Selected category: Science

Urgency and Opportunity for Latino Leadership on Climate

Las Vegas -- Wikimedia Commons

Las Vegas — Wikimedia Commons

When I landed in Las Vegas last week, the weather was a broiling 108 degrees. Ouch.

I braved the Las Vegas heat for one of the most inspiring convenings of Latino leaders in the country, the Annual Conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). We had a chance to hear from established and rising Latino leaders, as well as from Presidential candidates, about the challenges facing Latino communities and the many paths forward for creating a brighter future.

What we did not hear about was a vision for places like Las Vegas, where summer temperatures are bound to get hotter and water will become even more scarce in the face of climate change. In fact, there was no formal conversation about what climate change means for the U.S., and specifically for Latinos.

Here’s the short version of the missing conversation on climate: climate change presents challenges to everyone but it is having, and will continue to have, a disproportionate impact on Latinos in the United States.

To illustrate, let’s look at the three states that house more than half the Latinos in the US:

  • California, and the state’s majority Latino population, is facing its fourth year in historic drought that’s been exacerbated by climate change.
  • This summer, Texas experienced unprecedented flooding, nearly canceling out the state’s prior state of drought, in a demonstration of the kind of extreme weather linked to climate change.
  • Florida’s real estate and freshwater is already threatened by initial increases in sea-level rise, which are also eroding the state’s beaches.

There are more than 28 million Latinos facing climate threats in these three states alone. That does not count the millions of other Latinos nationwide who will face extreme heat and longer wildfire seasons in the Southwest this summer. It does not account for all 49 percent of Latinos nationally who live in coastal communities and will face more frequent and intense hurricanes and flooding. It also does not account for the full 14 percent of Latino kids diagnosed with asthma, who will face greater challenges to managing this condition due to more days with unhealthy levels of smog.

That was the bad news. It points to the fact that our leaders should not ignore the impacts of climate change on the Latino community. As climate impacts the air we breathe, threatens water we use for drinking, swimming, farming, and fishing, and even endangers our health, leaders at all levels need to take a proactive stance to protect our communities by addressing climate change.

Here’s the good news — the support is already there to act on climate. National polling has shown that 63 percent of Latinos think the federal government should act broadly to address global warming, while 8 in 10 Latinos want the President to curb the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

There are also some great opportunities hidden among the challenges. For example, today’s clean energy economy is creating more jobs than the fossil fuel economy. Jobs in the clean energy economy also offer higher wages to a wide range of workers, relative to the broader economy.

Which brings me back to Vegas. While there was no formal climate change discussion on the program, Latino environmental leaders from around the country were sparking conversations in the halls about conservation, climate change, and la comunidad. Advocates from New Mexico's Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and Outdoors talked with conference guests about the importance of protecting our public lands. Colorado's Nuestro Rio shared their work protecting the Colorado River and our bond to this precious resource.

EDF also played a role, teaming up with GreenLatinos, Green 2.0, and Nuestro Rio to host a reception and highlight the importance of addressing climate change at a national level. Nearly everyone we spoke with about our work was interested in hearing about solutions and how to do more.

As we participated in conference events last week, Pope Francis reminded us that we “have the duty to protect the earth and ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” Latino communities, and our leaders, are no exception. We have a duty to address climate change — protecting our families, our children, and our climate is something we cannot afford to gamble on.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Jobs, News, Partners for Change| Comments are closed

Six Climate Tipping Points: How Worried Should We Be?

One of the biggest fears about climate change is that it may be triggering events that would dramatically alter Earth as we know it.

Known to scientists as “tipping events,” they could contribute to mass extinction of species, dramatic sea level rise, extensive droughts and the transformation of forests into vast grasslands – among other upheavals our stressed world can ill afford.

Here are the top six climate events scientists worry about today.

1. The Arctic sea ice melts

The melting of the Arctic summer ice is considered to be the single greatest threat, and some scientists think we’ve already passed the tipping point.

As sea ice melts and the Arctic warms, dark ocean water is exposed that absorbs more sunlight, thus reinforcing the warming. The transition to an ice-free Arctic summer can occur rapidly – within decades – and this has geopolitical implications, in addition to a whole ecosystem being disrupted.

Photo: Smudge 900)

2. Greenland becomes ice-free

The warming of the Arctic may also render Greenland largely ice-free. While Greenland’s ice loss will likely reach the point of no return within this century, the full transition will take at least a few hundred years.

The impacts of the Greenland ice melt is expected to raise sea levels by up to 20 feet.

Half of the 10 largest cities in the world, including New York City, and one-third of the world’s 30 largest cities are already threatened by this sea level rise. Today, they are home to nearly 1.8 billion people.

Other vulnerable American cities include Miami, Norfolk and Boston.

Photo: siralbertus

3. The West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates

On the other side of Earth, the West Antarctic ice sheet is also disintegrating. Because the bottom of this glacier is grounded below sea level, it’s vulnerable to rapid break-up, thinning and retreat as warm ocean waters eat away at the ice.

Scientists expect the West Antarctic ice sheet to “tip” this century, and there is evidence that it already began happening in 2014.

However, the entire collapse of the glacier, which would raise sea level by 16 feet, could take a few hundred years.

Photo: BBC World Service

4. El Niño becomes a more permanent climate fixture

The oceans absorb about 90 percent of the extra heat that is being trapped in the Earth system by greenhouse gases. This could affect the ocean dynamics that control El Niño events.

While there are several theories about what could happen in the future, the most likely consequence of ocean heat uptake is that El Niño, a natural climate phenomenon, could become a more permanent part of our climate system.

That would cause extensive drought conditions in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, while some drought-prone areas such as California would get relief.

The transition is expected to be gradual and take around a century to occur – but it could also be triggered sooner.

Photo: Austin Yoder

 5. The Amazon rain forest dies back

Rainfall in the Amazon is threatened by deforestation, a longer dry season, and rising summer temperatures.

At least half of the Amazon rainforest could turn into savannah and grassland, which – once triggered – could happen over just a few decades. This would make it very difficult for the rainforest to reestablish itself and lead to a considerable loss in biodiversity.

However, the reduction of the Amazon ultimately depends on what happens with El Niño, along with future land-use changes from human activities.

Photo: World Bank

 6. Boreal forests are cut in half

Increased water and heat stress are taking a toll on the large forests in Canada, Russia and other parts of the uppermost Northern Hemisphere. So are forest disease and fires.

This could lead to a 50-percent reduction of the boreal forests, and mean they may never be able to recover. Instead, the forest would gradually transition into open woodlands or grasslands over several decades.

This would have a huge impact on the world’s carbon balance because forests can absorb much more carbon than grasslands do. As the forest diminishes, the climate will be affected as will the Earth’s energy balance.

However, the complex interaction between tree physiology, permafrost and fires makes the situation tricky to understand.

Photo: Gord McKenna

Other concerns…

As if that’s not enough, there are a few other tipping events that scientists are also concerned about, but they are even more complex and harder to predict. Examples of such events include the greening of the Sahara and Sahel, the development of an Arctic ozone hole and a chaotic Indian summer monsoon.

How do we keep from tipping over?

We know from measurements that the Earth has had many climate-related tipping events throughout its history. Today’s situation is different, because humans are now driving these changes and the warming is occurring at a faster rate.

But as humans we also have the power to change the trajectory we’re on – possibly in a matter of a few years. We think we know how.

Also posted in Arctic & Antarctic, Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Oceans, Plants & Animals| Read 1 Response

Just Two Actions May Stop the Planet's Runaway Warming

I was 15 and I was trying to impress a boyfriend with my rollerblading skills — from the top of a steep hill. Before I knew it, I was flying uncontrollably toward traffic. I knew I needed to both slow down and change course . . . or things wouldn't end well.

I did, and I survived, but I've recently thought about that day and those actions as I have considered the urgency needed for the planet to slow down and change course as the climate warms. With two major actions, we can slow the rate of global warming while also preventing "runaway" warming: nations must reduce emissions of both short-lived and long-lived pollutants.

All emissions are not equal

The way people talk and think about the long and short-term impacts of various greenhouse gasses is critical for making smart policy decisions that can effectively slow how fast the climate changes while limiting warming in the future.

While the maximum extent of warming relies on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions because they last for centuries in the atmosphere, the rate of climate change is controlled by short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane.

Like carbon dioxide, methane is a gas that warms the Earth by trapping heat. Pound for pound, methane is more than 100 times more powerful than CO2 because methane is much more efficient at absorbing heat. But that number changes depending on how far out you look.

Comparing emissions of gases with vastly different radiative impacts and atmospheric lifetimes requires a metric that depends on what timeframe you care about, such as the next decade or next century. One way scientists deal with the temporal differences is by measuring the global warming potential of gases over two time periods: 20 years and 100 years.

Methane is 84 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2 over the first 20 years after they are both emitted, and 28 times more effective over 100 years, because most of the methane breaks down in the first 50 years after it is released due to oxidizing chemical reactions. When discussing what actions to take to reduce methane we must think about methane's potency in both timeframes.

Our best chance of combating climate change

Since the Industrial Revolution, methane in the atmosphere has increased by a whopping 150 percent. While in the same period, CO2 levels have gone up 40 percent. Around one quarter of today's human-caused warming is attributable to emissions of methane, while human-caused CO2 emissions account for around half.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is currently undertaking efforts to reduce emissions of some of the most damaging greenhouse gas emissions  responsible for climate change: methane pollution from oil and gas operations and carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. This strategy has prompted questions about which climate pollutant should take priority. But the discussion of whether to cut methane emissions first and carbon dioxide later — or vice versa — is not helpful or necessary. We need a two-pronged strategy to stay safe.

Understanding the urgent need to reduce all types of climate pollution, the Obama administration is expected to move forward with rules to mitigate both methane and carbon dioxide in the next few months. This summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to propose the first ever direct regulation of methane emissions from new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry, and finalize its Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.

Another agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is also expected to soon propose important rules to reduce wasteful venting, flaring and leaking of methane associated with the production of oil and natural gas on public lands.

Nations cannot solve the climate crisis and prevent serious impacts without simultaneously reducing both short-lived and long-lived climate pollutants. Reducing CO2 will limit the overall warming the planet will experience generations from now, which will have profound impacts on limiting sea level rise and other dangerous consequences.

Reducing warming caused by methane during our lifetime will also reduce the likelihood of extreme weather events and species extinctions — and, a slower rate also provides more time for societies and ecosystems to adapt to changes.

This post originally appeared on LiveScience.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions| Comments are closed

On El Niño, snowballs and real climate science

Source: NASA

Just as we thought science was finally taking root, here comes another article claiming that the rise in global temperatures has nearly stopped over the last 15 years. We heard it most recently from the Wall Street Journal.

Never mind that it’s been 30 years since a month was below the 20th century global average surface temperature. Or that climate change is evidenced by clearly visible sea ice and glacial melt. Skeptics support their argument by pointing out, time and time again, how little the Earth has warmed since 1998.

Indeed, the “nearly-stopped warming” may at face value appear to be supported by convincing scientific data. But don’t be fooled: 1998 was an exceptionally warm year thanks to a very intense El Niño, a naturally-occurring phenomenon involving unusually warm water in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

The change in temperature from 1998 to today, therefore, is not at all a good representation of the long-term trend. It makes the nearly-stopped warming argument no more scientific than a snowball would be in Washington in February.

Selective statistics don't make a trend

Think of it as if you were to use the holiday season as a benchmark for measuring body weight.

If I looked at the weight change I had between Thanksgiving and December 31, a time of year when I usually enjoy lots of good food, the picture would look very different than if my weight monitoring began the week before Thanksgiving. That's because a Thanksgiving start date would be a higher-than-normal weight day, an anomaly.

And, yet, this is exactly what proponents of the nearly-stopped-warming theory are doing.

While it's true that the rate of temperature change has decreased since 2001, they cherry-pick a recent 15-year period, 1998 to 2012, starting with an initial year that is already way above average to prove their point. Of course, these quasi-scientists aren’t transparent about their strategy, so a non-expert would have to dig into the data to realize they are being tricked.

El Niño always a wild card

El Niño, meanwhile, was just doing what niños tend to do: It threw us for a loop.

The one occurring for 10 consecutive months 1997-98 was the most intense ever recorded, making 1998 the hottest year up until that point. (Three years have since broken that record: 2005, 2010 and 2014.)

Scientists have a number of technical and statistical methods for delineating natural from human influences on the temperature record, and apply these tools depending on the research questions they're trying to answer.

But the overall global record is not touched, so if you don't know which years were affected by natural events such volcanic eruptions, it can look noisy and confusing.

This is why we need to look at long-term trends to get the real answers.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Setting the Facts Straight| Comments are closed

See no climate, hear no climate, speak no climate…Here we go again?

Source: Flickr/Alison Curtis

When news broke this week alleging that officials working for Gov. Rick Scott of Florida – a state that faces devastating impacts from climate change, such as being partially submerged – had unofficially banned use of the terms "climate change" and "global warming" from state documents, I had to check my calendar to see what year this is.

It felt as if we were back in 2003, when the George W. Bush administration was up to the same tricks. A former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist named Philip Cooney, who was then chief of staff in the White House Council on Environmental Quality, made hundreds of edits and deletions to EPA documents.

This country is drowning

Bush's White House tried to muzzle the EPA

Cooney's goal, according to a House committee investigation, was to “exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties or to deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.” Cooney insisted on such extreme edits that that EPA decided to eliminate the climate change section from one report entirely.

After New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin broke the news about what was going on, Cooney resigned from the White House – and went to work for Exxon Mobil.

It's not yet clear exactly what happened in Florida. After four former staffers with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said they'd been told not to use the terms "climate change," "global warming" or "sustainability," and that this ban was widely known, Gov. Scott told reporters this week "it's not true."

The DEP website does include references to climate change, though most are several years old. Meanwhile, at least one group has asked the agency's inspector general to investigate.

Other states tried to censor, too

With an overwhelming majority of the American public favoring climate action, skeptical politicians are starting to crab-walk in the direction of climate reality. “I’m not a scientist” is the current favorite dodge and also with Gov. Scott – an attempt to avoid both outright denial and the responsibility to act that comes with recognizing the problem.

But as Emily Atkin reported in Climate Progress, other states where the governors still don’t accept the scientific validity of human-caused climate change have also been pulling out the muzzle.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was accused of pulling references to climate change from its website under orders from aides to Governor Tom Corbett. Corbett has since been voted out of office in favor of Gov. Tom Wolf, who understands that climate change is real.

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources was caught doing the same thing. This is the state where the General Assembly in 2012 passed a four-yearmoratorium on policies that rely on scientific models for sea level rise.

Maybe these states should require environmental officials to scrunch their eyes shut, stick their fingers in their ears and chant "nya-nya-nya." That would surely solve the problem.

Enough already

Here’s a prediction: Attempts to expunge the climate problem by executive fiat – to air-brush state websites and muzzle scientists – are on their last legs. So are evasions like “I’m not a scientist.”

Americans are raising the bar on how politicians from both parties talk about this issue. Voters will increasingly reward climate honesty and climate action.

Politicians who don't deliver will find themselves punished at the polls.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices Blog.

Also posted in Extreme Weather, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight| Read 1 Response

A Significant Milestone for Opening Up the Discussion About Geoengineering

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate system to counteract the impact that pollutants are having on our climate. The proposals sound like the stuff of science fiction – spraying particles in the upper atmosphere to deflect some sunlight, for instance – and EDF’s experts have been following the topic with concern.

Most of the focus on climate change has been about transitioning our economy to clean, renewable energy – removing the cause of the malady. But some are worried that won’t happen fast enough and that a more radical intervention may be necessary. Indeed, a 2014 report from the International Panel on Climate Change indicated that the world may require some form of climate engineering in order to stay within a hoped for two-degree limit to global temperature rise. But these proposals raise a serious risk of unintended consequences.

Geoengineering is in the news because of the release of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. It’s the first study commissioned by the U.S. government that explains our current understanding of the science, ethics, and governance issues presented by geoengineering technologies. I was a member of the panel that drafted the NAS report, and its release is also meaningful for me — and for my colleagues here at EDF — because of our involvement with the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI).

Specifically, NAS was asked to conduct a technical evaluation of a limited number of proposed geoengineering techniques, including albedo modification and carbon dioxide removal. The new report comments on the potential impacts of these technologies.

What is Albedo Modification?

Albedo modification (AM), also known as “solar radiation management,” describes a controversial set of theoretical proposals for cooling the Earth by reflecting a small amount of inbound solar energy back into space.

These techniques have attracted attention because they could — in theory — reduce global temperatures quickly and relatively cheaply. BUT – these techniques would have unknown adverse impacts.

The new NAS report makes clear that AM is not an alternative to deep reductions in carbon pollution.

AM does not address ocean acidification and other non-temperature-related climate change impacts. It can at most serve as a temporary tool to reduce temperatures while lowering the atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases.

AM technologies have potentially serious and uncertain environmental, political, and social risks. The distribution and balance of benefits and risks are currently unknown.

AM research will require governance mechanisms to ensure that if research is undertaken, it is done transparently, safely, and with international agreement.

Unlike the NAS report just released, EDF has not called for small-scale AM research. We are in favor of accelerated discussion and development of a governance framework that would cover any potential geoengineering research.  

Why should research governance involve a global conversation?

The scientific, ethical, political, and social implications of AM research could be global. That means discussions about AM research governance should be global as well. To date, however, most discussions on the governance of AM research have taken place in developed countries — even though people in developing countries are those most vulnerable, both to climate change and to any potential efforts to respond to it.

In recognition of that fact, the Royal Society, EDF and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) launched SRMGI in 2010. SRMGI is an international NGO-driven initiative to expand international discussions on AM, particularly to developing countries.

SRMGI promotes early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, in order to increase the chances of any AM research, should it be undertaken, being managed responsibly, transparently, and cooperatively.

The new NAS report offers an important opportunity to expand that dialogue.

It’s critical that we aim for transnational cooperation and information exchange on climate engineering research governance. That’s because even low-risk climate engineering research presents controversy.

AM’s potentially cheap deployment and quick effect on global temperatures could lead to the rapid and unilateral development of AM research programs, which could engender international tension and conflict.

Furthermore, deployment of AM would not benefit all populations equally.

And, while discussions about geoengineering are necessary, they cannot be considered as a substitute for reducing carbon pollution. The billions of tons of carbon pollution we put into our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate, and we must rapidly and consistently reduce that pollution. No climate engineering technology we can conceive of could keep up with the impacts of rapidly accelerating emissions.

What Comes Next?

The new NAS report should spur the U.S. and other governments to take the governance challenges of research into AM technologies seriously. An important next step is to foster wider international dialogue, including developing countries, on how to responsibly manage AM research.

It’s a dialogue that we at SRMGI, and at EDF, welcome. And the new NAS report is a welcome contribution to this dialogue.

Also posted in Geoengineering, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Partners for Change| Comments are closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change.

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Categories

  • Meet The Bloggers