Blue Marble

Remembering Nelson Mandela and His Fight for Climate Justice

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 7:00 AM EST

This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Nelson Mandela, who died last week, is best known for his fight against South African apartheid. But his long walk to freedom also included steps toward solving this mammoth problem called climate change. He envisioned a world where all people are able to live a fully dignified life, with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink—and where poor countries are not left with the repercussions of rich nation's dirty ways.

Six years ago, Mandela founded The Elders, a cross-cultural group of leaders from across the globe, including former President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Chief Kofi Annan, to forge human rights-based solutions to worldwide problems. One of the group's top priorities is climate justice, which is not only about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also about ensuring the protection of those people and regions most vulnerable to the worst of climate change's impacts.

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Why the EPA Chief Needs China's Help to Tackle Global Warming

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 11:59 AM EST

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy is in China this week for her first international trip as the head of the agency. During her four-day tour she'll stop by Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong and will meet with her counterparts in the Chinese government to discuss how the two countries might reduce their carbon footprint. "The U.S. and China represent the world's largest economies, the world's largest energy consumers, and the world's largest emitters of carbon pollution," McCarthy said last week in a speech previewing her trip. "I'd rather not be the largest energy consumers or the largest emitters of carbon pollution, but since we are we're going to get together and we're going to talk."

The world better hope the planet's two dominant superpowers can find a way to curb their pollution. The US, which is responsible for much of the rise in emissions during the twentieth century, is certainly one of the world's leading villains when it comes to global warming. But China is now, by far, the world's top producer of climate-destroying pollutants. The country claimed the top spot in global carbon emissions in 2007, nabbing the reins from the US. (To be fair to China, the US emits far more carbon per capita.)

Combined, China and the US produce nearly half of the world's carbon emissions. This chart breaks down the percentage of global CO2 emissions from 2008 by country:

 

 

China once lagged far behind the other major polluters in the world. But as this chart from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media shows, the country's emissions have risen steeply ever since the late 1990s:

 

 

As things stand, China's exponential increase in emissions won't abate anytime soon. Even as the country leads research in renewable energy and explores a carbon tax, it's not enough. "Over the next two decades or so, China will belch out nearly as much CO2 as it did over the entire previous 160 years combined," the Economist wrote last month.

Carbon emissions from the US have leveled off and even dropped slightly in recent years, thanks to increased fuel efficiency in cars and cheaper natural gas. Good news, but the US will need to reduce, not just flat line, its carbon use if the worst calamities of global warming—cities wiped out by rising sea levels, volatile storms, droughts, etc.—are to be averted. But even if US politicians can muster the will to pass meaningful legislation tackling climate change, it will all be for naught if China's emissions rate continues to skyrocket.

 

Which Hollywood-Style Climate Disasters Will Strike in Your Lifetime?

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 7:00 AM EST
How likely are extreme climate scenarios like those featured in The Day After Tomorrow?

In a just-released report, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has taken an extensive look at the scary side, the dramatic side…let's face it, the Hollywood side of global warming. The new research falls under the heading of "abrupt climate change": The report examines the doomsday scenarios that have often been conjured in relation to global warming (frequently in exaggerated blockbuster films), and seeks to determine how likely they are to occur in the real world.

So here's a list of some of the most dreaded abrupt changes (where abrupt means occurring within a period of a few decades or even years), and the probability that they'll happen—even if nothing like the Hollywood version—before the year 2100:

 

Global warming freezes the Earth in 2004's The Day After Tomorrow.
20th Century Fox/Wikimedia Commons

Disruption of the Ocean's "conveyor belt"

As seen in: The scientifically panned 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.

What would happen: The great overturning circulation of the oceans, driven by the temperature and the salt content of waters at high latitudes, transports enormous amounts of heat around the planet. If it is disrupted or comes to a halt, there could be stark changes in global weather patterns.

Chances it will happen this century: Low. For future generations, however, The Day After Tomorrow might be slightly less laughable (if still wildly exaggerated). In the longer term, the NAS rates the probability of a disruption as "high."

 

CBS/Wikimedia Commons

A sharp increase in extreme precipitation events

As seen in: The over-the-top Category 7 and the even more over-the-top Sharknado.

What would happen: The frequency and/or intensity of extreme precipitation events—including heavy rains, damaging flooding, droughts, and hurricanes—would show a relatively sudden increase. The consequence would be not only the potential for more weather disasters and their associated costs but also, the NAS warns, the possibility of "increased conflict" following disasters. No Category 7s, but still something worth worrying about.

Chances it will happen this century: According to the NAS, we can already detect a clear trend towards more extreme flooding, although trends in other extreme weather phenomena, such as droughts and hurricanes, are more murky for the moment. As for an abrupt change this century? NAS rates the outlook as "moderate."

 

Universal/Wikimedia Commons

Extreme Sea Level Rise Due to Polar Ice Sheet Collapse

As seen in: The 1995 Kevin Costner classic Waterworld.

What would happen: Here is arguably the scariest global warming scenario—the collapse of all or part of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, leading to rapid and extreme sea level rise. (But no, the continents would not disappear as in Waterworld. Not remotely.)

Chances it will happen this century: Fortunately, this risk is not likely to materialize before 2100, according to the NAS—with one possible exception, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains the equivalent of three to four meters of sea level rise. The NAS judges that an abrupt change here during this century is "plausible, with an unknown although probably low probability." In the longer term, meanwhile, the probability is high that some of the great ice sheets of the planet will indeed melt substantially and drive sea level rise on a scale measured in meters, rather than inches.

 

Universal/Wikimedia Commons

Worse Heat Waves, More Often

As seen in: Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (which isn't directly about global warming, of course, but is definitely about heat).

What would happen: Heat waves can be devastating. Not only can they kill significant numbers of people (and spark conflict), but they also can imperil agriculture and water supplies.

Chances it will happen this century: According to the NAS, a climate-related trend towards more intense and frequent heat waves has already been detected. And the outlook for an abrupt change for the worse in this century is "moderate."

 

Catastrophic Methane Release from the Arctic

As seen in: Amazingly, to our knowledge Hollywood hasn't made use of this one yet.

What would happen: One oft-touted climate fear is that undersea Arctic deposits of methane hydrate will be destabilized or even explode, releasing large volumes of gas into the atmosphere that, in turn, trigger rapid global warming. This scenario is particularly frightening because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. By worsening global warming, an Arctic methane "bomb" would also increase the risk of other dangerous abrupt climate changes.

Chances it will happen this century: "Low," says the NAS. Over the longer term, however, the risk rises to "moderate"; and when it comes to a related threat—the release of stored carbon from the thawing of northern permafrost, which would also amplify global warming—the long-term risk is "high."

 

Warner Bros.

disappearing Arctic sea ice

 
 
 
 

As seen in: The 2012 Imax film To the Arctic (yes, a documentary).

What would happen: The loss of summer Arctic sea ice has profound effects, ranging from opening up dramatic new opportunities for shipping and resource exploitation, to reshaping ecosystems and native cultures, to changing global weather patterns.

Chances it will happen this century: The NAS considers the ongoing changes in the Arctic region to be an abrupt climate change that is already upon us. So you can watch this one in a documentary, or even in satellite images.

 
 
 
 

Why Some Meteorologists Still Deny Global Warming

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Meteorologist Joe Bastardi, a prominent climate skeptic, on Fox Business

Just before Thanksgiving, many conservatives seized on a new study examining the climate views of members of the American Meteorological Society. It's no secret that there's a schism between climate scientists and weather forecasters over climate change, and the study captured this, to skeptics' delight. The fact that a sizable percentage of AMS members disagree with mainstream climate science represented "the latest in a long line of evidence indicating the often asserted global warming consensus does not exist," according to Forbes blogger and Heartland Institute fellow James Taylor.

Yet a closer look at the study—conducted by researchers at George Mason University, Yale, and the AMS itself—shows that its main punch line is quite different. The research was chiefly focused on trying to understand why the meteorological community as a whole (the AMS includes climate scientists, academic meteorologists, forecast meteorologists, and general atmospheric scientists, among others) features such disparate views on global warming. And one of its principal findings is that AMS members who publish less peer-reviewed climate research, or less peer-reviewed research in general, are more likely to be climate skeptics.

Far from undermining the scientific consensus on climate change, then, the new study could be said to strengthen it, by defining who's a relevant expert in the first place. "You listen to the scientists who really know the field in question," says George Mason's Neil Stenhouse, a Ph.D. student and the study's lead author. "And previous studies show that if you ask the scientists who really know climate change, there is high consensus on human causation."

Similarly, after sorting AMS members by their climate expertise as well as their scientific publishing record, Stenhouse's study found that this seemed to have a big impact on their views about climate change. "93% of actively publishing climate scientists indicated they are convinced that humans have contributed to global warming," noted the study's authors. By contrast, among "nonpublishing" climate scientists, only 65 percent believed that humans have contributed to global warming.

Something similar occurred with a different set of experts within AMS: meteorologists and atmospheric scientists. Those who published a lot on climate change, or a lot on other aspects of meteorological science, generally showed much higher conviction that humans are contributing to global warming (79 percent and 78 percent, respectively) than the "nonpublishing" experts (59 percent).

And there's more bad news for skeptics who want to cite this AMS survey to bolster their case. You see, the study also showed that conservative political ideology is a big factor behind the denial of climate science by some meteorologists—ideology was a consistently bigger influence on meteorologists' views, in fact, than their level of scientific expertise. This finding of a major role for ideology, write the researchers, "goes against the idea of scientists' opinions being entirely based on objective analysis of the evidence."

The irony, then, is considerable. Even as climate skeptics cite the new AMS survey to claim there's no scientific consensus on climate change, the survey itself calls into question whether disagreement among meteorologists has much to do with purely scientific considerations in the first place.

Scientists: Current International Warming Target Is "Disastrous"

| Tue Dec. 3, 2013 6:23 PM EST
Devastation in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Ever since the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, world leaders have agreed on 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum acceptable global warming above preindustrial levels to avert the worst impacts of climate change (today we're at about 0.8 degrees C). But a new study, led by climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University, argues that pollution plans aimed at that target would still result in "disastrous consequences," from rampant sea level rise to widespread extinction.

A major goal of climate scientists since Copenhagen has been to convert the 2 degree limit into something useful for policymakers, namely, a specific total amount of carbon we can "afford" to dump into the atmosphere, mostly from burning fossil fuels in power plants (this is known as a carbon budget). This fall, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pegged the number at 1 trillion metric tons of carbon, or about twice what we've emitted since the late 19th Century; if greenhouse gas emissions continue as they have for the last few decades, we're on track to burn through the remaining budget by the mid-2040s, meaning immediately thereafter we'd have to cease emissions forever to meet the warming target.

The study, which was co-authored by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs and published today in the journal PLOS ONE, uses updated climate models to argue that the IPCC's carbon budget would in fact produce warming up to twice the international limit, and that even the 2-degree limit would likely yield catastrophic impacts well into the next century. In other words, the study says, two of the IPCC's fundamental figures are wrong.

"We should not use [2 degrees] as a target," Hansen said in a meeting with reporters on the Columbia campus in Manhattan. "It doesn't have any scientific basis."

The IPCC's climate models leave out the effect of some slow natural systems, like changes in the area of ice sheets and the release of methane from melting permafrost.

A better target to avoid devastating climate impacts, Hansen said, would be 1 degree Celsius of warming (only slightly above what we've already experienced), although he readily admitted that such a goal is essentially unattainable. According to IPCC estimates, human activities have already committed us to that level of warming even if we suddenly stopped burning all fossil fuels today. A grim, but perhaps more realistic, vision of what the end of this century will hold comes from the the International Energy Agency, which predicts that temperatures could rise as much as 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. 

The EPA's Bold New Agenda

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 9:45 AM EST

The Environmental Protection Agency has released its to-do list for 2014, in the form of its annual regulatory agenda. And it calls for tackling some controversial environmental questions that Congress has been unable to resolve, including how to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants and whether energy companies should be required to disclose the chemicals they inject into the ground during fracking. While the plan has some gaps—Bloomberg BNA has pointed out it's noticeably silent on coal ash, a toxic coal-burning byproduct that has been responsible for several recent environmental disasters—it could have far-reaching environmental benefits. Below is a summary of the EPA's biggest goals in the new year.

Carbon caps for power plants

Between now and September 2014 the EPA aims to finalize its rules for capping greenhouse gas emissions from existing natural gas and coal-fired plants, which together produce a whopping 40 percent of the United States' carbon emissions and one-third of its heat-trapping gases. Controlling smokestacks emissions is critical to addressing climate change, but carbon legislation is a non-starter, even in the Democratically controlled Senate. The EPA rules are bound to be challenged in court and they'll invariable fuel allegations that Obama—and his vulnerable Democratic allies on Capitol Hill—are waging a war on coal. But, presuming they survive, they could be historic.

While the caps for existing plants have yet to take shape, the White House recently called for limiting new coal-fired plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour—60 percent less than the average coal-powered plant releases—and gas-power plants to 1,000 pounds.

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Why Climate Change Skeptics and Evolution Deniers Joined Forces

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Are religion and end times thinking now wrapped up with the denial of global warming?

All across the country—most recently, in the state of Texas—local battles over the teaching of evolution are taking on a new complexion. More and more, it isn't just evolution under attack, it's also the teaching of climate science. The National Center for Science Education, the leading group defending the teaching of evolution across the country, has even broadened its portfolio: Now, it protects climate education too.

How did these issues get wrapped up together? On its face, there isn't a clear reason—other than a marriage of convenience—why attacks on evolution and attacks on climate change ought to travel side by side. After all, we know why people deny evolution: Religion, especially the fundamentalist kind. And we know why people deny global warming: Free market ideology and libertarianism. These are not, last I checked, the same thing. (If anything, libertarians may be the most religiously skeptical group on the political right.)

And yet clearly there's a relationship between the two issue stances. If you're in doubt, watch this Climate Desk video of a number of members of Congress citing religion in the context of questioning global warming:

Indeed, recent research suggests that Christian "end times" believers are less likely to see a need for action on global warming.

And now new research by Yale's Dan Kahan further reaffirms that there's something going on here. More specifically, Kahan showed that there is a correlation (.25, which is weak to modest, but significant) between a person's religiosity and his or her tendency to think that global warming isn't much of a risk. Perhaps even more tellingly, Kahan also found that among highly religious individuals, as their ability to comprehend science increases, so does their denial of the risk posed by global warming. Here's some data he presented:

Among the highly religious, more science comprehension leads to less concern about global warming.
Among the highly religious, more science comprehension translates into less concern about global warming. Dan Kahan

"I have to say, those effects are bigger than I would have expected," wrote Kahan of his findings. The researcher went on to say that he isn't sure why greater religiosity predicts greater denial of climate change. But in his data—with a representative sample of over 2,000 Americans—it clearly does.

There are two major possibilities. And there is probably some truth to both of them.

There is the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" theory. In other words, anti-evolutionists and climate deniers were both getting dumped on so much by the scientific community that they sort of naturally joined forces. And that makes sense: We know that in general, people gather their issue stances in bunches, because those stances travel together in a group (often under the aegis of a political party).

But there's also the "declining trust in science" theory, according to which political conservatives have, in general, become distrustful of the scientific community (we have data showing this is the case), and this has infected how they think about several different politicized scientific issues. And who knows: Perhaps the distrust started with the evolution issue. It is easy to imagine how a Christian conservative who thinks liberal scientists are full of it on evolution would naturally distrust said scientists on other issues as well.

Further research will no doubt unravel what's going on here. In the meantime, we can simply observe: In the political science wars that have wracked America for well over a decade, both sides are consolidating their forces.

WATCH: How a Canadian Town Is Teaching Polar Bears to Fear Humans in Order to Save Them

Mon Nov. 25, 2013 5:51 PM EST

Churchill in northern Manitoba bills itself as the the polar bear capital of the world and its tourism-based economy depends on it. But as climate change forces the polar bears inland in search of food, attacks on humans are increasing. Can this small community continue to co-exist with the world's largest land predator? Suzanne Goldenberg reports from Churchill where its bear alert program uses guns, helicopters and a polar bear jail to manage the creatures.

This trip was supported by Explore.org, Polar Bears International, and Frontiers North

4 Climate Policies We're Thankful For

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Hang in there, buddy.

Unless it's immediately proceeded by the word "no," the phrase "good news" rarely appears these days in stories about climate change. But in a year in which we found out that our oceans may rise this century by as much as three feet and that atmospheric carbon dioxide is higher than it has been in nearly a million years, there were still some bright spots. And in preparation for Thanksgiving, we've compiled a list of four environmental developments for which you can give thanks. You can see even more on Twitter by searching the hashtag #ClimateThanks.

1. The US and the World Bank will avoid financing coal-fired power plants abroad.

Burning coal is among the dirtiest ways to produce energy and quickest ways to accelerate climate change. So this July, when the World Bank announced that it would limit funding for new coal-burning plants to "rare circumstances" where countries have "no feasible alternatives," green advocates were thrilled. At the same time, the global development giant also reversed its opposition to hydroelectric power, which many environmental activists had pushed as an alternative to cheap energy from coal. Last month, based on an announcement President Obama made in June, the United States Treasury Department also ceased financing any new coal projects abroad except in cases where coal was the only viable option for bringing power to poor regions. The US and World Bank decisions only affect coal projects that use public financing; around the world, many are built with private money. But a Treasury official told the New York Times that the Obama administration felt "that if public financing points the way, it will then facilitate private investment."

2. The White House will push carbon limits for new and existing power plants.

Natural gas and coal-fired power plants are responsible for 40 percent of the United States' carbon emissions and one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions. The country can't address climate change without regulating this sector of the economy. In his June speech at Georgetown University, President Obama announced that for the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose rules to cap carbon emissions from existing power plants. His administration also pushed forward a rule to limit pollution from new power plants, which had stalled last year. If the EPA finalizes the rule and it's upheld in court, it would limit new coal-fired plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour—the average coal power plant releases 1,800 pounds—and new gas power plants to 1,000 pounds. Obama said the rules were necessary for the US to meet its pledge to bring greenhouse gas emissions down by 17 percent—or below 2005 levels—by the year 2020.

Explained in 90 Seconds: Breaking the Carbon Budget

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 7:00 AM EST

As we reported this week, some of the world's richest nations are lagging behind on their climate protection pledges. Most often, these commitments follow the formula: "We aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions X percent below year Y levels by year Z." It seems like a straightforward proposition, but have you ever wondered where those numbers come from? The answer is a scientific concept known as the carbon budget, and like a teenager with her first credit card, we're well on our way to blowing right through it.

In the video above, Kelly Levin, a climate policy expert at the World Resources Institute, explains what our carbon budget is, how much we've already "spent," and why it matters.

Back in 2009, delegates to the UN climate summit in Copenhagen agreed that in order to avoid the worst potential impacts of climate change, global temperature rise should be limited to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. For their report this fall, scientists on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looked at how emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have warmed the planet since the Industrial Revolution, and extrapolated how much more we could emit before breaking the Copenhagen limit, the same way you might draft a budget to keep your checking account balance above zero.