Category Archives: Science

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| Comments closed

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 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| Comments closed

How scientists linked the California drought to climate change

A drought-stricken vineyard in Napa Valley. Source: John Weiss/Flickr

California has officially entered its fourth consecutive year of drought, and is trapped in its worst water shortage situation ever.

Because we know that human-caused climate change cantrigger and exacerbate drought conditions, media, public officials, California residents and scientists have all been wondering for years if rising global temperatures likely caused or contributed to the current drought in California.

The short answer: Yes, they did.

Weather won’t cooperate

Scientists have suspected for some time now that a certain meteorological condition lies behind the long-lasting California drought. The persistence of a stubborn high-pressure system off the coast has been preventing storm systems from reaching California and instead deflecting them to Alaska and elsewhere.

While weather events are almost always multi-causal, the California drought is largely a result of this atmospheric weather pattern. The question is whether climate change has influenced the development, or sustenance, of this system.

Stanford scientists connected the dots

When destructive events happen, people want to know right then and there what’s going on— whether it’s an epidemic, riot or weather disaster.

But evaluating an extreme weather event for climate change influences is a scientific process that takes several months of computer simulations and statistical techniques. It can frustrate some who demand an answer right away.

Well, the results from several, month-long studies are finally in. Scientists from Stanford have found that the meteorological conditions that have caused the California drought are far more likely to occur in today’s warming world than in one without human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases.

It shows us – ironically and tragically – that the state thatleads the nation in curbing greenhouse gas emissions is right now suffering more than any other from climate change.

California is not alone

The California drought attribution studies are a subset of alarger collection of recently published studies that explain 16 extreme weather and climate events of 2013.

Twenty research teams explored the causes of events such as heat waves in Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, China, and Europe; torrential downpours in Colorado and India, a blizzard in South Dakota, and a cold spell in the United Kingdom.

The studies overwhelmingly indicated that all heat waves were largely attributable to human-caused climate change. One study even suggested that the heat wave in Korea has been made 10 times more likely due to human influence.

The extreme rainfall events in India were concluded to have been more likely in a human-influenced world, but data for assessing precipitation events is rather limited as compared to heat waves. Further, studies concluded that the extreme rainfall event in Colorado, the blizzard in South Dakota, and the cold spell in the U.K. were unlikely to have been influenced by climate change.

Climate change is happening. Now.

So for anyone who may still think that the consequences of climate change are in the distant future, this collection of studies suggest that human-caused climate change is right now causing a crisis in America’s most populous state and the world’s eighth largest economy.

California reminds us that climate change is a major concern for societies everywhere, and that all nations are vulnerable to extreme weather events. It’s time we roll up our sleeves and stop this, once and for all.

This blog originally appeared on EDF Voices 

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming| Comments closed

Why California thirsts for rain and the East Coast gets soaked

Source: Flickr/Jared Tarbell

If you think the weather’s acting strange, you’re correct. Extreme weather in the United States is trending upward, and human-caused climate change has already been blamed for much of it – most recently in connection with theCalifornia drought.

But along with extreme weather we’re also getting extreme contrasts. What on Earth is going on when New York gets endless rain and San Francisco none, and when one part of the country is freezing while another suffers under record heat?

You guessed it, rising temperatures have something to do with it – and here’s how.

Rain patterns are changing

In the Northeast, the combination of more moisture in the atmosphere from a warmer world and changes in circulation patterns are bringing more rain. In the Southwest, meanwhile, rainfall is suppressed by a northward expansion of high pressure in the subtropics.

The crippling drought now plaguing California is due to a persistent high pressure system off of the coast that is deflecting storms away from the region. A recent study shows that these systems are much more likely to occur with human-caused climate change.

Rain is more intense

Heavy downpours are controlled by cloud mechanisms and moisture content, which are both changing as global temperatures rise. Clouds that can dump a lot of rain are more common in a warmer atmosphere.

More evaporation has led to more moisture in the atmosphere which, in turn, leads to more intense rainfall when it rains. That helps explain why the entire U.S. is experiencing more heavy downpours – even in the drought-stricken West.

Droughts are taking hold

Rain and evaporation will determine how moist the soil will be. So although evaporation is increasing nationwide due to warmer temperatures, higher precipitation in the Northeast yields a net increase in soil moisture in that part of the country.

In the Southwest, on the other hand, the drop in overall precipitation brings drier conditions that spawn or magnify drought. As the soil there dries out, the incoming sunlight will heat the ground instead of evaporating water from the soil. This creates a vicious cycle of more heat and less rain.

Flooding is more common

The potential for flooding, meanwhile, depends a lot on what's going on with the soil. The higher the soil moisture content, the higher the chance that there will be more runoff from rainfall.

Because soil moisture is increasing in the Northeast, flooding events are on the rise. Fortunately for the region, many heavy rain storms occur in the summer and fall when soil moisture is low and the ground can absorb more water.

On the other hand, the sea level has risen by a foot since the 1900s in the Northeast. That, in turn, contributes to more flooding.

Disaster costs are also rising – but there is hope

In 2013, intense storms, severe regional drought, and extreme flooding led to more than $9 billion in disaster costs in the U.S. alone. It’s uncertain what the total bill was if you factor in ongoing agriculture, human health and infrastructure losses from changing weather conditions

Unless we curb emissions of heat-trapping gases, scientists expect these trends to continue and worsen – and the contrast between wet and dry areas of the U.S. will likely become even sharper. Our hope now is that the push for climate action amps up so we can finally set ourselves on a better path for the future.

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices 

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions| Comments closed

"Risky Business" stands out in growing sea of climate reports

Receding beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Source: FEMA/Tim Burkitt

(This blog originally appeared on EDF Voices)

This blog post was co-authored by Jonathan Camuzeaux.

Put Republican Hank Paulson, Independent Mike Bloomberg, and Democrat Tom Steyer together, and out comes one of the more unusual – and unusually impactful – climate reports.

This year alone has seen a couple of IPCC tomes, an entry by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment.

The latest, Risky Business, stands apart for a number of reasons, and it’s timely with the nation debating proposed, first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from nearly 500 power plants.

Tri-partisan coalition tackles climate change

The report is significant, first, because we have a tri-partisan group spanning George W. Bush’s treasury secretary Paulson, former mayor of New York Bloomberg, and environmentalist investor Steyer – all joining forces to get a message through.

That list of names alone should make one sit up and listen.

Last time a similar coalition came together was in the dog days of 2009, when Senators Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry were drafting the to-date last viable (and ultimately unsuccessful) Senate climate bill.

Global warming is hitting home

Next, Risky Business is important because it shows how climate change is hitting home. No real surprise there for anyone paying attention to globally rising temperatures, but the full report goes into much more granular details than most, focusing on impacts at county, state and regional levels.

Risky Business employs the latest econometric techniques to come up with numbers that should surprise even the most hardened climate hawks and wake up those still untouched by reality. Crop yield losses, for example, could go as high as 50 to 70 percent (!) in some Midwestern and Southern states, absent agricultural adaptation.

The report is also replete with references to heat strokes, sky-rocketing electricity demand for air conditioning, and major losses from damages to properties up and down our ever-receding coast lines.

Not precisely uplifting material, yet this report does a better job than most in laying it all out.

Financial markets can teach us a climate lesson

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Risky Business gets the framing exactly right: Climate change is replete with deep-seated risks and uncertainties.

In spite of all that we know about the science, there’s lots more that we don’t. And none of that means that climate change isn’t bad. As the report makes clear, what we don’t know could potentially be much worse.

Climate change, in the end, is all about risk management.

Few are better equipped to face up to that reality than the trio spearheading the effort; Paulson, Bloomberg and Steyer have made their careers (and fortunes) in the financial sector. In fact, as United States Treasury secretary between 2006 and 2009, Paulson was perhaps closest of anyone to the latest, global example of what happens when risks get ignored.

We cannot – must not – ignore risk when it comes to something as global as global warming. After all, for climate, much like for financial markets, it’s not over ‘til the fat tail zings.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Cars and Pollution, Economics, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Jobs, News, Policy| Comments closed
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