Category Archives: Science

"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

Study: Climate change may push hurricanes farther north, south

A satellite image of Irene, a Category 1 hurricane, as it made landfall in North Carolina in August of 2011. Source: NASA/NOAA GOES project

The hurricane season of 2014 just kicked off, and with two devastating storms wreaking havoc along the northeastern United States coast over the last few years, it’s no wonder everyone’s on edge.

We’re concerned about hurricanes becoming more frequent and intense, and about the worsening storm surge caused by a rise in sea levels. But flying under the radar is a fourth link between hurricanes and climate change: how climate change affects the location of hurricanes.

new study led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University found that hurricanes have been shifting pole-ward at a rate of 30 to 40 miles per decade over the last 30 years.

It means they are moving closer to major population centers such as Washington, New York and Boston.

The likely cause? Human-caused climate change.

The migration of hurricanes has “potentially profound consequences for life and property,” the authors of the study warn in an article published recently in the journal Nature.

Increasing hazard exposure and mortality risk from tropical cyclones may be compounded in coastal cities outside the tropics, while being offset at lower latitudes.”  

Linking climate change to hurricane location

This finding is an important advancement in scientists’ understanding of how climate change has already contributed to extreme weather events. Research shows that the rise in global temperatures already causes more warm days, heat waves, and heavy rainfall.

Detecting trends in hurricane activity has been difficult, however, due to inconsistent and often unreliable historical data.

To get around this data challenge, the scientists at NOAA, MIT and Princeton developed a new technique that relies on a dependable subset of the data, and which teases out natural events such as El Niño to detect a distinct relationship between hurricane activity and climate change.

Their conclusion: Hurricanes are drifting toward the poles most likely due to an expansion of the Hadley Cell, a permanent atmospheric circulation feature that carries heat from the tropics to the Earth’s temperate zones.

Scientific understanding is that the Hadley Cell expansion is a result of the increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere from human activities. So as we continue to drive cars, generate electricity at fossil-fueled power plants, cut down trees, and farm – we are indirectly pushing hurricanes farther north and south.

The new study is groundbreaking not only because it uses a novel technique, but also because it links a hurricane trend to climate change.

What we know so far

So where are we today with hurricanes and climate change?

Scientists studying hurricanes:

  • Have found no observed trend in frequency
  • Have not been able to detect trends in intensity  and duration
  • Are confident that human-caused sea level rise is contributing to storm surge
  • Expect the frequency of intense storms to increase in the future
  • Have now detected a robust trend in location shifts that is likely due to human activity

This new research presented in Nature suggests that hurricanes are migrating toward the poles and may devastate densely populated coastal regions that had previously, for the most part, been spared such storms.

It’s yet another reason why we must act now to curb carbon pollution and limit climate change.

This post first appeared on EDF Voices

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Clean Power Plan, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions| Comments closed

Hundreds of Thousands Support Standards to Ensure a Healthy Low-Carbon Future

This is a fact that always stuns people:

There are currently no national limits whatsoever on carbon pollution from U.S. power plants, the single largest source of this pollution in the country.

But last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal that could change that fact for future power plants.

EPA’s proposal would set America’s first-ever national carbon pollution standards for future power plants – a major victory in the fight against climate change.

The Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants are an absolutely necessary, common sense step toward limiting the pollution emitted through our country’s power generation. These standards will help protect our children from harmful smog, curb respiratory problems, and shield our communities from extreme weather. They will also drive innovation, so that America can continue to lead the world in the race to develop cleaner, safer power technologies and infrastructure.

About 300,000 EDF activists have sent comments to EPA in support of these vital standards.

(The comment period for these proposed standards ends today — but you still have a few hours to comment, if you haven’t yet! You can write a comment here)

The Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants also have the support of millions of other Americans including moms, and members of health groups, environmental groups, power companies, Latino groups, the NAACP, faith groups and many more.

Here are just a few examples of what people have been saying about the proposed standards:

American Academy of Pediatrics

Children represent a particularly vulnerable group that is likely to suffer disproportionately from both direct and indirect adverse health effects related to climate change. … Because of their physical, physiologic, and cognitive immaturity, children are often most vulnerable to adverse health effects from environmental hazards. Environmental hazards may shift as the climate changes, and children are likely to suffer disproportionately from those changes.

The Clean Energy Group

EPA’s proposed rule for new sources provides the industry with a higher degree of business and regulatory certainty. Based on our review of the proposal, recent projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and current market dynamics, we do not anticipate that the proposed greenhouse gas performance standards for new sources, with the recommendations included here, would adversely affect the reliability of the electric system…We agree that EPA has sufficient scientific and legal basis to regulate greenhouse gases from new EGUs under section 111 of the CAA.

U.S. Conference of Mayors

Over 1,000 mayors have signed USCM’s Climate Protection agreement…But local governments alone cannot shoulder the entire burden or responsibility of limiting GHG emissions and protecting the health of our citizens. A national regulatory framework is required to achieve the substantial and absolutely necessary reduction in GHG emissions. Therefore, we commend the U.S. EPA for its efforts in this regard and encourage final promulgation of these CAA rules.

National Latino Coalition on Climate Change and Green Latinos

It is because Latino and other traditionally under-represented communities are so disproportionately impacted by these harmful pollutants that NLCCC must urge the EPA to adopt the strictest possible carbon pollution standards for new power plants that will adequately protect our communities…These rules are essential to protect the health of our members and necessary to guarantee the safety of the air of Hispanic communities nationwide.

Creation Justice Ministers

I am here today to offer our faith community’s response to the rule on new power plants. We view climate change as the moral issue of our time, and feel we have an obligation to reverse the implications of our careless actions. As Christians, we are called to be stewards of the land that was gifted to us and ensure that we leave this planet better for the next generation.

(You can read more quotes on our fact sheet)

These standards are an important part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to control dangerous carbon pollution, pollution we are seeing all too clearly now that is harming our country and world.

The Third National Climate Assessment released a few days ago finds beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that Americans are being affected by climate change, which is directly affected by the increase of emissions of heat-trapping gasses such as carbon.

The NCA says:

Evidence for climate change abounds …The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.

The NCA also finds that Americans now experience respiratory illnesses, heart problems, and water-borne diseases as a result of climate change.

The costs of climate inaction are already with us, and threaten to increase for our children and grandchildren. But the Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants are an excellent step towards a brighter future, a more sustainable infrastructure, and a stronger nation.

(EDF's Charlie Martin helped write this post)

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy| Comments closed

The way forward to kicking our carbon addiction

Photo credit: Billy Wilson cc

How would you respond to an upsetting medical diagnosis? Probably first with shock and fear, then you’d ask the doctor about realistic treatment options. That’s how it works for an individual, but what about when seven billion people get the bad news at the same time?

That’s what happened yesterday, when the White House released another troubling National Climate Assessment (NCA). It described a condition that’s going to get significantly worse without intervention – with troubling symptoms already apparent.

Now, to be fair, this NCA wasn’t really news in the “I didn’t see that coming” sense. Just like a patient who has been told to stop smoking for years, there has been plenty of warning that our “unfiltered” smokestacks are causing serious damage to our environment and health. Last month, in fact, the International Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report, and this is the third National Climate Assessment – each making more specific estimates of the climate dangers ahead. And yet, we can’t quit our pack-a-day habit.

The disturbing news is all here: Threats to agriculture from drought, danger for coastal residents and businesses from rising seas, more frequent intense hurricanes, more asthma attacks for kids, the spread of insect borne disease, and much more.

But the good news is that this disease has a cure. In fact, in just about four weeks, the United States is poised to take a very important step towards improving the currently predicted outcome. On June 2, EPA is planning to announce limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants, which are America’s largest source of climate pollution – about a third of the total we produce.

When EPA announces the new standards, what will probably surprise most people is that the agency doesn’t already have limits on this type of pollution. A recent poll indicates that 56% of Americans assume we currently have these protections. That’s an understandable belief since EPA limits most other forms of air pollution, but up to now utilities have been free to put as much of this stuff as they can crank out in our common atmosphere. And all that pollution has a very real cost borne by society.

Of course, as with all other proposed air pollution rules, there will be a small but powerful group who howl in protest. They did it when EPA limited toxic mercury, sulfur, smog and other dangerous pollutants. I’m sure you’ll hear that ending unlimited carbon pollution will wreck our economy and bankrupt us all. But what those people won’t tell you is that studies have shown that every past air pollution rule has actually helped the U.S. economy, with benefits outweighing costs by a substantial margin.

The new rules alone won’t cure climate change. But, along with actions on cars and trucks that have already been announced, they are a substantial first step. These standards will also push utilities to modernize, help grow clean energy jobs, and give a boost to entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to power our economy more cleanly. (EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency is exploring ways to make the rules flexible, allowing states and companies to find innovative ways to meet the standards.)

Cures are never painless, but they’re usually a lot better than the disease. And everyone knows that the sooner you act, the better the outcome. So let’s take yesterday’s diagnosis seriously, and when EPA announces the new carbon standards on June 2, let’s make sure Congress knows we all want a healthy future.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Policy| Comments closed

New report: How climate change is impacting where you live

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is essentially the U.S. equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Using the best available science, over 300 experts synthesized current understanding of observed and future climate changes and impacts, particularly in the U.S. The third ever NCA was released today, and concludes beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that Americans are being affected by climate change.

Among the findings:

  • U.S. average temperatures have increased by 1.3 to 1.9ºF since record-keeping began in 1895, and most of this warming has occurred since 1970
  • Heavy precipitation has increased in many parts of the country
  • Extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and North Atlantic hurricanes are more frequent and/or intense
  • Summer sea ice in the Arctic has halved since record-keeping began in 1979
  • Sea level rise has increased coastal erosion and storm surge damage

These changing conditions produce a variety of tangible stresses on society by affecting human health, water resources, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and natural ecosystems. The particular impacts vary by region, but no corner of the country is immune to the change.

So what’s happening where you live?

Source: National Climate Assessment

Unless we take immediate action to curb our emissions of heat-trapping gases, the foreseeable future will be plagued by further warming and worsening impacts. The good news is that because we know what the cause is, we also know what is needed in order to stabilize our planet. We must come together now—locally, nationally, and internationally—and work towards a better future.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices blog

Also posted in Arctic & Antarctic, Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Oceans| Comments closed

'Feeding 9 billion' requires facing up to climate change

This post was co-authored by Kritee, Senior Scientist, International Climate; Richie Ahuja, Regional Director, Asia; and Tal Lee Anderman, Tom Graff Fellow – India Low-Carbon Rural Development

National Geographic's May cover story, “Feeding 9 billion,” offers valuable insights into how to feed a growing global population while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. But it omits some key connections with a critical issue: climate change.

Drought in the U.S. causes withering of corn. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

As the Food and Agriculture Organization recently documented in great detail, climate change is likely to fundamentally alter the structure of food systems around the globe. With about 43% of the world’s population employed in agriculture, it’s vital that farmers have the knowledge and tools they need both to adapt to climate change and to help mitigate it.

Author Jonathan Foley, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, lays out several steps for “Feeding 9 billion.” Though he starts by acknowledging that agriculture emits “more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined,” he doesn’t explicitly mention how his plan relates to a changing climate.

The first of his steps – halting conversion of additional forests and grasslands to agriculture – is crucial to stopping climate change, given the vast quantities of greenhouse gases released in these conversions. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation noted, protecting forests and increasing carbon content of the soils can decrease global emissions by as much as 13 gigatons CO2eq/year by 2030 – more than a quarter of current annual global emissions.

Foley also highlights the need to reduce meat consumption, because only a very limited portion of calories consumed by animals yield edible food for humans, and to reduce food waste. According to the IPCC, these consumer-level steps have the potential to decease agricultural emissions by 60% below the current trajectory. While Foley didn’t acknowledge these mitigation potentials, we agree that these are important steps to feeding the world’s population and protecting our environment.

But it’s his steps calling for improving productivity – both by growing more food on existing farms, and by using fertilizer, water and energy more efficiently – where the interactions with climate are more complex and need special attention.

Climate adaptation and resilience in agriculture

Foley rightly points out that to feed the world’s future population, more food needs to grow on existing farms. However, he doesn’t note that some of the effects of climate change – droughts, floods and heat waves in many parts of the world – are already reducing crop yields, and these effects and their consequences are expected to worsen.

The IPCC’s recently published 5th Assessment Report on adaptation concludes that:

  • Climate change is already negatively affecting yields of crops and abundance of fish, and shifting the regions where crops grow and fish live
  • Future changes in climate will increase competitiveness of weeds, making it difficult and more expensive to control them
  • By 2050, changes in temperature and precipitation alone will raise global food prices by as much as 84% above food prices projected without these two climatic factors
  • Major grains like wheat, corn, and rice could see as much as a 40% decrease in yield from a 20C increase in local temperatures. That’s because of the changing rainfall frequency and intensity, unpredictability and irregularity of growing seasons, and higher ozone levels that often accompany high CO­2 levels

To deal with these consequences and ensure food security and livelihoods, adaptation to climate change is essential. Indeed, adopting carefully chosen adaptation and resilience measures could improve crop yields as much as 15-20%. The IPCC recommendations include:

  • Altering planting/harvesting dates to match the shifting growing seasons
  • Using seed varieties that might be more tolerant of changing climatic patterns
  • Better managing water and fertilizer use

A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

Achieving high yields requires enabling farmers all over the world to adapt, build and restore the resilience of agricultural ecosystems in the face of continued climate change. Given that many farmers in developed countries have already reached what are currently maximum possible yields, it’s particularly urgent to work with farmers in the developing world.A vast majority of these farmers in developing countries own small-scale farms (less than two acres in size) and have limited resources, and as a result are on the frontline of experiencing the unfolding impacts of climate change. These farmers are already growing the majority of the world’s food – more than 90% of the world’s rice, over 65% of its wheat and 55% of its corn. Notably, as opposed to our recommendations for farmers in the developed countries, some of them might need to increase their fertilizer use to achieve better yields as opposed to decreasing it. Feeding a world of 9 billion thus requires facing the disproportionate effect that climate change has on the 2 billion people who depend on small-scale farms for their livelihood.

Barriers to climate adaptation & mitigation in agriculture

The latest IPCC report also noted that the “nature” of the agriculture sector means:

“There are many barriers to implementation of available mitigation options, including accessibility to … financing, … institutional, ecological, technological development, diffusion and transfer barriers.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Many farmers, especially small scale land-owners in developing parts of the world, lack access to reliable scientific information and technology. In some cases, relevant information has not even been generated.

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

For example, small-scale rice farmers in Asia lack access to information enabling them to determine what amounts of water, organic and synthetic fertilizer will optimize yields while also minimizing release of the greenhouse gases methane (which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released), and nitrous oxide (which is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide). EDF is working with the Fair Climate Network in India and with Can Tho University and other partners in Vietnam to help generate that information and facilitate its use by farmers.

More generally, agricultural institutions at all levels – international, regional, national and local – need to work closely with farmers to learn and promote evidence-based, locally appropriate agricultural adaptation and mitigation technologies and practices. Farmer access to finance can further help improve the adoption rate of these technologies. Larger investments in farming infrastructure and science from government and private sector also need to be channeled to promote food security through low-carbon farming.

Our food system cannot achieve high yields without building and restoring the resilience of agricultural ecosystems, and the system won’t be sustainable if agriculture doesn’t do its part to mitigate climate change.

To feed 9 billion people, we must overcome barriers to reducing climate change’s effects on agriculture, and agriculture’s effect on climate.

This post first appeared on EDF Talks Global Climate blog

Also posted in International, Plants & Animals, Policy| Comments closed
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    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
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