Selected category: Science

As Earth Gets Hotter, Scientists Break New Ground Linking Climate Change to Extreme Weather

So here we are again with yet another annual global temperature record. That’s right, 2016 will go down as the warmest year globally since record-keeping began, with preliminary reports indicating that 2016 was 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

If it feels like you’ve heard this song before it’s because you have. The last three years have all smashed the previous year’s record for highest globally averaged temperature, a clear signal that the Earth continues its unprecedented rate of warming.

For sure, the 2016 record was helped along somewhat by one of the strongest El Niño events on record, but we also know that over many years, such cycles have very little to do with the overall global warming trend from rising greenhouse gas emissions. The trajectory is clear.

But there’s more to the story. As temperatures rise, we’re also learning more about how these rising temperatures affect our weather – and extreme weather events, in particular.

With the help of new and evolving climate research, we’re detecting a stronger link between warming and changing weather patterns.

Rapid response: Climate analysis in real time

Until recently, all studies on climate attribution were typically published a year or more after a big storm or heat wave, long after news headlines and public attention had waned.

But the science of climate attribution – an emerging and rapidly advancing branch of climate science that separates out the greenhouse gas cause from naturally occurring causes to quantify the human impact – is becoming nimble.

The World Weather Attribution project, an international effort “to sharpen and accelerate the scientific community’s ability to analyze and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme-weather events,” now conducts initial analyses in near real time.

In 2016, this project covered the March coral bleaching in the Pacific Ocean, the May European rain storms, the August Louisiana floods, the extreme Arctic warming during November and December, and the December cold air outbreak over the United States – all significant weather events.

In four of the five events, scientists found links to human-caused climate change, with the December cold air outbreak being the only event without a discernible human fingerprint.

The next step for climate science: to project how future weather events will change under different scenarios spelled out by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Extreme weather in a 1.5° or 2° degree world

Scientists are engaged in a new international research effort trying to predict differences in weather extremes under both a 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius warmer world, the targets discussed during the Paris climate talks.

Although climate change impacts on weather extremes are already underway, as 2016 has shown, it is critical to understand potential socioeconomic consequences under these two policy scenarios.

We’ve already experienced more than 1 degree Celsius of global warming and its impacts. The big question now is to what extent the next degree will be worse than the first.

As we continue to break heat records, quicker climate analyses and better predictions will be critical as we adjust to our rapidly changing climate – and science is on the case.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, News| Comments are closed

A Holiday Gift for the Environment – New Tools to Fight Invasive Species

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Kudzu in Atlanta, GA – one of many invasive species in the U.S. Photo by Scott Ehardt through Wikimedia Commons

The environment got an early gift this holiday season.

The Obama Administration has just released an update to an Executive Order first developed in 1999 on safeguarding the nation from the impacts of invasive species.

If you’ve ever lived in Florida, like I used to, you’ve seen the danger of invasive species first-hand. Whether it’s the nasty bites of fire ants, or the incessant need to control weedy invaders that threaten to overtake the landscape, or the menace of invasive snakes in the Everglades, invaders interfere everywhere.

Florida is just one of the many places around the U.S. where it’s hard to ignore the impacts of invasive, non-native species on everyday life. If you are a farmer or a rancher or enjoy fishing or boating or birdwatching, invaders can be an expensive problem, a health threat, and a substantial inconvenience. Invaders cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually and pose significant threats to our health and livelihoods.

As a plant ecologist, I started by learning where these non-native species are coming from. They can arrive accidentally – as hitchhikers on other imports or the packing material those imports are shipped in – or purposely – for food, ornamentals, pets, or other uses like erosion control. My investigation into plant invaders showed that the vast majority – perhaps 90 percent – were purposely introduced.

That information led me to focus on how we might prevent the introduction of new invaders, through risk analyses and other methods. Over the years, our ability to identify the likely bad actors – whether they are plant, animal, insect, or disease – has really improved.

That brings me back to the updated Executive Order.

The main emphasis of the original Executive Order was to ensure coordinated action among the federal agencies to prevent new invaders and control existing ones, as well as to work in partnership with the private sector to achieve these goals.

In addition to reinforcing and strengthening the original intent of the Order, this update emphasizes that human and environmental health need protection, and that those efforts will be impacted by climate change. The updated Order also recognizes that the need to seek and take advantage of technological advances for both prevention and management or control of invaders.

The updated Executive Order was announced on the same day that an Innovation Summit on new potential options for addressing invasive species was held. I had the chance to attend that summit.

In addition to hearing about approaches to control species ranging from fish to plant and human diseases (including some very cool new methods for detection and control), presenters discussed how to incentivize innovation around this issues. Summit presentations showed that the advances called for in the updated Executive Order are emerging, providing an optimistic outlook for all of us concerned about this issue.

Because invaders don’t respect property boundaries and don’t stay put, we need everyone to join the effort to stop their import and movement. News of the Zika virus in the U.S., carried by a non-native mosquito that also carries at least four other diseases, is a clear indicator of the need to take aggressive action. So the Obama Administration’s decision to update the Executive Order is a great holiday gift for all of us.

Also posted in News, Plants & Animals| Comments are closed

Congressman Gives Trump a Plan to Erase Health, Safety, And Environment Safeguards

At Risk: The Air We Breathe, Water We Drink, and Food We Eat

The conservative House Freedom Caucus has provided President-Elect Trump a “recommended list of regulations to remove.” Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), chair of the all-Republican Freedom Caucus, identified 228 federal rules they hope Trump will help eliminate.

Thirty-two of the proposals would roll back safety, health and environmental standards that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and our nation’s infrastructure (from pipelines to airports). By rolling back these regulations, the plan would essentially prevent the agencies responsible for protecting us from doing their job.

Another 43 proposals are aimed at undermining America’s progress on clean energy and climate change, pushing us away from energy efficiency and renewable energy sources toward more reliance on fossil fuels. This includes eliminating two dozen Department of Energy energy efficiency standards that save families money on energy bills, reduce energy waste, and prevent pollution.

Environmental Defense Fund has posted a copy of the Freedom Caucus document online (first obtained by the Washington Post) and added highlights to show the 75 health, safety, environment, and energy rollbacks.

The leading targets for these attacks are the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, but other agencies targeted include the Federal Aviation Administration, the State Department, the Department of Interior and others.

Trump’s Pick to Lead EPA Is An Added Threat

The danger of this regulatory ‘kill list’ is compounded by Donald Trump’s picks for key cabinet positions that would traditionally be the first to defend their agencies from political interference. Many of the recommendations are favorites of the fossil fuel lobby, which will have unprecedented power in Trump’s cabinet.

Trump’s decision to entrust Scott Pruitt with running the Environmental Protection Agency is especially dangerous. EPA is responsible for protecting our families from air and water pollution as well as toxic chemicals. Pruitt, however, has repeatedly and systematically teamed up with fossil fuel companies to sue the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent EPA action on regulating toxic mercury, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In a 2014 investigative report, the New York Times exposed Pruitt’s “secretive alliance” with oil and gas companies while Attorney General of Oklahoma.

Breaking Down the Regulations at Risk

Here is a summary of some of the most alarming Freedom Caucus proposals that Pruitt and others in Trump’s cabinet will be looking over. The Freedom Caucus list has inaccuracies, and it seems to be based on the premise that Trump can erase rules with a stroke of the pen in the first 100 days. For most of these, he cannot, because the agencies have responsibilities to implement laws and are subject to oversight by the courts. But that does not mean that these regulations are safe from diversion of funds, lack of enforcement, legislative attacks, and other efforts to weaken them.

In the following list, the numbers in parentheses match the numbers in the House Freedom Caucus plan.

  • Eliminate air pollution standards for smog-forming ozone (174), lung-damaging soot (fine particles, 178), and rules to reduce air pollution from tailpipes (175, 181) and smokestacks (182, 183)
  • Reverse course on climate change, including: erasing carbon pollution regulations for power plants (173, 182, 183), tailpipes (175, 181), and airplanes (194); cancelling the Paris agreement (161); and eliminating the Green Climate Fund (172).
  • Roll back Clean Water standards that protect the Great Lakes (186), Chesapeake Bay (185), and to prevent pollution of wetlands (13) and rivers (199) across the nation.
  • Block regulations to prevent dangerous chemical accidents that release toxic chemicals into surrounding communities (189).
  • Jeopardize Worker safety, including repealing standards to prevent lung cancer among workers exposed to silica dust (135).
  • Repeal two dozen energy efficiency standards for appliances and industrial equipment (28-53).
  • Repeal natural gas pipeline safety standards passed in response to gas pipeline disasters, including the 2010 San Bruno disaster in California (153).
  • Repeal fuel economy and tailpipe standards for cars that are saving consumers money at the pump, reducing our dependency on oil, and reducing air pollution (175, 181).
  • Eliminate food safety regulations, including fish inspections (3).
  • Strip FDA’s authority to regulate the tobacco industry (55).
  • Repeal an FDA rule to safeguard our food supply against tampering by terrorists (83).
  • Eliminate the State Department agencies responsible for environmental science, protecting our oceans, and addressing climate change (162, 170, 171).
  • Block FAA regulations aimed at improving the safety of air traffic management at airports (156).
Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy| Comments are closed

Smithfield Foods, World’s Largest Pork Producer, Sets Goal to Reduce Its Carbon Footprint

A lot has changed since I first started working to reduce pollution from hog farms in North Carolina. That was back in the 1990s, during my early years at Environmental Defense Fund.

Back then, industry wasn’t exactly eager to sign on to new, environmentally-friendly technologies to manage hog waste. So it’s gratifying now to work with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, as it voluntarily commits to reduce its carbon footprint in a meaningful way.

Hog farms have long created both environmental and health problems for residents in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina. Manure in the farms’ waste lagoons produces methane, ammonia, and other gases that contaminate both the air (causing respiratory problems as well as accelerating climate change) and the water (where nitrogen contributes to algae blooms, and at times, large-scale fish kills).

I collaborated with North Carolina State University for many years in evaluating possible technologies that can reduce pollution from pork production. This work led to 2007 legislation in North Carolina that banned new permits for lagoon and sprayfield hog manure treatment systems and established environmental performance standards for alternative treatment systems.

Now it’s 2016, and Smithfield has decided to take the lead in the animal protein industry by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025. That’s more than 4 million metric tons, or the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the road. But in order to succeed, it first had to understand its baseline emissions footprint. That kind of assessment required a thorough lifecycle analysis — a careful look at emissions produced throughout the company’s supply chain, from raw materials to disposal to retail to in-home consumption.

Smithfield graphic

Smithfield graphic

Companies’ individual lifecycle assessments are critical to developing plans to reduce greenhouse gases. The quality of the data collected for the assessment determines how useful the results will be in planning the changes companies will undertake to meet their goals. Company-specific data illuminates individual emissions hotspots in supply chains — those critical points where companies can focus their energy and attention to reducing negative impacts most effectively.

Smithfield contracted with the University of Minnesota’s NorthStar Institute for Sustainable Enterprise to create a custom greenhouse emissions inventory for the company, and EDF agreed to review the analysis.

Let’s take a look at the two major greenhouse gas emissions hotspots the lifecycle analysis identified, and how Smithfield plans to reduce greenhouse gases:

  1. Pigs consume a great deal of corn (as well as soy) which requires a large amount of nitrogen and other nutrients often provided by industrially-produced fertilizer. When applied to the land, the nitrogen in the fertilizer results in the release of nitrous oxide from soils, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In fact, feed production accounts for about 20 percent of Smithfield’s greenhouse gas emissions. The solution? EDF is working with Smithfield to optimize its fertilizer use, so it can get the crop yield required to feed the pigs while minimizing the surplus nitrogen which fuels nitrous oxide emissions.
  2. The other dominant emission hotspot comes from manure management. In Smithfield’s case, this accounts for more than a third of its greenhouse emissions. Hog manure is typically flushed from the barn into an open earthen lagoon. Smithfield now plans to cover lagoons to reduce the methane that’s released into the air on 30 percent of its company-owned farms. Smithfield is also committing to help its contract growers do the same. Those lagoon covers will also prevent ammonia from being lost to the air — a huge benefit because atmospheric ammonia losses result in public health and environmental risks. By capturing ammonia under the lagoon covers, Smithfield can use it as fertilizer, offsetting some of the inorganic fertilizer the company otherwise would have to purchase.

While these commitments by Smithfield Foods will not solve all (or even a majority) of the public health and environmental impacts of hog farms, this is a meaningful step by the company. It is also promising that NorthStar’s work with Smithfield can be readily adapted to other companies to develop their own lifecycle analysis.

I’m encouraged that Smithfield is taking a leadership role in this endeavor, and proud of the roles that EDF has played. EDF will continue to work with Smithfield to make this commitment a reality, and to address the remaining issues associated with pork production.

It is my hope that the commitment by Smithfield Foods will encourage other livestock producers to step up and take the actions necessary to reduce the public health and environmental impacts of their operations.

Also posted in News, Partners for Change| Comments are closed

We Lose More Than You Think if NASA's Climate Science is Cut

NASA

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

A senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump is urging the new administration to shut down NASA’s world-leading climate science work. The idea, apparently, is that turning away from facts about climate change will make it go away.

That would not only be devastating for global efforts to keep our climate safe, but a severe problem for anyone who depends on cutting-edge weather prediction – including farmers, states vulnerable to destructive storms, businesses and our economy as a whole.

The problem is that climate and weather research comprises a “seamless suite” of services. Advancements in climate modeling support critical weather prediction modeling.

Since weather prediction and short-term climate prediction (think El Niño, drought and so on) are important to all Americans, cuts to climate research at NASA would have large economic consequences and negative impacts on efforts to protect American lives and property.

This work is particularly important in dealing with weather disasters occurring across the southern tier of the United Sates. And as the climate continues to change, weather prediction will become ever more important for preparedness and planning.

The bigger picture is that climate change is on a path to cause trillions in damage to our economy, according to Citibank estimates. That’s why so many leading businesses want to keep us on track to cut carbon pollution. If we don’t we will be leaving a terrible burden for our children.

Science Makes America Great

America was born in an age of reason. Our founders respected science.

Science made America what it is – it helped us win World War II, the space race, the Cold War and made us the preeminent global power.

Weather and climate prediction have provided incalculable value to our economy and saved untold numbers of lives.

Slashing vital research on climate – as suggested by Bob Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who now serves on Trump’s NASA transition team – will hurt everyone, no matter who they voted for.

Also posted in Policy| Comments are closed

Hurricane Matthew And Climate Change: What We Know So Far

Image source: NASA

Hurricane Matthew. Image source: NASA

As I write this, Hurricane Matthew is battering the Atlantic coast of Florida, having wreaked havoc on Haiti and the Bahamas. In Haiti hundreds lost their lives due to the Hurricane’s destructive winds and storm surge.

With half a million Floridians already without power even before Matthew makes landfall, there is sure to be significant damage in Florida and other portions of the southeast U.S. from this Category 3 storm, the first major hurricane to strike the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Our first and highest priority is to help the victims and others in the path of the storm.

However, as with any destructive weather event, people are asking about the role of climate change.

We know that increases in sea level caused by climate change result in higher and more destructive storm surges, like the one that swamped lower Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Coastal towns suffer greater damage because the ocean starts out higher, and the storm shoves more water inland. Coastal states like South Carolina and Florida – and the rest of us through taxes and insurance rates – will pay billions as a result.

But what about the connection between climate change and the strength of hurricanes themselves?

Hurricanes are fueled by the warm waters of the tropical oceans, which have been warming as the result of increased emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, hurricanes are also impacted by wind shear – the change of wind speed and direction with height. For a hurricane to grow and strengthen it needs a low wind shear environment, and some research indicates that climate change may actually increase wind shear over the tropical Atlantic. And that’s the rub. When it comes to climate change and hurricanes, the warming oceans and increasing wind shear are in competition. Science is still working out which mechanism will dominate as the global climate continues to warm – so stay tuned.

But there is more to the story than just the relationship between the intensity or frequency of hurricane and global warming. Because the climate system is so complex, no storm happens in a vacuum. Scientists have been working on the issue of “attribution”— How much can we know about the link between specific storms and climate change? The organization Climate Central has also been working intensively in this area.

While we await attribution studies, we shouldn’t lose site of the bigger picture: we already know that climate change is doing tremendous damage to our environment and our economy. Citibank estimates the cost of inaction on climate change is in the trillions. So let’s first help those hurt by this storm, then focus on cutting the pollution that is causing so much damage to our world.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Oceans| Comments are closed
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