Tag Archives: global warming

Earth swelters as global warming targets near breach

An iceberg floats near a harbour in the town of Kulusuk, east Greenland August 1, 2009. Picture taken August 1. REUTERS/Bob Strong

An iceberg floats near a harbour in the town of Kulusuk, east Greenland August 1, 2009. Picture taken August 1. REUTERS/Bob Strong

By Alister Doyle
August, 2016

OSLO (Reuters) – The Earth is so hot this year that a limit for global warming agreed by world leaders at a climate summit in Paris just a few months ago is in danger of being breached.

In December, almost 200 nations agreed a radical shift away from fossil fuels with a goal of limiting a rise in average global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C (2.7F).

But 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record, also buoyed by a natural El Nino event warming the Pacific, according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization. The first six months were a sweltering 1.3C above pre-industrial times.

“It opens a Pandora’s box,” said Oliver Geden, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The future debate about temperature targets will be about overshoot.”

Many climate scientists say the Paris targets are likely to be breached in the coming decades, shifting debate onto whether it will be possible to turn down the global thermostat.

Climate scientists will meet in Geneva from Aug 15-18 to plan a U.N. report about the 1.5C goal, requested by world leaders in the Paris Agreement for publication in 2018. Overshoot is among the issues in preparatory documents.

Developing nations see overshoot as a betrayal of commitments by the rich and a recipe to worsen heatwaves such as in the Middle East this year or a thaw of Greenland’s ice sheet that could swamp island states by raising global sea levels.

“There is a risk that ‘overshoot’ is a slippery slope towards lower ambition,” said Emmanuel de Guzman, secretary of the Climate Commission of the Philippines, which chairs a group of 43 emerging nations in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF).

OLYMPICS CAMPAIGN

Backing that view at the Rio Olympics, some athletes have signs saying: “1.5 – the record we must not break” in a campaign partly run by the CVF, whose members includes Bangladesh, the Maldives and Guatemala.

Developing nations say overshoot lets world leaders pay lip service to 1.5C while failing to act on pledges made in Paris for a trillion-dollar shift from coal and other fossil fuels towards renewable energies.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump doubts climate change is caused by human activities and has said he will pull out of the Paris Agreement if elected. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton strongly backs Paris.

The 1.5C threshold could be in jeopardy within five years on current trends of world greenhouse gas emissions, led by China and the United States, and 2C within about 25 years, according to U.N. calculations of the amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere.

Brazilian scientist Thelma Krug, who will lead the Geneva meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said a “wholesale transformation” of economies and society will be required to achieve the Paris targets.

The IPCC report will look at both the damage to nature from a 1.5C rise and ways to rein in rising temperatures.

Many IPCC scenarios in recent years discuss ways to extract heat-trapping carbon dioxide from nature. If applied at a wide enough scale, such “negative emissions” could reduce temperatures after an overshoot. But there are many pitfalls.

The simplest natural aid – planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide from the air to grow – would probably require too much farmland to be feasible. Industrial technologies for extracting carbon from the air are costly and in their infancy.

Draft documents for the 2018 report by the IPCC also mention more radical solutions, such as spraying chemicals into the upper atmosphere to dim sunlight through “geo-engineering”.

“It’s hard to avoid overshoot. It’s more a question of the size,” said Glen Peters, a scientist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

The Paris text is vague about the temperature ceilings and does not say whether 1.5C or 2C refers to temperatures in one year, over a decade or longer.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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Emily Dickinson’s garden, “native” plants, and climate change

The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson’s home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.

by Janet Marinelli
June, 2016

On rare occasions, the townsfolk of Amherst, Massachusetts, would catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure dressed in white, leaning over to tend her flowers by flickering lantern light. The mysterious recluse, who was better known to neighbors for her exquisite garden than for her lyric poems that revealed a passionate love of nature, differed from fellow 19th-century American writers whose thinking became the bedrock of modern environmentalism. While Thoreau famously declared wild places to be “the preservation of the world,” Emily Dickinson was finding nature’s truth and power in an ordinary dandelion.

Among the plants that survive on the family property where Dickinson confined herself for much of her adult life are picturesque old trees called umbrella magnolias (Magnolia tripetala) — so named because their leaves, which can reach two feet long, radiate out from the ends of branches like the spokes of an umbrella.

A Bellemare Magnolia tripetala, in Concord, MA

A Magnolia tripetala, in Concord, MA. Photo by Jesse Bellemare

The trees, believed to have been planted by Emily’s brother Austin, have jumped the garden gate in recent decades and established wild populations not far from the poet’s home. This new location is a couple of hundred miles north of the tree’s native range, centered in the sheltered woods and ravines of the Appalachian Mountains, and is the first evidence that native plant horticulture in the United States “is giving some species a head-start on climate change,” according to Smith College biologist Jesse Bellemare.

Ironically, the denizen of the Dickinson homestead is also challenging basic precepts of conservation practice, such as what is the definition of “native”? Are climate refugees that hitchhike north via horticulture less worthy of protection than plants that arrive on their own? Do they pose a threat to existing native species? Should native plant gardening, the domestic form of assisted migration, be used to help plants stranded in inhospitable habitat?

The standard definition of native, says Bellemare, was based on a view of nature as unchanging, and of what constitutes “native” as absolute and enduring. But “this very local definition breaks down,” he says, as climate change makes many plants unsuited to habitats they historically have occupied. The definition of native needs to shift, he adds, as the boundaries of entire biogeographic regions, like the eastern deciduous forest, shift with changing conditions.

A few years ago, Bellemare began to notice umbrella magnolias “peeking out from roadside vegetation” in western Massachusetts. A new, more nuanced set of terms than ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ is needed,’ says one biologist.

Most of the naturalized plants, he observed, were “close to, or within sight of, horticultural specimens.” Intrigued, he set out to determine the age of the garden escapees. Although some of the landscaped trees, like those on the Dickinson homestead, were planted more than a century-and-a half-ago, core samples from a number of the largest naturalized individuals revealed that the species started escaping profusely only in the last 20 to 30 years.

As Bellemare and coauthor Claudia Deeg pointed out in a paper last July in Rhodora, this is also when the climate began warming quickly in the region. In a presentation at the Ecological Society of America conference last year, Bellemare and a group of collaborators concluded, “It is unlikely that natural dispersal from the South would have allowed Magnolia tripetala to reach this region anytime soon.”

For years, scientists have predicted that natives planted well north of their historic geographic limits inevitably would not only survive, but thrive and naturalize outside of horticulture in habitat made increasingly hospitable by global warming. In a 2008 paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, biologists found that 73 percent of the 357 native European species they investigated were being sold hundreds of miles north of the plants’ natural geographic ranges.

“While debate continues about whether humans should actively assist the migration of species in the face of climate change, it is clear that the horticulture industry has already done so for hundreds of species,” they wrote.

Natural range shifts of birds and other mobile species have been documented in the past decade, but new studies suggest that many native plants are also struggling to keep up with climate change by migrating to higher elevations or towards the poles. In an analysis of the flora of Worcester County in central Massachusetts in 2013, biologist Robert Bertin found that the ranges of native plants appear to be contracting.

“Northern” species most widely distributed in upper New England, he wrote, are declining faster than the region’s “southern” plants, primarily from New England’s lower reaches, which are expanding their ranges northward. In a paper published earlier this year, biologists detected significantly fewer shifts in elevation by plants in California than by other organisms such as birds and mammals. They also found that the migration upward in elevation of non-native invasive plant species was nearly five times greater than that of the flora overall, and even more when compared to localized endemic plants.

Endemic plants with small ranges, scientists believe, are among the species at greatest risk as their preferred climate shifts far beyond their ability to disperse. Bellemare and University of Minnesota biologist David Moeller have analyzed the likely impact of climate change on one of the most celebrated clusters of endemic plants — herbaceous wildflowers of the Southeast, from bleedinghearts to trilliums — which produce a flamboyant explosion of blooms that carpet the forest floor in spring.

These endemic wildflowers have been unable to disperse northward in the 15,000 years since the last ice sheet began receding. While they would probably be well positioned to survive the climatic cooling of another ice age, the breakneck speed of current warming seems to place many of these plants “on the wrong side of climate history,” Bellemare has written.

Horticulture has helped the umbrella magnolia disperse beyond its former range limit south of the glacial boundary. Naturalized populations have been discovered throughout the Northeast, including on Long Island, where the trees were planted widely in the 1920s, and perhaps earlier.

The population located a stone’s throw from the Dickinson homestead, consisting of several hundred trees spread over six or seven acres, is believed to be one of the largest clusters in the Northeast.

Not all biologists are toasting the plant’s arrival in the northeastern U.S., however. Because the umbrella magnolia arrived via horticulture, Bill Brumback, director of conservation at the New England Wild Flower Society, says he would not consider it native — the basic prerequisite for a plant worth preserving.

“I really don’t know” if southeastern species that have escaped from cultivation should be considered native in New England, says Brown University biologist Dov Sax, who is collaborating with Bellemare and other scientists on a nationwide study of what shifting ranges portend for the survival of native plants in the face of rapid warming. “A new, more nuanced set of terms than ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ is needed,” Sax says.

The debate over how to characterize plants colonizing new areas as the climate changes is based in large part on concern over their potential to hijack the habitat of existing native species. This same worry has made assisted migration of species threatened by climate change one of the most controversial topics Native plant horticulture is giving us some fascinating insights into what is likely to happen with climate change.’
in contemporary conservation science and has fueled concern among some scientists over gardeners moving native plants well beyond their current boundaries.

“Native plant horticulture is giving us some fascinating insights into what is likely to happen with climate change,” says Bellemare. “But we’re not at a point where most botanists and ecologists would feel comfortable advocating” that gardeners help protect plants by moving them to cooler climes, he adds. Indeed, given their rampant spread, Brumback worries that the naturalized magnolias may be in the early stages of biological invasion. “If I saw them taking over a woodland, I’d recommend removing them,” he says.

Brown University’s Sax suspects that this is unlikely, noting that studies indicate a species’ risk of becoming invasive increases with the distance of its historic native range from the region it is colonizing. Although he is concerned that a small percentage of plants introduced from other continents “will likely become problematic,” he believes that a nearby native like the umbrella magnolia, which has outlier populations in southern Pennsylvania, “poses little risk” in New England.

Both Sax and Bellemare have pointed out that the threat of negative ecological consequences is likely lessened by the fact that the umbrella magnolia and other forest plants from the Southeast and mid-Atlantic share a biogeographic history with those in New England.

Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.

When viewed in the context of this larger time scale, they suggest, many climate refugees are simply ancient natives returning home.

According to paleoecologists, as the climate cooled and glaciers expanded during the Pleistocene era, forest plants of the Northeast survived by migrating to so-called refugia in the South. When the climate warmed and the most recent ice sheet receded, some species were able to recolonize the habitat they had lost. But others, Sax suspects, were impeded by the human-driven extinction, about 12,000 years ago, of the mastodons, giant ground-sloths, and other megafauna that had dispersed their seeds for millennia.

“If we still had those big mammals,” says Sax, it’s likely that “many species that are currently restricted to the Southeast or mid-Atlantic would now be in New England.” One of these species may be the umbrella magnolia, which has no apparent modern seed disperser, biologists and horticulturists say, with the notable exception of humans.

While scientists grapple with the implications of escaped magnolias, there is poetic justice that a plant from the Dickinson homestead has sparked the discussion. Although the view of enduring wilderness championed by Thoreau and John Muir came to dominate conservation thinking, Emily Dickinson, who perceived the beauty and destructive capacity of nature all around her, may be the more appropriate literary icon for an age of climate disruption.

@ Yale Environment 360, 2016

This story is reprinted with permission; it originally appeared on Yale Environment 360.

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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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China, US, among those pledging to ratify Paris Agreement

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, delivers his opening remarks at the Paris Agreement signing ceremony on climate change at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, delivers his opening remarks at the Paris Agreement signing ceremony on climate change at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Michelle Nichols and Valerie Volcovici
April, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – China and the United States, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gas emissions, pledged to formally adopt by the end of the year a Paris deal to slow global warming, raising the prospects of it being enforced much faster than anticipated.

Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli signs the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli signs the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The United Nations said 175 states took the first step of signing the deal on April 22, the biggest day one endorsement of a global agreement. Of those, 15 states also formally notified the United Nations that they had ratified the deal.

Many countries still need a parliamentary vote to formally approve the agreement, which was reached in December. The deal will enter into force only when ratified by at least 55 nations representing 55 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

China and the United States together account for 38 percent of global emissions.

“China will finalise domestic legal procedures on its accession before the G20 Hangzhou summit in September this year,” China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli told the U.N. signing ceremony, attended by some 55 heads of state and government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who signed the deal with his 2-year-old granddaughter Isabelle on his lap, said the United States “looks forward to formally joining this agreement this year.” President Barack Obama will formally adopt the agreement through executive authority.

The deal commits countries to restraining the global rise in temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. But even if the pact is fully implemented, promised greenhouse gas cuts are insufficient to limit warming to an agreed maximum, the United Nations says.

Smoke rises from chimneys and facilities of steel plants in Benxi, Liaoning province November 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Smoke rises from chimneys and facilities of steel plants in Benxi, Liaoning province November 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

The first three months of 2016 have broken temperature records and 2015 was the planet’s warmest year since records began in the 19th century, with heat waves, droughts and rising sea levels.

“The era of consumption without consequences is over,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday. “We must intensify efforts to decarbonise our economies. And we must support developing countries in making this transition.”

‘REASON FOR HOPE’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kisses his two-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson after signing the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kisses his two-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson after signing the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Many developing nations are pushing to ensure the climate deal comes into force this year, partly to lock in the United States if a Republican opponent of the pact is elected in November to succeed Obama, a Democrat.

Once the accord enters into force, a little-noted Article 28 of the agreement says any nation wanting to withdraw must wait four years, the length of a U.S. presidential term.

The deal also requires rich nations to maintain a $100 billion a year funding pledge beyond 2020, providing greater financial security to developing nations to build their defences to extreme weather and wean themselves away from coal-fired power.

“We need to mobilise the necessary financial resources,” French President Francois Hollande said. “We need to ensure that our words become actions.”

The U.N.’s previous climate deal, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol entered into force only in 2005. Kyoto dictated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions only for developed nations, unlike the Paris Agreement which involves both rich and poor but lets all countries set national targets.

The previous first-day record for signatures for a global agreement was set in 1982 when 119 states signed the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“More countries have come together here to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of human kind and that is a reason for hope,” actor and U.N. Messenger of Peace on climate change, Leonardo DiCaprio told the event, taking place on Earth Day.

“But unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough. Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong,” he said.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Louis Charbonneau, and Luciana Lopez; Editing by David Gregorio and Frances Kerry)

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After Paris climate pact, let’s get personal. By Gwynne Taraska and Shiva Polefka  Essay

Reengineering global economic dependence on carbon pollution requires conscious commitment and action from individuals as well as governments and corporations.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

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After Paris climate pact, let’s get personal

Above, a Superport near Vancouver, Canada, is one of America’s major coal export terminals. © Deborah Jones 2015

Reengineering the global economic dependence on carbon pollution also requires personal commitments. Above, a Superport near Vancouver, Canada, is one of America’s major coal export terminals. © Deborah Jones 2015

GWYNNE TARASKA & SHIVA POLEFKA
April, 2016

More than 150 country representatives convened in New York on April 22 to sign the historic Paris Agreement, a legally binding international pact to limit greenhouse gas pollution and build resilience to the effects of climate change.

The Paris Agreement has meaningful potential and lays the groundwork for future collective action. It obligates countries to submit national climate goals every five years with the expectation that successive goals will be increasingly ambitious. In addition, the agreement sets a target to limit warming to 2 °C (3.6 °F) over preindustrial levels, the internationally recognized threshold for avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

Curb emissions by reducing meat consumption, especially beef. Above, a cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

Nevertheless, the agreement is not a panacea. Reengineering the global economy — from one characterized by carbon pollution and deforestation to one characterized by clean energy and the preservation of forests and oceans — is feasible with current technology but will require additional, concrete action from all levels of government as well as the private sector.

It will also require conscious commitment and action from individuals, particularly those of us in economically prosperous countries, such as the U.S., Japan and those of the EU. But oftentimes, even those who are intimately involved in climate policy are not fully aware or mindful of how to participate in this moment of global climate action as citizens.

Taking a page from the Paris agreement, individuals could participate in the global climate effort by creating a personal target to reduce their carbon footprints — by 50 percent by 2025, for example — and by similarly challenging those in their communities. President Sauli Niinistö encouraged Finnish citizens to make such as pledge in August 2015 as a prelude to the Paris summit.

Real reductions in carbon pollution are possible when we, as individuals, take responsibility for the connection between our day-to-day consumption choices and the rapidly worsening, global problem of climate change.

Simple steps with only a marginal effect on lifestyles can be highly constructive. Everyday actions to curb emissions include reducing meat consumption — or even just reducing beef consumption, which has an outsize impact on land and water use and requires a vast, energy-intensive supply chain. Reducing miles driven alone in a vehicle by taking public transit and ride-sharing, limiting food waste, and switching to LED bulbs at home are other measures that significantly cut carbon while often saving money. Periodically opting for videoconferencing over airline travel for business trips can dramatically reduce an individual’s carbon footprint — one round trip flight between Europe and the U.S. emits the equivalent of a year’s worth of daily commuting by car. For owners of small businesses and single-family homes, rooftop solar is now available for zero up-front cost in many states and can guarantee lower electric power rates over the long term. To have a further effect, carbon offsets allow individuals to financially contribute to projects in sectors such as clean energy, agriculture and transportation in order to counterbalance their remaining carbon footprints.

There are many online tools to help individuals calculate how their choices add up to yearly greenhouse gas emissions. The calculator you choose should at minimum address home energy consumption, diet, transportation and waste disposal. The United Nations’ Climate Neutral Now campaign, for example, offers a climate footprint calculator. The International Civil Aviation Organization offers a calculator to account for air travel.

Real reductions in carbon pollution are possible when we, as individuals, take responsibility for the connection between our day-to-day consumption choices and the rapidly worsening, global problem of climate change. And the feasible, cost-saving actions individuals take today to reduce their individual carbon footprints will help drive the innovations in both technology and policy that are necessary to solve the climate problem.View Ensia homepage

Creative Commons

Gwynne Taraska is the associate director, energy policy and Shiva Polefka is a policy analyst, with the Center for American Progress. This piece was originally published by Ensia.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Move everything, to curb climate change — investors

By Laurie Goering  
April, 2016

OXFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Meeting the goals of a new global agreement to tackle climate change will require social change on an almost unprecedented scale, said sustainable investment experts.

That includes shifting trillions of dollars each year into renewable energy – up from $345 billion last year – and making everything from transport to agriculture and consumer products much greener very quickly.

“This is about scale. It is about timing. It is about scope. We cannot move 500 companies and 200 investors in a few countries. We need to move everything,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a U.S.-based business sustainability group.

Failure to make big shifts fast would amount to putting our children and grandchildren in the path of a speeding bus, she told the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford this month.

“We would each throw ourselves in front of a bus if it was coming at our child, regardless of our politics,” she said. “We have got to change this debate so people understand… climate change is that bus.”

Labourers rest as a boy playfully shovels coal at a yard in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad November 20, 2014. India will allow locally registered foreign firms to mine and sell coal when commercial mining is permitted as part of the opening up of the nationalised industry after four decades, Coal Secretary Anil Swarup told Reuters. To match Interview INDIA-COAL/ REUTERS/Amit Dave

Labourers rest as a boy playfully shovels coal at a yard in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad November 20, 2014. India will allow locally registered foreign firms to mine and sell coal when commercial mining is permitted as part of the opening up of the nationalised industry after four decades, Coal Secretary Anil Swarup told Reuters. To match Interview INDIA-COAL/ REUTERS/Amit Dave

COAL’S DAYS NUMBERED?

Some of that transformation is already underway, said David Blood, a senior partner at Generation Investment Management. Much of the clean energy technology needed is already available, and a surging divestment campaign is persuading investors that keeping money in fossil fuel companies is a growing financial risk.

But while experts predicted the U.S. coal industry is on its way out of business, large-scale investment in coal – one of the biggest drivers of climate change – is still happening in parts of Africa and South Asia, particularly India.

Reversing that by ensuring India and other countries have access to clean technology should be a priority for efforts to hold climate change to manageable levels, they said.

“It’s in the interests of the whole world that India gets (to clean energy) faster,” said Mary Robinson, a former Irish president who runs a climate justice foundation.

But large institutional investors are wary of risk and want clear returns, which can make them hesitant to invest in emerging economies like India, the experts said.

Creating investment tools that work for both those with the cash and those that need it is crucial to drive money to the right places to address climate change, Lubber said.

That must be done in a way that persuades investors who “don’t recognise the urgency of the problem”, said Blood, whose company is one of the world’s largest sustainable investment firms.

If the investment picture has not changed hugely in four years, “we’re in significant trouble”, he predicted.

The U.N.-brokered Paris climate agreement, backed by 195 countries in December, aims to hold the rise in global average temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational limit of 1.5 degrees.

To achieve that, the world needs to be emitting no more carbon pollution than can be absorbed by forests and other planetary systems in the second half of the century.

The Paris deal “sends a signal to investors, sends a signal to consumers, sends a signal to everyone in the world… that fossil fuels have a very limited lifespan now”, said Thom Woodroofe, a climate policy advisor for Independent Diplomat.

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UNBURNABLE RESERVES

But switching away from dirty fuels will require some key changes to shift investment, experts said, among them putting a realistic price on carbon pollution and the damage it is causing – from worsening storms to agricultural losses.

Setting a workable carbon price “is one of the single most important things” that needs to be done, Lubber said.

Another is to shut down fossil fuel exploration, given that two-thirds of the reserves already discovered can never be burned under the new Paris agreement, the experts said.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who spoke at the Oxford forum this week, put the value of unburnable fossil fuels at $22 trillion.

Investment in fossil fuel exploration is already down over the last five years, from $650 billion a year to $400 billion, Lubber said. But some of that decline is the result of dramatically lower oil prices and companies are still seeking oil in places from the Arctic to Canada’s tar sands.

Still, the fossil fuel divestment campaign “has forced the question of what is a profitable company”, Lubber said.

“Five years ago you didn’t see analyst reports on the financial strength of the fossil fuel industry. Now there are hundreds of those. The debate has changed,” she added.

Equally important will be helping many more people understand that climate change is something that needs action at home, in politics and on the streets, experts said.

When 400,000 people marched to call for stronger policies on climate change in New York last September, with thousands more on the streets of other cities, “it changed the debate, it changed the news media. We need to see that times a thousand around the world,” Lubber said.

From today, “everyone has to take this personally”, Robinson said. “We need a movement that says, ‘This is too important to be left to the government and the United Nations and business.'”

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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The Banality of Ethics in the Anthropocene

CLIVE HAMILTON
July, 2015

Blue MarbleAmong the great crimes of the 20th century the most enduring will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. The effects of human-induced climate change are apparent now and will become severe this century, but the warming is expected to last thousands of years. That is so because extra carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a very long time, but also because changes in the climate are triggering changes in the Earth System as a whole, changes that cannot be undone.

If it is a crime to transform the Earth into a hot and less habitable place what are the offences committed by those responsible? A panel of eminent jurists this year published some principles to guide us. The Oslo Principles note that “all States and enterprises have an immediate moral and legal duty to prevent the deleterious effects of climate change”.

Corporations causing harm to people through their emission of greenhouse gases may be subject to tort law and may be sued for damages. The Principles observe that States are obliged to protect human life and the integrity of the biosphere through an existing network of national and international obligations.

Looking back on the last two decades of denial, delay and obstruction, there have been perhaps two hundred individuals who should be held most culpable, if not by the courts then by history, for failing to prevent harm or of obstructing others from taking measures to prevent harm.

Above all, in denying the evidence or failing to take action commensurate with the known danger, these individuals have been violating their duty to the truth. When something of immense importance is at stake—and what could be more important than the survival of the most vulnerable of the Earth’s citizens in the face of famine, flood, and epidemic – we owe an absolute allegiance to the truth, and must put aside any ideological or financial discomfort that the truth may cause.

A new dispensation

Duty to the truth and the obligation to avoid actions that harm others are powerful principles firmly rooted in the universal framework of legal and ethical codes. Yet before the enormity of what humankind has now done, I cannot help feeling that these grand constructions are frail and almost pathetic. Let me explain why.

Although we must not give up on working hard, against resistance, to limit warming to 2°C, the truth is that few experts believe that the nations of the world will act with the urgency and decisiveness needed to achieve it. Even under optimistic assumptions about global carbon abatement, the Earth is expected to warm by 4°C or more by the end of the century, making it hotter than it has been for 15 million years, and crossing several tipping points along the way that will make it impossible to stabilise the global temperature at any level.

Under human influence the Earth’s climate system is not only changing in its totality and over a geological time-scale; it is also rendered more unstable and unpredictable. Whereas industrialism’s essential aim has been to bring the natural world under human supervision, in practice the effect has been to leave it less controllable.

Moreover, Earth System scientists have been telling us that it is no longer possible to isolate the climate system from the rest of the Earth system. It is not just the climate system that is being disturbed but every component of the Earth system – the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the biosphere and even the lithosphere, that is, the crust and upper mantle.

They are all interconnected and all of them have been disrupted by human activity in the 20th century. Ice masses have been set on a melting course that seems unstoppable; the acidity of the oceans has soared by some 30 per cent and still rises; even the Earth’s crust is being transformed by global changes in the climate.

The last-mentioned is most illuminating. In his extraordinary book, Waking the Giant, geophysicist Bill McGuire describes the ways global warming is disturbing “the giant beneath our feet”. The Earth’s crust is responding to rising temperatures: volcanoes previously imprisoned below ice sheets are more likely to erupt; earthquakes in the Himalayas, the Andes and Alaska may be triggered as the ice load shrinks; and, the solid Earth beneath Greenland is bouncing back quickly as the ice above it melts, perhaps with the Antarctic land mass not far behind.

Let me mention one further fact that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. It has been predicted that global warming from human activity in the 20th and 21st centuries will heat the Earth so much and for so long that it will suppress the next ice age, which is not due to arrive for 50,000 years, and quite possibly several ice ages beyond. Ice ages and the inter-glacial periods between them are caused principally by predictable variations in the way the Earth orbits the Sun and tilts and wobbles on its axis.

Yet these properties of the solar system must now compete against a new force – a creature that shifts vast amounts of carbon from deep underground storage into the atmosphere. In this way, writes geophysicist David Archer in The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of the Earth’s Climate, “humankind has the capacity to overpower the climate impact of Earth’s orbit, taking the reins of the climate system that has operated on Earth for millions of years.”

Earth mobilised

In short, the Earth System as a whole has been mobilised so that everything is now in play. Once disturbed these processes may take an eon to settle down. This is why Earth System scientists are telling us that, like tectonics, volcanism and fluctuations in solar radiation, humans have become a force of nature, so much so that, in the prophetic words of Will Steffen and his colleagues, the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”.

So powerful have we become that we have taken the planet into a new geological epoch, leaving behind that happy 10,000 years of climatic stability and clemency known as the Holocene to enter the Anthropocene. The International Commission on Stratigraphy is now going through a formal process of deciding whether it should add the Anthropocene to the Geological Time Scale, the scale on which the entire 4.5 billion year history of the Earth is divided.

And so Earth scientists are now writing of human impact on a geological time scale. It is a development that calls into question modernity’s understanding of history, expressed in the nineteenth century by Jacob Burckhardt, that history is “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness.” In Dipesh Chakrabarty’s profound observation: Human history and geological history have now converged.

These dazzling facts force us to rethink the place of humankind in deep history. A long time after we modern Prometheans disappear, or retreat to a position where we are no longer interfering in the Earth System, the great processes that drive planetary change – orbital forcing, plate tectonics, volcanism, natural evolution and so on – will overwhelm human influence.

But the planet will not settle into a state that looks anything like the Holocene; it has been diverted onto a different trajectory and there is no going back. We must concede what seemed impossible to contemplate – humans have become agents changing the course of deep history.

What does all this mean for justice and ethics? I would like to suggest that, without relieving individuals of culpability, when we step back and survey these Earth-shattering events our established ethical categories and legal principles appear banal and feeble. If the human impact has been so powerful that it has deflected the Earth from its natural geological path, describing the state of affairs as “unethical” or “unlawful” seems to be some kind of category error.

Earth at dawn from the International Space Station. Photo by Reid Wiseman, NASA, public domain

Earth at dawn from the International Space Station. Photo by Reid Wiseman, NASA

Penal codes proscribe offences against property and the person. Some codify crimes against humanity. But where in a statute book would we look for the crime of subverting the laws of nature? What penalty would a court impose for killing off a geological epoch?

If not unlawful then these monstrous acts are surely unethical. Yet to see them as the result of a miscalculation about how to maximise human welfare, or a failure to act according to a Kantian universal maxim, as the dominant ethical theories would have it, somehow trivialises the magnitude of what has been done and which now looms before us. An ethical framework that can tell us whether it is wrong to overstate our travel expenses cannot tell us whether it is wrong to change the Earth’s geological history.

The feebleness of ethics may be conceded in the case of consequentialist and duty ethics, but what about virtue ethics? Are we not in this predicament because hubris has defeated humility, because self-interest has trumped concern for others? Perhaps, but the virtues that guide us in daily life tell us nothing about the place of humans on the planet, and that is now what is at stake.

The attempt to frame a transformed climate by mere ethics risks normalising an event without parallel, of rendering prosaic a transition that is in fact Earth-shattering. If the imprint of humans on the functioning of the Earth system has become so large that we have initiated a new geological epoch, the recourse to law and ethics leaps over a more foundational question: What is man? What kind of being made these laws and ethical codes, and what kind of being changed the course of Earth history?

Philosophy since Descartes had answered the former question definitively, and since then it has exercised only a few in the shadows. But unless we open it up again we will flounder around attempting to understand the dilemmas of an ontologically new epoch with the categories of the old one. It is an approach as anachronistic as an animal trial would be today. When human history and natural history become entangled it is no longer credible to argue that the future of the Earth depends only on the moral struggle of modern men and women.

The Earth scientists tell us that the giant beneath our feet is stirring. No longer do we face the sullen resistance of nature to our demands, resistance that in the past has been progressively overcome with more powerful technologies. Now we see a force awakening to its own power.

Against the foundation of modern law and ethics in the moral autonomy of the subject we find ourselves in an increasingly heteronomous world. We no longer have a monopoly on agency. We have assumed that the only kind of willing in the world lies in the consciousness of human beings; yet in the Anthropocene we must confront the possibility of a “will” beyond our own, that which we can only gesture at with metaphors like “the awakened beast”.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Let me reinforce the argument with a reinterpretation of a classic fable. Before we became intoxicated by the hubris of techno-industrialism, respect for forces beyond the human was embedded both in folk wisdom and intellectual life. In 1797 Goethe composed a short poem drawing on an ancient story, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Most people today are familiar with it through the Disney version in the 1940 film Fantasia, which stays close to Goethe’s plot.

After the Sorcerer leaves for the day the Apprentice believes he can activate the master’s magical powers, so he commands the broom to fetch water. All goes well until the Apprentice waves the sorcerer’s wand to stop the broom. It refuses. He chops it in half but the two halves rise and continue to fetch water. He chops again and again to no effect until the house is being inundated. The Apprentice cannot control the powers he has unleashed and calamity threatens. But the Sorcerer returns just in time and commands the broom to stop.

Can the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice properly be described as a morality tale? Would we describe the actions of the Apprentice as ‘unethical’? Foolish, risky and hubristic, yes, but not immoral. The fable’s message is pre-ethical, from a world in which the Apprentice is not a moral agent but the kind of being who aspires to go beyond all moral laws. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a story about what happens when we aim to rise above the proper bounds of human agency, when magic confers so much agency that we are above ethical injunctions.

I am suggesting that in the last two to three centuries humans came to believe techno-industrial power had elevated us from Apprentice to Sorcerer. Yet in truth we were never more than Apprentices with iPhones, or more accurately, with coal-fired power plants. Hegel seemed to know this: “Man uses nature for his own ends; but where nature is too powerful, it does not allow itself to be used as means.”

And so we Apprentices misappropriated nature’s powers by setting ourselves up to rival the laws of nature. We have made ourselves into beings that aspire to the role of the gods, playing with forces we should leave alone, the great forces that govern the evolution of the planet. Impatient with this kind of warning, some ultra-moderns are even now planning to impose their will on those forces by means of geoengineering schemes aimed at regulating the amount of solar energy reaching the planet.

So what is man? The Apprentice. Yet unlike the pleasing ending to Goethe’s story, with the Sorcerer returning at the last moment to set things right, in the last century or so humans have usurped the role of Sorcerer and changed the world irrevocably.

What is the essential flaw in this being, the being that can spread across the entire surface of the Earth and create fantastically elaborate social structures, including systems of ethico-legal principles to govern its behaviour, and yet send the planet careening off onto a new and dangerous trajectory that jeopardizes all forms of life? Modernity’s greatest philosophical invention, the autonomous subject, now stands on shaky ground, the trembling of “the giant beneath our feet”.

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This essay was adapted from a speech to the GLOBALE Festival, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, 20 June 2015. The Conversation

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Journalism has value: please help sustain us with a “hat tip” donation (every two bits helps), or by purchasing a subscriptionFacts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O provides journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising. You will never see paid “branded content” articles on our pages. We do not solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES blog. Find evidence-based dispatches in Reports; commentary, analysis and longer form writing in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. To inquire about republishing F&O’s original works, email editor@factsandopinions.com.

 

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Are countries legally required to protect citizens from climate change?

A Dutch court recently ruled that greenhouse gas reduction is a state obligation. Here’s what that could mean for the rest of the world.

In January 2015, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated the Canal Top Solar Power Plant, above, in Gujarat, India. UN Photo/Mark Garten

In January 2015, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated the Canal Top Solar Power Plant, above, in Gujarat, India. UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Sophia V. Schweitzer, Ensia 
July, 2015

On June 24, 2015, a court in The Hague ordered the Dutch government to act faster in its duty to protect its citizens against the effects of climate change. This marks the first time the issue has been legally declared a state obligation, regardless of arguments that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend on one country’s efforts alone. The decision was based on various branches of law, including, most importantly, human rights. In effect, it makes the Dutch government accountable for greenhouse gas emissions on its own territory, an outcome other countries may also need to heed.

The government, the court said, must ensure that Dutch emissions in 2020 will be at least 25 percent lower than those in 1990 — the amount the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report says is needed from industrialized countries if the world is to not exceed 2 °C (3.6 °F) warming and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Dutch political leaders had been planning to cut emissions by up to 17 percent within the next five years.

“Our case lets politicians know that they can’t let climate change happen. They have a duty to act, be it legally or morally,” says Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel to the Urgenda Foundation, which, supported by about 900 co-plaintiffs, initiated the suit.

The Dutch, whose country lies largely below sea level, have reason to worry about climate change. But they live in a country that has resources to adapt. People in poorer countries, who have contributed least to climate change and are also often least well prepared to respond, are likely to suffer the most. It’s for them that the Dutch victory is critical, says van Berkel. “The rights of our co-plaintiffs are central, but people outside of the Netherlands will be even harder hit by climate change,” he says. “The ruling will encourage others to appeal to human rights when it comes to climate change threats.” Which brings up the big question: Is the Dutch court ruling a landmark for the entire globe?

Sun over Greenland

Greenland melting © Deborah Jones 2007

From Human Rights to Policies

In 2008, the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva, Switzerland, wrote in a report about climate change and human rights: “As a matter of law, the human rights of individuals must be viewed in terms of state obligations.” But the world has long been grappling with international agreements for such obligations; from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to repeated Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — COP — meetings, the best efforts have struggled to gain traction, in large part because political actions have not kept pace with promises made.

Aware of that gap, citizens have tried to litigate political leaders into action, but prior to the Urgenda (a portmanteau of “urgent agenda”) case there were no victories. In 2005, for example, the Inuit Circumpolar Council filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., claiming that global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the United States violated the Inuit people’s right to sustain their traditional ways of life due to destruction of the Arctic environment. But the commission dismissed the complaint due to lack of sufficient evidence.

“The obligations are clear,” says Wim Voermans, a professor of constitutional law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “But when they aren’t kept, can citizens then make a claim that it’s a country’s non-acting that’s endangering them? That’s the challenge. … It’s hard to prove direct causalities in civil litigation.”

Kivalina, Alaska, in 2008. US Coast Guard, Lt. Cdr. Micheal McNeil

Kivalina, Alaska, in 2008. US Coast Guard, Lt. Cdr. Micheal McNeil

In 2008, the village of Kivalina, Alaska, sued several large energy companies, claiming that global warming had diminished sea ice formation, forcing the village to relocate. The case was dismissed based on judicial determination that decisions about permissible levels of greenhouse gas emissions should be made by the executive and legislative branches, not by the courts.

“The real problem is, who has what power?” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School. “Whose job is it to set climate policy? Basically, all judges have said, not me. Before the Urgenda case, no court had really taken on this role.”

Courts haven’t been entirely averse to taking responsibility, though. In 2006–7, Massachusetts sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which had refused to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act of 1970. The agency claimed that any attempt to regulate greenhouse gases might impede potential White House strategies. The Supreme Court disagreed. While it was an important outcome, “the court did not set policy,” Gerrard explains. “It was just saying, it is EPA’s job.”

Meanwhile, in different countries courts have varying views about how broadly they can act. In environmental policy, courts have at times chosen to intervene on behalf of the public. In 2001, for example, the Supreme Court of India decreed that all Delhi buses had to convert from diesel to natural gas, which has had a profound effect on air quality. It was an important ruling, but it didn’t get into climate change.

Amid this impasse between governments avoiding responsibility and courts preferring not to interfere, academics and attorneys worldwide as well as some members of the judiciary have felt a growing unease. A group of them eventually came together to determine whether climate change is an actual issue under existing law, specifically international law, human rights law, national environmental law and, to a lesser extent, tort law. They concluded the answer is yes. “There are longstanding principles of human rights and protection of environment that are threatened by climate change,” Gerrard says. “Our view is that the law should have the ability to address this great threat.”

The group’s discussions, which took several years, led to the launch of the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations on March 1, 2015. Drawing on existing law and the IPCC’s 2 °C (3.6 °F) threshold finding and prepared by expert members from national and international courts, universities and organizations in every region of the world, the principles seek to define the scope of legal obligations relevant to climate change. “We are currently educating judges around the world of the existence of the principles,” says Gerrard, a co-author of the principles. “Our hope is that judges in various countries will use the framework of the principles and that they are cited by the courts.”

The Urgenda case began before the principles were established, and was inspired by a book titled Revolution Justified, written by Roger Cox, one of the lawyers representing Urgenda, which looks at how courts can play a role in solving energy issues. But as the suit progressed it relied in part on the Oslo Principles, bringing together various branches of law and IPCC science. According to Gerrard, the Urgenda ruling was “the first decision by any court in the world ordering states to limit greenhouse gas emissions for reasons other than statutory mandates.”

Meanwhile, new scientific findings keep pouring forth. The journal Nature reported in February that carbon emissions from thawing permafrost will accelerate climate change, information not accounted for in current IPCC reports. With each such finding, the goal to not exceed an increase of 2 °C (3.6 °F) becomes more difficult. “Our findings add one more pressure for action,” says Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, who contributed to the Nature paper. “There is a sense of urgency. The carbon feedback is an irreversible process, a true tipping point.”

But a lack of scientific evidence hasn’t been the stumbling block for climate action in the decades since scientists have identified the issue. The Urgenda ruling could offer a different way forward because it sets a legal precedent, saying that concrete reductions cannot wait. While the ruling is not binding for any other country, it sets an example and, as such, is a landmark for the world.

“We hope that there is enough momentum built that many countries feel an obligation,” Gerrard says.

© Gavin Kennedy 2013

Windmills in Mexico © Gavin Kennedy 2013

A Pathway to Commitment

This offers a new piece to the puzzle as countries move toward convening in Paris for COP 21 this coming November — a piece they will likely have to deal with before then as lawyers are emboldened to bring similar cases around the globe. “No one expects that commitments made in COP 21 will be sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change,” van Berkel says. “But after COP 21 it is going to be critical that countries remain committed to what is needed. Juridical procedures similar to our case are going to be instrumental in this.” No events have been scheduled yet in Paris to discuss the Oslo Principles, but Urgenda has been organizing a march from Utrecht to Paris starting November 1 to draw further attention to action needed to fight climate change.

A citizen suit similar to Urgenda’s is currently underway in Belgium, and another is expected soon in Norway. Urgenda’s decision may yet be appealed, and future cases may be successful or not. Either way, they each will play a role in changing the zeitgeist toward a feeling that climate change and human rights are inextricable, says Bill McKibben, founder of the climate campaign 350.org, which, among other actions, has led the campaign for universities and other entities to divest from fossil fuels. “They’ll drive home, constantly, the message from Desmond Tutu: Climate change is the human rights crisis of our time.”View Ensia homepage

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Related on Facts and Opinions:

The Dutch Prescription:  take the future to court, or take it outside, column by Chris Wood: Natural Security

The Banality of Ethics in the Anthropocene, by Clive Hamilton

contributor-Sophia-V.-SchweitzerSophia V. Schweitzer is an environmental science writer based on the Island of Hawai’i. Visit her website here:  http://sophiavschweitzer.com

 This report originally appeared on Ensia: http://ensia.com

 

 

 

 

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Journalism has value: please help sustain us with a “hat tip” donation (every two bits helps), or by purchasing a subscriptionFacts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O provides journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising, you will never see “branded content” articles on our pages, and we do not solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES blog, find evidence-based dispatches in Reports; commentary, analysis and longer form writing in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. Email editor@factsandopinions.com to inquire about republishing F&O’s original content. 

 

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Climate March well-meaning — but means next to nothing

Weed, California. Fire burned 100 homes September 15, 2014 in the Siskiyou County town of Weed. The state, experiencing record drought, declared an emergency in January. Photo by California Emergency Services.

Weed, California. Fire burned 100 homes September 15, 2014 in the Siskiyou County town of Weed. The state, experiencing record drought, declared a state of emergency in January. Photo by California Emergency Services.

By Chris Wood, Natural Security columnist

This isn’t the Bastille of the Climate Revolution. Not even close.

What organizers are billing as “the largest climate march in history this weekend,” hopes to draw as many as 150,000 people to New York City to urge leaders from 120 countries meeting there for the Climate Summit on Tuesday to kick up the pace of response to climate change.

People celebrate the September 19 arrival of the Climate Train at Penn Station in New York, where more than 100,000 people are expected in the Climate March prior to the Climate Summit at the United Nations starting September 23.

People celebrate the September 19 arrival of the Climate Train at Penn Station in New York, where more than 100,000 people are expected to join the Climate March Sunday, prior to the Climate Summit at the United Nations September 23. Photo by Light Brigading via Flickr, Creative Commons

I don’t mean to be mean, and I applaud the goodwill of everyone involved, but 150,000 people, if they get that many (and usually in these things actual warm body counts fall far short of heady expectations), in the streets of a city of eight million otherwise-occupied souls, will mean next to nothing to the men keeping climate action in first gear.

For one thing, 150,000 is a corporal’s guard compared, say, to the conservatively estimated (by the BBC) six to ten million people who mustered out to protest President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That was one country about to commit one egregiously arrogant as well as stupid, act. If ten million people couldn’t get America to think twice about an invasion of choice, a relative platoon isn’t going to budge the keystone predators of the financial and fossil-fuel industries or their political chattels.

For another, the people abandoning the defense of our families, our economic savings, and our communities from the increasingly extreme violence of climate disruption, won’t be in New York. Both Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott — who have jointly put the rest of the world on explicit notice that they’re willing to see much of it destroyed (I mean this literally) so long as their economies prosper — are snubbing the event. So, as far as we know, are the Koch brothers, Charles and David, and Rupert Murdoch—among Harper and Abbott’s much more powerful analogs in the plutocracy.

So again: full marks for sincerity to the New York marchers. But sincerity only goes so far. The United Nations Climate Summit is no Bastille in the economic revolution (or something very close to it) that might just possibly keep our society from tumbling into the pit of our own ecological overdraft. Those Bastilles are in places like Ottawa and Canberra and Palm Springs, where the Koch Brothers annually gather their followers and sycophants and Congressional marionettes.

Turn up there with 150,000 men and women and kids righteously pissed off about having their future destroyed, and some of those leaders might just begin to worry enough about their own future to re-consider their neglect of our natural security.

— Chris Wood

Journalist and author Chris Wood’s most recent books and articles focus on the environment. Read his Natural Security column for F&O here (subscription*).

 

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Global Warming hiatus due – surprise! – to Atlantic Ocean

A humpback whale feeding off the coast of Newfoundland on Canada's Atlantic coast. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

A humpback whale feeding off the coast of Newfoundland on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

New research published today in the journal Science suggests, surprisingly, that the answer to the biggest climate change mystery of the past decade or so may be found in the deep Atlantic Ocean, and not as suspected in the Pacific. Noted Science:

Why did the rapid global warming that characterized the latter part of the 20th century slow down over the last 15 years or so? Many different theories have been proposed, but a new study suggests that a massive movement of heat from shallow surface waters to deep regions of the Atlantic and Southern Oceans — but not the Pacific Ocean, as many researchers had predicted — might be responsible.

Xianyao Chen and Ka-Kit Tung analyzed data from profiling floats, or oceanographic sensors that can move vertically throughout the water column, and traced the pathways that heat has taken through the world’s oceans since the turn of the 21st century. The oceans are capable of storing about 90% of the world’s surface heat content, and the researchers suggest that most of the excess heat that would have otherwise continued to fuel global warming is currently stored in the basins of the Atlantic and Southern Oceans. The researchers also suggest that a sudden shift in salinity that corresponded with the slowdown of global warming at the beginning of the 21st century may have triggered this migration of heat to deeper waters. Historically, similar events have lasted 20 to 35 years, according to Chen and Tung. Consequently, the researchers suggest that global warming will pick back up in 15 more years or so, when heat returns to the surface waters.

F&O publishes an analysis of the findings in Dispatches/Science, by Richard Allen, professor of climate science at the University of Reading: Does deep Atlantic heating account for global warming hiatus?  (free story, via The Conversation). Excerpt:

There seem to have been a dozen or so explanations for why the Earth’s surface has warmed at a slower rate over the past 15 years compared to earlier decades. This is perhaps not so surprising given the complexity of the climate system – the world’s best detectives will inevitably struggle to disentangle the factors which influence every lump and bump in the surface temperature record.

However, recent research implicates natural changes in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as the prime culprits. Just as the apparently random motions in a river’s flow can shift before our eyes from one minute to the next, the gradual sloshing about of our vast ocean waters can influence Earth’s climate from one year to the next and from one decade to the next.

It is clear that natural variability has and always will influence the climate … continue reading Does deep Atlantic heating account for global warming hiatus? (free story)

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work.

 

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Does deep Atlantic heating account for global warming hiatus?

A humpback whale feeding off the coast of Newfoundland on Canada's Atlantic coast. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

A humpback whale feeding off the coast of Newfoundland on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

By Richard AllanUniversity of Reading, The Conversation
August 21, 2014

There seem to have been a dozen or so explanations for why the Earth’s surface has warmed at a slower rate over the past 15 years compared to earlier decades. This is perhaps not so surprising given the complexity of the climate system – the world’s best detectives will inevitably struggle to disentangle the factors which influence every lump and bump in the surface temperature record.

However, recent research implicates natural changes in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as the prime culprits. Just as the apparently random motions in a river’s flow can shift before our eyes from one minute to the next, the gradual sloshing about of our vast ocean waters can influence Earth’s climate from one year to the next and from one decade to the next.

It is clear that natural variability has and always will influence the climate. In addition to chaotic ocean fluctuations, changes in the brightness of the sun and variations in the frequency and intensity of volcanic eruptions (which cool the planet temporarily with sunlight-reflecting aerosol particles) influence the surface temperature. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working report found that these natural factors have contributed toward the slowing rate of surface warming since 1998.

However, recent measurements of ocean temperature made by thousands of automated buoys and observations of Earth’s radiative energy budget by satellite instruments indicate that heating has continued at a rate equivalent to every person worldwide using about 20 kettles each to continuously boil the oceans. This is consistent with what is expected from the rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases due to human activity. If anything, Earth’s heating rate increased between the 1985-1999 and 2000-2012 periods, despite a slowing in the rate of surface warming.

Observed and simulated changes in Earth’s heating rate since 1985. Image by Allan et al., author provided

Observed and simulated changes in Earth’s heating rate since 1985. Image by Allan et al., author provided

So, how is it possible for increased heating to not directly correspond with surface warming? The Earth’s heating is caused by an imbalance between the amount of absorbed sunlight and the heat emitted back to space. This surplus of heat is primarily absorbed by the oceans since they command the lion’s share of storage capacity compared with other parts of the climate system such as the land, the atmosphere or the cryosphere (ice and snow). This large heat capacity of water is noticable from the amount of time it takes to heat up your pan of vegetables. And there is a lot of water in the oceans; nearly a fifth of a cubic kilometre of water for each person on the planet.

Crucially, the temperature at the Earth’s surface depends upon where this heat is deposited in the oceans. If the upper levels warm, so too will the atmosphere above. However, if ocean circulations cause more heat to be drawn down to deeper depths (or less heat to be moved upward toward the sea surface) then surface temperatures will reflect this. Recent research has implicated our largest ocean, the Pacific, as the most likely mechanism for subducting heat to deeper levels.

Indeed, atmospheric and ocean conditions in the Pacific have been unusual in the past decade and computer simulations show that decades of slow surface warming despite rising greenhouse gas concentrations are associated with increased heating below 300m depth. The mechanisms for heat absorption are less clear; the simulations show that similar patterns appearing to originate from the Pacific are associated with the draw-down of heat in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean as well as the Pacific.

New research published in Science now shifts the focus towards the Atlantic Ocean. Xianyao Chen and Ka-Kit Tung of the University of Washington show that heating from rising greenhouse gas concentrations has preferentially warmed the ocean’s 300-1500m layer since about 2000, thereby depriving the upper layers of this surplus heat and causing surface warming to slow.

The authors say these changes are part of a natural cycle of knock-on effects, involving ocean circulation responses to changes in how salty (and therefore dense) the upper Atlantic Ocean layers are. This cycle is thought to last around 30 years, contributing a sustained cooling effect then a warming influence on surface temperatures; when combined with steady heating from greenhouse gas increases this leads to a “staircase” effect of stable temperatures followed by rapid warming.

They argue the previous focus on the Pacific was based upon simulations that were unable to fully capture the intricacies of the Atlantic Ocean circulation. An observed decline in the North Atlantic Ocean circulation over recent years has also been identified as part of a longer-term shift based upon evidence from computer simulations.

The changes in ocean circulation have also been shown to influence seasonal extremes and, based upon the proposed Atlantic mechanism, may persist for another decade before rapid warming is re-established. However, the nature of internal ocean fluctuations means it is difficult to pin down timings with any confidence.

While it is human nature to seek a single cause for notable events, in reality the complexity of the climate system means that it is unlikely there is one simple reason for any extreme weather event or a decade of unusual climatic conditions. Nevertheless, the recent hiatus in global surface warming has encouraged scientists to further scrutinise and learn in even finer detail than before the workings of our climate system.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Richard Allan receives funding from the Natural Environment Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Further reading on F&O:

Environmental Assessments Include Climate, by Chris Wood (Frontlines post) 
A few words about an old friend, Natural Security column by Chris Wood (paywall) 
The point of no return, Natural Security column by Chris Wood (paywall) 
The Ugly Oil Sands Debate, by Tzeporah Berman (column) 
Oceans sickened by domestic disease, climate change by Deborah Jones (Dispatch, paywall)
Ignorance of science worsens global crises, warn researchers.  By Deborah Jones (Dispatch, paywall)

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