in the sense that climate change can exacerbate other threats to national or international security. The way it does that is often through water: You have an increased prevalence of drought or floods or changing rainfall patterns, and what this does is it changes your ability to grow food, it has impacts on food security, it influences your ability to produce energy, it influences your infrastructure.

Francesco Femia: We wouldn't actually rank climate change amongst other factors; we would say that climate change is one of those almost special factors that exacerbates other drivers of unrest and/or conflict. It just makes other drivers of unrest worse.

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We Are Hot-Boxing Ourselves With Dangerous Gases at a Furious Pace

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 2:33 PM EST

Global greenhouse gas emissions were way up in 2012, which shows that the world's (admittedly limited) efforts to stop hot-boxing ourselves with dangerous gases aren't going very well.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by 2.67 parts per million last year. That puts us at 395 parts per million, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—which is already well past the 350 ppm that some scientists say is ideal for keeping the planet livable. The Associated Press first reported on the jump in emissions:

That's the second highest rise in carbon emissions since record-keeping began in 1959. The measurements are taken from air samples captured away from civilization near a volcano in Mauna Loa, Hawaii.
More coal-burning power plants, especially in the developing world, are the main reason emissions keep going up—even as they have declined in the U.S. and other places, in part through conservation and cleaner energy.

Scientists note that this is the second-largest annual increase in CO2 that they've seen since they've been recording it. Only 1998 was higher, at 2.93 parts per million. Between 2000 and 2010, humans put an average of 2 million additional ppm into the atmosphere each year.

All of this is just another indication that we're likely to blow right past the goal of keeping the global average temperature increase to 2°C (3.6°F) that world leaders have agreed to and continue on toward 4° or more by as early as 2060.

Can This Contraption Make Fracking Greener?

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 3:04 PM EST
This computer can sniff out and pinpoint methane emissions from fracking.

Although natural gas production emits less CO2 than other fossil fuels, it still spits plenty of junk into the atmosphere. But backers of a new gadget released yesterday say they've hit on a way to help frackers clean up their act.

Boosters of natural gas often flaunt the stuff as a "clean" fossil fuel, because when it burns—in a power plant, say—it releases far less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. But with the growth of fracking nationwide, some academics and environmentalists have flagged a silent problem that threatens to undermine the purported climate gains of natural gas: "fugitive" methane emissions.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, even more so than CO2 over the short-term. And natural gas production creates a lot of it: The EPA predicts that methane from the natural gas industry will be one of the top sources of non-CO2 emissions in coming decades. A 2011 federal study found that taken all around, the total greenhouse footprint for shale gas could be up to twice that of coal over a 20-year period. The catch is that it doesn't have to be so bad. Much of that methane is leaking out (hence "fugitive") unnecessarily from gas wells, pipelines, and storage facilities—so much so that the Environmental Defense Fund calls methane leakage from natural gas operations "the single largest US source of short-term climate-forcing gases".

But nailing down exactly how much methane leakage there is has proved a bit challenging: Some independent academic studies say up to nine percent of all the natural gas extracted leaks out, while the official EPA figure is less than three percent. Academics, government agencies, and environmental NGOs are at work to shore up this figure, but the effort can be costly and require teams of specialized physicists and chemists. 

Enter Picarro, a California-based scientific instrument company that yesterday released a new gadget the company says will streamline locating leaks and finding out how much methane is streaming out of them. The "Surveyor" attaches to any car, and consists of a computer, an air sampling hose, and a GPS device. Together, says Picarro CEO Michael Woelk, they can sniff out methane and pinpoint the exact spot—like a crack in a pipe—it's coming from, then feed the data to any web-enabled mobile device in a format understandable without an atmospheric physics PhD. 

"All we have to do is drive downwind of the source," Woelk said.

We're Scarily Close to the Permafrost Tipping Point

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 6:15 AM EST
Permafrost, Sweden:

Permafrost—the ground that stays frozen for two or more consecutive years—is a ticking time bomb of climate change. Some 24 percent of Northern Hemisphere land is permafrost. That's 9 million square miles (23 million square kilometers) found mostly in Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and other higher mountain regions.

Unfortunately, thawing permafrost releases massive amounts of methane and/or carbon dioxide. The question is whether that would happen over the course of decades or over a century or more. This short video from the Yale Climate Forum explains the current scientific thinking on just how close we might be to the lethal tipping point.

Meanwhile this 90-second permafrost primer from the Climate Desk explains exactly we want this northern freezer to remain frozen. 

The map below shows land-based permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere. It also shows the subsea permafrost that underlies the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean. 

Map of Northern Hemipshere permafrost on land and under the Arctic Ocean:
Map of Northern Hemisphere permafrost on the land and under the Arctic Ocean: Credit: Tingjun Zhang via the National Snow & Ice Data Center

We really really don't want permafrost to melt since its emissions have the potential to dwarf our own. As the Yale Climate Forum video says, we have the theoretical ability to control our carbon emissions but none whatsoever to stop a permafrost tipping point once it's reached.

"Promiscuous" Bees and Vanishing Insects Mean Less Food for Us

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 6:01 AM EST

A wild Andrena bee visits a highbush blueberry flower.

The foods that make our meals more colorful and delicious—coffee, watermelon, almonds, to name a few—depend on pollinators like bees. In fact, three-quarters of global food crops rely at least partly on pollination by animals. But two reports published in Science last week show how wild pollinating insects such as bumblebees, butterflies, and beetles are disappearing, putting these foods at risk. Plus, one of the reports reveals, substituting hives of honeybees isn't going to cut it—according to research collected across 20 countries, managed honeybees don't do nearly as good of a job at pollinating as their wild counterparts.

Enviros Cheer Obama EPA Pick

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 11:16 AM EST

On Monday, President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Gina McCarthy as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency—a promotion for the deputy who has been behind some of the toughest new environmental regulations in the past four years.

As the assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, McCarthy has helped implement a raft of new or improved national standards for pollutants such as mercury, sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions, and soot, and she oversaw the first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

"Every American is—or will soon be—breathing cleaner air because of McCarthy," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

Her appointment to the top spot at EPA is seen by enviros as good news for the future of greenhouse gas regulations. After rolling out emission limits for new power plants last year, the EPA is now expected to set rules for existing power plants—a huge task given the number of old, dirty plants around the country. That's just one item on a long list of environmental regulations that were delayed until after the 2012 election. Now McCarthy will manage the implementation and/or drafting of these regs.

Another reason enviros are cheering McCarthy's appointment is her bipartisan history. Before coming to the EPA, McCarthy worked for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as his undersecretary for environmental policy. After that, she worked for Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, another Republican. "McCarthy's stellar work under two Republican governors as well as her excellent work over the past four years at the EPA is proof that when it comes to protecting our health and environment, it isn't about who you work for or what party you represent," says Margie Alt, executive director for Environment America. "It's about whether you can get the job done. And Gina McCarthy can get the job done."

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This Cheat Sheet Will Make You Win Every Climate Argument

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 6:02 AM EST

"I don't see what all those environmentalists are worried about," sneers your Great Uncle Joe. "Carbon dioxide is harmless, and great for plants!"

Okay. Take a deep breath. If you're not careful, comments like this can result in dinner-table screaming matches. Luckily, we have a secret weapon: A flowchart that will help you calmly slay even the most outlandish and annoying of climate-denying arguments:

Climate argument flowchart

New Obama Admin. Report on Keystone XL Pipeline Has Enviros Worried

| Fri Mar. 1, 2013 6:22 PM EST

On Friday afternoon, the State Department released a draft of its much-anticipated new analysis of the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Although the report makes no firm statement one way or the other about whether the controversial pipeline from Canada to Texas should be approved, some of its conclusions have enviros worried that a greenlight is inevitable.

The administration has spent more than two years considering whether to approve the 1,600-mile pipeline that would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries in Texas. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department gets to decide whether it should be built. Climate change activists have been holding rallies and civil disobedience actions outside the White House for the past year and a half in an effort to convince the administration to block the project. Obama delayed a decision on the pipeline in November 2011, asking the State Department to produce more research on the pipeline's potential environmental impact—the report, a "supplemental environmental impact statement," or SEIS, that was issued Friday afternoon.

Enviros immediately seized on the new report, arguing against its claim that any spills associated with the pipeline are "expected to be rare and relatively small," and said it underestimated the project's contribution to planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. They also challenged the idea that TransCanada's pipeline will not make a huge difference in the development of the tar sands, pointing to the industry's own claims that the pipeline is essential to their plans to expand export of this type of oil.

"If they don't have [Keystone XL], they won't be able to expand the tar sands like they've been planning to," said Bill McKibben, the author and activist whose group, 350.org, has organized the pipeline protests. He called the pipeline "the most important issue for the environmental movement in a very long time," noting that it has brought "huge numbers of Americans into the streets."

Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, noted the timing of the draft's release. "You know the news is bad when it's buried at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon," he said on a call with reporters shortly after the release. Enviros have framed the pipeline as a test of Obama's sincerity on dealing with climate change. Brune acknowledged that the SEIS likely "makes the president's job more difficult" because it will increase pressure on him to approve the pipeline.

But, Brune added, "this is the president's decision. He can either lead our country to a clean energy future … or he can approve a pipeline that will bring the dirtiest oil on the planet through the US, and for the next decades we will know that the Keystone XL was approved under Obama at the time that we needed strong leadership on this issue."

The report is in draft form and will be open for public comment for 45 days. After that, the State Department will issue a final report and, eventually, a final decision on whether the pipeline should be built.

McKibben said the pipeline's critics will not be deterred by Friday's draft report. "I don't think anybody is going to walk away form this fight," McKibben said. "My guess is this will produce more determination in a lot of people."

TIMELINE: Shell's Year of Arctic Screwups

| Fri Mar. 1, 2013 6:06 AM EST

Last August, Shell got a long-awaited go-ahead from US regulators to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic. It's a potential gold mine for the company—up to a fifth of the world's untapped oil resources are in the Arctic. But instead of rolling in cash, Shell ended up getting rolled by one disaster after another, culminating in the crash in January of drilling rig and a subsequent investigation by the feds. And that was only the next act in a comedy of errors that's been unfolding for over a year, and that finally ended—for now, anyway—this week, when the company announced it would "pause" its Arctic operations. Here's a look back at Shell's tumultuous run in the Arctic, featuring coverage by our Climate Desk partners: