Selected category: Science

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

Climate hope amid melting ice, rising temps

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

An ice berg drifts off a West Antarctica glacier — Courtesy NASA

 

As 2014 draws to a close, two recent developments show that global temperatures are rising at an alarming rate. The world, it seems, is on a run-away train – and yet, we have more reason to feel hopeful than we did a year ago.

I’ll explain why that is. But first, let’s have a look at where we are right now.

West Antarctica ice sheet loss is accelerating

The latest science shows that ice loss from West Antarctica has been increasing nearly three times faster in the past decade than during the previous one – and much quicker than scientists predicted.

This unprecedented ice loss is found to be occurring because warm ocean water is rising from below and melting the base of the glaciers, dumping huge volumes of additional water – the equivalent of a Mount Everest every two years – into the ocean.

If we lost the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, global sea level would rise 11 feet, threatening nearly 13 million people worldwide and affecting more than $2 trillion worth of property.

2014 may be warmest year on record

The World Meteorological Organization announced recently that 2014 is on track to be one of the hottest – if not the hottest – year on record.

Continued emissions of heat-trapping gases from energy use, land use, industry, and waste activities contribute to these rising global temperatures.

But there's hope

At Environmental Defense Fund, we spent a year talking to experts from academia, industry, and the activist community to understand what needs and can be done to address climate change.

We analyzed the scientific, economic and political landscapes, and we see that it's possible to reverse the relentless rise of global greenhouse gas emissions within the next five years. But only if countries devote sufficient attention to the task.

What may surprise you is that this can be done with current technology, and at a reasonable cost.

There are two critical components of such a strategy.

One: A few countries can make big progress.

China, the United States, and Europe account for more than half of all global emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use.

Improving energy efficiency, employing carbon markets, enacting power plant standards, and accelerating clean energy deployment are all part of our five-year strategy to curb emissions.

The European Union already has an emission reduction plan in place, the U.S. is taking action on carbon pollution from cars and power plants, and China recently reached a historic agreement with the United States to limit emissions.

Two: By reducing short-lived climate pollutants we'll come a long way.

If we cut emissions of short-lived pollutants such as methane, which only last in the atmosphere for at most a couple of decades, we can take a sizeable bite out of warming in the near-term.

Methane contributes to around a quarter of the warming we are experiencing today, so this is an enormous opportunity we cannot pass up.

We already have the technology in hand to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry in a cost-effective way. Industry would spend just a penny more for each thousand cubic feet of gas it produces.

It’s not too late

While turning the corner on global emissions by 2020 is feasible, it can only happen with many partners working together.

EDF expects to take actions in alliance with many others that contribute to about half of the needed reductions in short-lived and long-lived emissions we've identified in our five-year strategy. We're also working to set the stage for actions post-2020 that will drive down emissions even further.

While some of the climate change consequences may be irreversible – as appears to be the case with West Antarctica – we can still set ourselves on a much better path for the future by taking action now.

Also posted in Arctic & Antarctic, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News| Read 1 Response

Young professionals tackle Solar Radiation Management research governance

This post was written by EDF's Alex Hanafi and Cassandra Brunette.

What do 45 young environmental leaders from around the world have to say about the governance of emerging climate engineering technologies?

The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) and EDF teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley to ask that question at a recent workshop.

It’s a question that has important implications for the future governance of solar geoengineering research. Also known as “solar radiation management” (or “SRM”), emerging solar geoengineering technologies are designed to cool the Earth by blocking or reflecting some of the sun’s energy back into space.

These techniques could — in theory — stop global warming quickly and relatively cheaply. However, they have potentially serious and uncertain environmental, political, and social implications. At present, few international governance mechanisms exist to ensure that SRM research would be transparent, safe, and internationally acceptable.

Our workshop was part of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) at Berkeley. Participants explored the science, ethics, and governance of SRM research through a series of interactive discussions and participatory exercises.

This year’s 45 participants hailed from 33 different countries, with the overwhelming majority from developing nations. Participants were encouraged to brainstorm and share ideas about the potential role of their home countries in research governance.

Attendees expressed a wide range of opinions on SRM:

  • Some suggested SRM could provide a technological solution to some of the temperature-related impacts of climate change.
  • Others maintained that the root causes of anthropogenic climate change should be addressed before exploring SRM any further.
  • The majority of participants called for SRM research transparency, and inclusivity in global discussions about possible governance structures for SRM research.

The diversity of participants, all convened in one location, made an ideal fit with SRMGI’s mission to develop informed international dialogue on SRM research governance. SRMGI’s goal is to bring currently underrepresented voices, particularly from developing nations, into an informed conversation about how to responsibly manage SRM research.

SRM’s potentially cheap deployment and quick effect on global temperatures could lead to the rapid and unilateral development of SRM programs, potentially provoking international tension and mistrust. Multi-stakeholder dialogue and international cooperation is critical to ensure that research into SRM is governed responsibly and transparently.

While SRMGI has hosted workshops in the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, and Africa, this was SRMGI’s first event in the United States.

Stay tuned for more — SRMGI is preparing a report that will provide more details on the workshop’s agenda, interactive activities, and outcomes.

In the meantime, read more about SRMGI’s work here.

Also posted in Geoengineering| Comments are closed

An Urgent Call to Climate Action in the IPCC Synthesis Report

Photo: IPCC

It was released two days late for Halloween, but an international report on the dangers of climate change still has plenty of information about our warming planet that will chill you to the core.

The report is the latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC releases a series of reports every six or seven years that assess the latest data and research on climate change. This latest is the Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report—a culmination of three earlier reports in this series.

The Synthesis Report summarizes the physical science of climate change; current and future impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation of the human and natural worlds; and mitigation opportunities and necessities.

More than anything else, the report underscores the urgent need for action.

Here are 13 details from the report that illustrate why:

1.  “Warming of the climate is unequivocal… The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”

2.  Changes in climate have impacted all continents and the oceans.

3. The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere.
Glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide. Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover has continued to decrease.

4. Permafrost temperatures have increased in most regions since the early 1980s. Arctic sea-ice has decreased in every season and in every successive decade since 1979.

5. From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by more than half a foot. The rate of sea-level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia.

6. In the future, it is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes in most areas, on both daily and seasonal timescales. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer. The oceans will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.

7. A large fraction of species face increased extinction risk due to climate change during and beyond the 21st century. Most plant species cannot naturally shift their geographical ranges sufficiently fast to keep up with climate change.

8. Climate change puts humanity at risk from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise, and storm surges. Climate change is projected to undermine food security.

9. “Human influence on the climate system is clear.” Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.

10. Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

11. It is virtually certain that global mean sea-level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100, with the amount of rise dependent on future emissions.

12. Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Adaptation can reduce the risks of climate change impacts, but there are limits to its effectiveness.

13. Substantial emissions reductions of greenhouse gases – including carbon dioxide and methane — over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.

According to the IPCC Synthesis Report, planet Earth is in pretty dire shape – but the report isn’t hopeless.

Imagine our planet as a patient at a doctor’s office. It’s too late to just stay healthy – we’ve already caught a cold. But we can prevent the cold from deteriorating into pneumonia.

In order to do that, though, we need to act now. We need people, and governments, across the world to join together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support adaptation efforts, and help reduce the damages from climate change.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, International, News, Policy| Read 1 Response
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