Selected category: Basic Science of Global Warming

The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health – a Sobering New Report

We have even more information this week about the ways climate change poses a threat to human health.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program just released its newest report—The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States. This scientific assessment is the culmination of three years of work by hundreds of experts, and builds on the more general National Climate Assessment released in 2014.

The report concludes that every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change.

Health Threats from Climate Change graphic

Graphic created by Ilissa Ocko, EDF Scientist

Scientists have known for decades that climate change threatens human health via excessive heat, worsened air quality, water related illnesses, food safety, diseases transmitted by pests like fleas and mosquitos, and mental stress. The new report thoroughly characterizes our current understanding of these impacts.

Because scientific understanding has advanced significantly in recent years, the authors also reviewed new information and insights from several recent scientific, peer-reviewed publications and other publicly available resources.

For example, new data revealed that the Ragweed season has grown by as much as 27 days in the central U.S. from 1995 to 2011, and the incidence of Lyme disease in the Northeast has doubled from 2001 to 2014, both consistent with warming trends.

Recent modeling studies have also improved quantification estimates of and confidence in projected health outcomes from climate change. By midcentury, scientists project that there will be as many as thousands of additional ground-level ozone (smog) related illnesses and premature deaths, and the majority of the western U.S. will have a 500 percent  increase in the number of weeks with risk of very large fires. By the end of the century, scientists project that there will be an additional 27,000 summertime heat-related deaths annually in over 200 U.S. cities (that are currently home to 160 million people), and harmful toxin-producing algal blooms could develop up to two months earlier and persist for up to two months longer.

Through climate and weather changes and disruptions to ecosystems and societal systems, here are the main concerns about climate change impacts on human health:

  • Temperature Related Death and Illness — Future climate warming could cause up to tens of thousands of additional deaths each year from heat in the summer, from loss of ability to control internal temperature, and worsened chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases
  • Air Quality Impacts — The future could include limited productivity at work and school due to exacerbated ground-level ozone (smog) health impacts from modified weather patterns conducive to ozone formation, and worsened allergy and asthma conditions from more airborne pollen and longer pollen seasons
  • Vectorborne Disease — The seasonality, distribution, and prevalence of vectorborne diseases, including Lyme disease and West Nile virus,  may change with changing temperature and rainfall patterns due to altered geographic and seasonal distributions of mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas
  • Water-Related Illness — Risk of exposure to illnesses increases as the growth, survival, spread, and toxicity of water-related pathogens and toxins is impacted by temperature and extreme rainfall events, and aging water infrastructure is vulnerable to failure with extreme events and storm surges
  • Food Safety, Nutrition, and Distribution — Rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, and extreme events have consequences for contamination, spoilage, and the disruption of food distribution, whereas higher carbon dioxide levels lower nutritional value of crops despite boosting plant growth
  • Extreme Weather — Fatalities, injuries, and infrastructure damages are imminent with increases in the frequency and/or intensity of extreme precipitation, hurricanes, coastal inundation, drought, and wildfires
  • Mental Health and Well-Being — Mental health conditions may develop with exposure to disasters or worsen by extreme health

Overall, the report is a sobering portrait of the risks we face because of climate change — and it underscores the urgency for climate action.

 

 

 

Also posted in Extreme Weather, Health, News, Plants & Animals, Science| Comments are closed

Climate denial has no place in the court

(This post was co-written by EDF’s Martha Roberts and Ilissa Ocko)

As federal courts consider the legal merits of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan — America’s first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants – we find ourselves in a situation that might have felt familiar to Galileo, who was hauled before authorities for having the temerity to make conclusions based on science.

Three hundred seventy-four years after Galileo, flat-earth Clean Power Plan opponents are using the court’s time to challenge EPA’s rock solid conclusions about the scientific realities of climate change. They’re using misinformation and misrepresentation in an attempt to block EPA’s flexible and efficient approach to reducing the carbon pollution that is causing so much costly damage to our society.

Yes, they’re still doing that in 2016.

The Usual Suspects

The latest assault takes the form of an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief that was submitted last week to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. It deploys selective reasoning and misleading arguments in an attempt to discredit evidence of climate change.

It’s numbingly familiar, but not surprising, to see Fred Singer’s name on the brief. A former tobacco industry mouthpiece, he’s been a mainstay for years in what’s been called the “parallel universe” of climate denial conferences.

It’s also no surprise that Peabody Energy — the world’s largest privately owned coal company — contested EPA’s rock solid climate science in an earlier submission to the court, given the company’s history of obfuscating the impacts of climate change in order to protect its profits.

The Real Motivation

This effort isn’t about debating science. It’s about using misinformation to obstruct climate progress. This attack is part of a longstanding effort to undermine EPA’s common sense solutions to limit harmful greenhouse gas pollution at all – despite that fact that the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the Clean Air Act requires EPA to address climate pollution. Coal companies and their hired allies have relentlessly attacked EPA’s safeguards to protect human health and the environment from climate pollution.

Junk Science Amicus Brief

This junk science submission, authored by Singer and others, claims to be based on “real world empirical temperature data” (amicus brief, page 15) – but in truth it’s deceptively unscientific, cherry-picking dates and locations in an effort to rebut overwhelming evidence of rising surface temperatures.

Two obvious flaws demonstrate the problematic reasoning employed by the brief.

First, the authors contend that globally averaged surface temperature has not increased because:

The decade of the 1930s still has the most currently held high-temperature records for States within the United States. (amicus brief, page 31)

This point suffers from cherry picking data that seems to support their phony argument. Drawing a comparison between a long term globally averaged temperature trend (i.e., as related to anthropogenic climate change) and summertime regional temperature spikes in a select portion of the U.S. is inherently misleading (see Figure 1 below). The U.S. covers only two percent of the global surface area, and the Great Plains far less. Arguing that a small regional temperature anomaly undermines for the global temperature trend is scientifically untenable.

Figure 1: How Cherry-Picked Data Misrepresents the Larger Picture

Source: The U.S. Global Historical Climatology Network Dataset

Source: The U.S. Global Historical Climatology Network Dataset

The second flaw is an egregious error with respect to defining a linear trend. The authors break the temperature time series in half and display two distinct trend lines separated by a large step increase, as opposed to the scientifically appropriate approach of employing the entire time series to define a trend.

Figure 2. The Amicus Brief’s Broken Time Trend Global Average Temperature Anomalies

(amicus brief, page 7)

They do this to hide the trend. It’s a classic strategy used by the climate denial community to deny trends, known as the “escalator” (see Figure 3 below).

The authors argue that the absence of a trend in the latter portion of the record indicates a lack of evidence for an anthropogenic climate change signal during this time. However, their starting point for the latter half is during the 1997-1998 El Nino, one of the strongest such events on record. Given that El Nino has a significant warming influence on a given year’s global temperature, starting at this point in the record introduces a strong temperature bias — i.e. the authors purposely choose a starting point with an extremely high temperature in order to create the appearance of a plateau in the years that follow.

It’s a bit like beginning a chart of Barry Bonds’ home runs per season in 2001, when he hit 73. The authors fail to disclose that the globally averaged temperature exceeded the 1990’s average in every year of the first decade of the 21st century and that both 2014 and 2015 broke records as the hottest years ever recorded — further confirming their selection bias.

Figure 3: The Escalator — An Example of How One Can Manipulate a Trendline to Pretend That There Is No Trend

 escalator graphic

Source: skepticalscience.com

The brief also attempts to reject EPA’s conclusion that the atmosphere in the tropics warms faster than the surface as a response to rising carbon dioxide levels.

The brief presents data from only a single location in an attempt to rebut this conclusion — the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean, an area home to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the largest mode of natural interannual climate variability on the planet.

Using only one region (and in this case a single idiosyncratic point) to represent the entire global tropics is highly misleading and scientifically inappropriate. The data manifestly suffer from selection bias and are not representative of the full population of tropical climate data.

Indeed, the temperature time series shown in their analysis correlate extremely well with recently observed El Nino and La Nina events — suggesting that their index is simply a proxy for the El Nino/La Nina signal. Extracting a trend from an area with extremely large natural variability is inherently tenuous, because the large background variability swamps our ability to observe any other data trends.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time opponents have inaccurately distorted climate data in this case.

Earlier in this same crucial case, Peabody represented to the court that EPA’s claims of climate harms "substantially outrun the available evidence." (brief, page 7 footnotes)

Peabody’s efforts to justify these misleading allegations misrepresent scientific understanding of climate science in several major respects. Two core inconsistencies, among several, include:

  • Peabody’s biased assertion of hiatus in warming since 1998 — as mentioned earlier, beginning a trendline in 1998, an exceptionally warm year due to an unusually strong El Nino, is nonsensical and irrelevant to the long-term trend. Further, surface air temperatures are certainly still increasing. The 2000s were warmer than the 1990s, 2015 smashed all previous surface air temperature records, and heat uptake in the ocean has doubled over the last 20 years.
  • Flawed reasoning that increasing Antarctic sea ice disproves climate change — Antarctic sea ice is influenced by differences in fresh water supply and circulation in the Southern Ocean. Land ice that has taken thousands of years to accumulate in Antarctica is melting at a rapid rate due to warmer temperatures, changing the chemistry of the water and likely preventing the buildup of sea ice. Peabody’s submission ignored and omitted this crucial context.

Sadly, it’s not really news that Peabody is presenting misleading climate information. Peabody, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, was cited last fall by the New York Attorney General for violating investor protection laws by misrepresenting climate risk in its corporate filings. The Attorney General noted that Peabody “repeatedly denied in public financial filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had the ability to predict the impact that potential regulation of climate change pollution would have on its business, even though Peabody and its consultants actually made projections that such regulation would have severe impacts on the company.”

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, Policy, Science, Setting the Facts Straight| Comments are closed

Climate Change and Millennials – An Entire Lifetime of Warmer Than Average Temperatures

While reading the announcement that 2015 had broken – indeed, shattered – the hottest year on record set by 2014, there was one fact that really made things personal: we have now had 31 straight years since a single month was cooler than the twentieth century global average temperature. That means that I have never lived through a month that wasn’t warmer than average – never once in my lifetime.

My entire career as a climate scientist is focused on reducing the threat of global warming, and yet I have never even been alive at a time when the climate was stable. I technically don’t even know what normal is.

Warmest Years on Record graphic

So on one hand, you could say that I don’t even know what I am fighting for. On the other hand, I’ve been afforded two unique opportunities because I’ve lived in the shadow of global warming my entire life.

First, because I’ve grown up at a time when heat records are broken over and over again, I was aware of this worldwide crisis during those impressionable and important “pick a major” years of college. I was thus able to set myself on a career path shaped by climate change from the get-go, rather than later on in life once I was already an established professional in something else.

Second, because my elder colleagues have already identified – with extreme confidence – that humans are the main cause of climate change, I’ve been able to focus on solutions from the get-go, and not just causes and impacts. I have thus benefitted from previous scientific research because I could explore avenues to address climate change, because if humans are the cause, then we are also the solution.

And it’s not just me; there is now an entire generation of young people motivated and empowered to do something about climate change. We – almost the entire millennial generation – have never lived in a world without global warming.

Perhaps for similar reasons to mine (and/or because we think we’re special), my generation has shown a propensity for not just caring about climate change, but doing something about it. Whether on their campuses of their schools or the communities where they live, my generation is showing that they want solutions. In fact, eighty-percent of millennials support cleaner energy in the U.S., regardless of party affiliation.

For this reason among others, I am more hopeful about our future than ever before. Climate change has been impacting my generation our whole lives, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We didn’t ask for this challenge, but I truly believe we’ll be able to rise up to meet it.

Also posted in Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Science| Read 1 Response

Defending Our Future: Fighting Climate Change in South Florida

Speakers at the Defend Our Future/Voto Latino event: (back row) Alexis Calatayud, FIU Student Body President; Eric Chappell, Climate Corp alum; Edwin Luevanos, Citizen Energy; Mustafa Santiago Ali, EPA; (front row) Enrique Acevedo, Univision; Karina Castillo, CLEO Institute/MCAF

Speakers at the Defend Our Future/Voto Latino event: (back row) Alexis Calatayud, FIU Student Body President; Eric Chappell, Climate Corp alum; Edwin Luevanos, Citizen Energy; Mustafa Santiago Ali, EPA; (front row) Enrique Acevedo, Univision; Karina Castillo, CLEO Institute/MCAF

On Tuesday night Defend Our Future, EDF’s initiative to empower young people to fight climate change, partnered with Voto Latino, an organization that empowers Latino Millennials to claim a better future for themselves and their community, to bring a Power Summit “Pop Up” to Florida International University (FIU). We brought together 100 area youth leaders to engage in an evening of conversation focused on how young Latinos can fight climate change in South Florida. In Miami, in particular, addressing climate change is a critical part of this equation, and seeing a room full of rising leaders ready to take action was inspiring.

To kick off the conversation, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice, Mustafa Santiago Ali, reminded the crowd:

We need to be laser-focused on climate change.

He shared his story about growing up near a power plant in West Virginia, and reminded us about the importance of protecting our communities from the interconnected threats of air pollution and climate change. This is especially true, Ali said, for Latinos and African-Americans because climate change can compound other serious threats to our health and well-being.

Our panelists shared this perspective, including our moderator — Univision’s Enrique Acevedo, anchor of Noticiero Univision and Emmy nominee. Enrique began the panel conversation with FIU Student Body President Alexis Calatayud who spoke about the sense of urgency she feels addressing climate change in South Florida:

To me, Miami is my place. And if I don’t take care of my place, who is going to?

For Calatayud, her ‘Aha!’ moment on climate came earlier this year, when Alexis joined Defend Our Future in Washington, D.C. for the White House Youth Climate Conference.

Our guests made clear that there are countless ways in which young people can make a difference on climate change — from taking a challenge with Defend Our Future (like reducing your carbon footprint by committing to a reusable water bottle), to supporting Florida access to solar power, to weaving environmental responsibility into our careers.

But most impressive was the work young Latinos at the event were already engaged in within their communities. Karina Castillo knew from an early age that she wanted to study meteorology, but she didn’t know her work would to lead her to the Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities (CLEO) Institute and to activism with Moms Clean Air Force. Edwin Luevanos shared his trajectory from Mexico to founding Citizen Energy, a consultancy for community-driven energy efficiency. And former EDF Climate Corp alum Eric Chappell shared his path from becoming an environmentalist to learning about sustainability in business school and beyond.

At this event and elsewhere, young people have made it clear they’re already acting on climate and want to do more – a great sign that we’re on the right track. No matter where you are, you can join us by taking action now and staying engaged. Join Defend Our Future’s #IWillNotWait campaign, take the challenge, and join the thousands of young people across the country who are becoming leaders in their own communities. You can also register to vote with Voto Latino In 2016.

Miami can’t wait for us to take action on climate change and honestly, neither can we.

This post was co-authored by Maria Urbina, VP of Politics & Campaigns for Voto Latino

Also posted in Partners for Change, Science| 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, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Oceans, Plants & Animals| Read 1 Response

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 Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Setting the Facts Straight| Comments are closed
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