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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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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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American climate change deniers’ last gasp

A participant is pictured in front of the entrance at the venue for the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A participant is pictured in front of the entrance at the venue for the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
November-December, 2015

First, let me say that I’m not going to waste our time debating if climate change is or isn’t real. It is. The science is OVERWHELMING. Case closed.

Let’s move on to what to do about it.

Climate change deniers in the United States, otherwise known as conservative Republicans, have long claimed that crackpot theories and phony scientific data prove their fallacy. Oh, there are climate change deniers in other parts of the world, but they have been melting away even faster than the polar ice shelves. Only in America is the denial of climate change a major political issue.

Even in the Middle East, in countries like Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and even Saudi Arabia, climate change is a real concern. Some of the most oil-rich in the world, these countries have started to prepare for the inevitable negative consequences, with the full support of their governments.

But in the United States, conservative politicians beholden to special interest groups like oil companies, natural gas distributors, and in particular, coal companies, continue to pump out enough false propaganda and sometimes outright lies to keep scientists busy refuting them. They are aided in their subterfuge by a compliant media that insists on covering climate change like a “he said, she said” issue, as if there were just as many scientists doubting the reality of climate change as there are saying it’s a real problem.

The ridiculousness of this position was highlighted by comedian John Oliver when he did his “proportionally representative” climate change debate on his Comedy Channel show. To illustrate the number of scientists who say climate change is real, compared to those who dismiss it, Oliver had 97 people come up on the stage to argue with three deniers. It was a stark view of just how one-sided this debate really is, despite the propaganda pumped out by fossil fuel industries.

I ran across an interesting view of this “climate change denial cottage industry” in an interview with French ambassador Gérard Araud, who has been busy promoting this week’s climate change conference in Paris. Araud offered a most interesting view of the conservatives in Congress who continue to argue this idiocy.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the start of the climate summit in Paris November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the start of the climate summit in Paris November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“When you see climate deniers, to be frank and with all due respect, it’s a phenomenon which is limited in a sense to the U.S. and in a sense to the U.S. Congress,” Araud told The Huffington Post earlier this month. “I should say, even though it’s not very diplomatic, it’s one more example of where the people, the civil society, are ahead of the politicians.”

When China, one of the other worst polluters in the world, signals that it is ready to take steps to reduce carbon emissions, you know the conservatives in the Congress are fighting a lonely battle. But although these modern day know-nothings may be relatively few, they control the purse strings in the American political system, and are threatening to defund any initiative taken by President Barack. Obama.

The problem we are dealing with here goes deeper than a denial of climate change. Conservatives in the Congress, and their acolytes in the conservative news media, are waging an all-out attack on science in all its forms. Whether it be climate change, vaccination, or evolution, their mostly theological-based arguments hold less water than a thimble.

The left is not completely clear of this anti-science bias. The arguments on the left are about issues like nuclear energy, GMO foods or, somewhat surprisingly, wind farms that “ruin the view” despite producing non-fossil fuel energy. (It has always interested me how progressives will tout scientific data on issues like climate change, but deny it on issues like GMOs.) As writer and well-known skeptic Michael Shermer described it in an article in Scientific American, “The underlying current is ‘everything natural is good’ and ‘everything unnatural is bad.’”

The anti-science gene has run deep through American politics for many, many years. And that’s a problem for the rest of the world.

Many expert observers draw parallels between the tactics of climate skeptics and those of tobacco companies to undermine the science on dangers of smoking. The anti-science war can be traced, most recently, to the neo-liberal agenda that denies a positive role for governance, and has flourished since the reign of Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.

I think the only solution is for the rest of the world to go ahead without the United States. The world should write us off for now, ignore the gobbledygook coming from the American Congress, and the ridiculous party favour tricks (like bringing in a snowball on the floor of the Senate to prove climate change is not real) performed by clown Republican Congressman and Senators.

The trick, however, is to make sure that all American companies operating overseas are forced to observe any advances made on eliminating climate change. Because the reality is, as much as U.S. conservative Republicans try to ignore it, we live in a time of global action. They can try to isolate America, but are just whistling past the graveyard.

And while they might control some purse strings, the majority of Americans are increasingly concerned about the issue, as the Pew Research Center recently reported.

It’s a matter of time, but time is the problem: we don’t have much of it. The reality in the U.S. may be that the conservatives in Congress aren’t willing to do anything substantive about climate change until Florida is under water. Let’s hope they come to their limited senses before that.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

References:

 

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

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What Tibetan Buddhists, Andean Paqos, teach about climate change

Gaumukh Gangotri glacier in Nepal. Atarax42/Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Gaumukh Gangotri glacier in Nepal. Atarax42/Wikipedia, Creative Commons

By Brian Bienkowski, The Daily Climate
October, 2015

Glaciers have for decades supplied crucial water to mountain communities worldwide—but they also quench spiritual thirst.

The ice serves as cultural and religious touchstone for Tibetan Buddhists at the edge of China’s Mingyong Glacier, Sherpas living high in Nepal, Paqos dispensing wisdom and medicine in the Andes. All share a deep reverence for local glaciers.

For these communities, climate change is cultural change: As glaciers melt, their traditions, values and outlook are changing.

Are the gods mad? Does a dying glacier mean a dying people? Are we giving proper reverence to life-sustaining resources? These are the questions framing changes underway now and experienced by often poor, largely indigenous people worldwide.

Western climate policy rests largely on the physical and economical. Increasingly experts argue that these spiritual beliefs—and people’s relationship with the land—must become part of the conversation.

The most prolific voicing of this occurred in June, when Pope Francis released a 192-page encyclical laying out the argument for religion to join forces with science to combat global climate change.

The pope urged an “ecological conversion” for spiritually minded people worldwide, a message that continued as he visited President Barak Obama at the White House, spoke before a joint session of Congress, and addressed the United Nations General-Assembly.

And others think Pope Francis is on to something.

“We need to open our minds to looking at climate change not only as a biophysical, political, economic problem, but at the ramifications of people’s own reality … and understand humans and other forms of life as beings enmeshed in their ecology, and not standing apart from it,” said Elizabeth Allison, a researcher and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies’ department of philosophy and religion.

Allison cited the Tibetan Buddhists, the Nepalese Sherpas and Peruvian Quechua in her recent study that examined climate change and the spiritual significance of glaciers.  Such voices must be heard, she said, even if they interpret environmental changes differently than people in developed countries.

Some Nepalese Sherpas cite a link between moral and spiritual decline with that of glaciers. Tibetan Buddhists have suspected a dearth of Buddhist devotion and visitors’ lack of respect for the retreat of the Mingyong Glacier in China’s northwest Yunnan Province, which is one of the fastest melting glaciers in the world.

None fully attribute the local transformation they’re witnessing to industrialized emissions or other climate forcers meticulously catalogued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and western scientists. Instead, they attribute the melt, she said, “to some kind of imbalance or immoral activity.”

Taking spiritual beliefs into account is important, Allison added: People’s ability to adapt to a changing climate depends as much on their mental state as formal policies and treaties.

And the consequences are very real. In the Andes, the local Quechua used to cut down ice chunks from the glacier on Mount Ausangate and drink the restorative liquid with family and friends. Today that religious rite is forbidden.

While the people have adapted, such “spiritual dislocation” can lead to social unrest, Allison writes. And the Quechua agree—as local prophecy “suggests that the world will end when the glacier is gone,” she notes.

Including such views in treaties and global policymaking won’t necessarily move the needle on climate change policy or agreement, said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School who has studied how people perceive risks, such as climate change.

“If you look at who’s concerned about climate change and who isn’t, the difference isn’t how spiritual people are,” Kahan said.

Kahan’s research has found that people largely perceive risks based on their connection to cultural groups they associate with.

However, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, a filmmaker and founder of the Global Oneness Project, a series of educational films on environmental and social issues, said that tapping into this religious practice and spirituality can help instigate a sense of environmental urgency in people of faith.

“It could help people form connections, when people see that problems aren’t just an external situation, but an internal situation, there’s more meaning to them,” said Vaughan-Lee, a longtime advocate for the merging of spirituality and environmental awareness.

Another reason important reason is that people in many of these areas are often left out of global policy making, Allison said. Mountain communities and coastal villages are often poor and have the most to lose from climate change impacts such as glacial retreat and sea level rise.

“We have to figure out how to include indigenous thinking into global policy making … especially when those people are the majority,” she said.

Both Vaughan-Lee and Allison said the Pope’s encyclical was a step in the right direction in injecting spirituality and religion into the environmental realm.

“For years environmentalists and social justice workers shied away from spiritual or religious arguments, because maybe they thought it makes them seem less serious in eyes of mainstream public,” Vaughan-Lee said.

“But there’s a need to bring that together and the Pope said it’s OK, we need to do that.”

Creative Commons

This story was originally published by The Daily Climate, an independent, foundation-funded US news service covering energy, the environment and climate change.

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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

Creative Commons

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

 

 

 

 

~~~

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. 

 

Tide turning against climate change deniers

The gathering of the information that sustains climate-change certainties intermittently involves men and women in extraordinary activities, as this image suggests. It was made in the summer of 2010 during an examination of the ice atop the Chukchi Sea, in the Arctic Ocean, by three American government agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. KATHRYN HANSEN/NASA

The gathering of the information that sustains climate-change certainties intermittently involves men and women in extraordinary activities, as this image suggests. It was made in the summer of 2010 during an examination of the ice atop the Chukchi Sea, in the Arctic Ocean, by three American government agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. KATHRYN HANSEN/NASA, public domain

TOM REGAN  
November, 2014

In his book The Believing Brain author Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, makes the following proposal: belief comes first, then the reasons for belief comes second. So to use an example, an individual might believe in ghosts, so she will then find the reasons to support that belief. That cold spot in the attic is not caused by a deficiency of heat from the furnace, but by the presence of a supernatural being. 

This is also the way the world of climate change deniers work. First comes the belief that climate change does not exist, second comes the search for reasons to support that belief. And, as we have seen repeatedly, any reason will do. The result is that anyone who even remotely suggests that climate change is bogus is latched on to and held up like a conquering hero, regardless how dubious their credentials are.

 However, if a one-time climate change skeptic goes over to the other side, the community’s response is to bitterly accuse them of being “bought off” or pressured into changing their opinion. This was the case of for scientist Richard Muller who publicly doubted the existence of climate change but after repeated experiments on his own came to the conclusion in 2012 that it did indeed exist.

 Now it’s also fair to say that for those of us who do believe that climate change is real, the process is the same. But the reasons for our belief are grounded in study after study after study by some the world’s best scientists which shows the existence of global warming caused by human activity.

Perhaps the best example of this landslide of evidence was the now famous skit in which comedian John Oliver, tired of the media’s choosing one spokesman for and one spokesman against climate change to reflect the scientific outlook on the issue, brought up three people to represent climate change deniers on a panel, and 97 others who represented the scientific community’s actual position that global climate change is real. 

 

 

But we know, of course that it won’t make any difference. Because if you believe that global warming is a hoax, like Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma – who will soon be in charge of the very Senate committee that is responsible for responding to global climate change – then all of the scientific studies and facts and proofs in the world won’t make one bit of difference. Because it’s the belief that matters not the evidence that disproves it. Unlike Mr. Muller, who as a scientist is supposed to have an open mind towards the possibility of his initial conclusions being wrong, Sen. Inhofe is under no such obligation.

No, the good senator is not likely to change when Republicans receive millions of dollars in funding from gas and oil and coal companies, whose opposition to global climate change is all about the Benjamins and not because they may or may not believe in it. One might hypothesize that the only reasonable way to expect the GOP to change is for someone with even more money, who believes in climate change, to provide them with funding. Politics runs on the theory that belief is an economic system and that the beliefs of highest bidder are the right ones.

The one thing that might change their mind is how people vote in an election. Now it’s fair to say that for much of the past few decades while scientists have been warning us about the problems of climate change, the issue of itself has not been much of a vote bonanza . In fact, the GOP has often used it scare voters by saying if we make the changes necessary to save the climate, and maybe the world, you’ll lose your job. It’s a pretty powerful argument if you live in a place where the effects of climate change may not be as pronounced as they are in other areas. For now.

But something is happening. And you saw that something reflected in the recent agreement between China and the United States about climate change.

The fact that China, the world’s biggest economy, (at least in terms of its size, not necessarily its actual wealth making potential) is willing to say “Okay, we recognize there’s a problem so were going to do our best to cap our emissions by this particular date regardless of the fact that it may slow us down economically” is fairly important. Unlike America, where your political stance often reflects your belief about climate change, regardless of any scientific evidence, Chinese leaders – who are a pretty uniform lot and basically make decisions that support the economy while suppressing public freedoms – have made the decision that climate change is a problem.

And when you have countries like this, who for so long fought against any treaty that would lower carbon emissions, changing their minds, this undermines another pillar of the climate change skeptics house built on the sand of dubious science and carbon producers’ billions. It also becomes a potentially powerful argument in the hands of those who are trying to convince voters to support politicians you want to stop climate change.

So as climate change increasingly produces killer hurricanes, tornadoes and and polar vortexes, as huge chunks of Antarctic ice break off from the continent because of warming temperatures, as small islands around the world begin to vanish as sea levels rise, it is going to become harder and harder for climate change deniers to avoid the obvious. Many of them will, of course, but here’s hoping enough American voters wake up to the realities of a warming global climate because as the recent United Nations final report on climate change recently said we are almost out of time to make any difference at all. 

 Copyright Tom Regan 2014

Contact Tom Regan::  motnager@gmail.com

Further reading on Facts and Opinions*:

In Expert Witness, Mark Maslin answers his question, How does the IPCC know climate change is happening?   In reporting, Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding, excerpts the fifth IPCC report, with a summary by Deborah Jones. Also read F&O ‘s Natural Security columnist Chris Wood; Tzeporah Berman in The Pointy End and also on finding hope in environmental activism and on The Ugly Oil Sands Debate. ”Expert Witnesses” Brad Allenby writes On Geoengineering: a case for sophisticated thinking and Bradley J. Cardinale looks at  Biodiversity in the Anthropocene.  Desmond Tutu makes An Argument for Carbon Divestment.

Our blog post, Focus on Climate Change, includes select reactions to the IPCC report and a few recommended readings elsewhere.

 

United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Photo by Donald K. Perovich, public domain

United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Photo by Donald K. Perovich, public domain

 

Tom HeadshotTom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, and Boston Globe in the United States.

The former executive director of the Online News Association, he was  a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*You’ll find lots of great free stories inside our site, but much of our original work is behind a paywall — we do not sell advertising, and reader payments are essential for us to continue our work. Journalism to has value, and we need and appreciate your support (a day pass is $1 and a monthly subscription is less than a cup of coffee). 

Facts 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 performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

 

 

 

Focus on Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change today published the trailer for a the video of its fifth report, to be released at an international climate meeting in Lima next month. Its message: “We either continue on the path that we are on and possibly face catastrophic climate change, or we listen to the voice of science, and act accordingly. That’s really our choice.”

 

Here are related stories on F&O:

How does the IPCC know climate change is happening? In Expert Witness, by Mark Maslin, November 4, 2014

 Climate change challenges the very way we organise our society. It needs to be seen within the context of the other great challenges of the 21st century: global poverty, population growth, environmental degradation, and global security. To meet these challenges we must change some of the basic rules of our society to allow us to adopt a much more global and long-term approach and in doing so develop a solution that can benefit everyone.

Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding, Verbatim excerpts with summary by Deborah Jones, November 2, 2014

Climate change caused by humans will result in food shortages, mass extinctions and flooding, warns the world body of climate experts in its most comprehensive report yet, signed in Bonn on November 2, 2014. It says the science is now 95 per cent conclusive, that today’s climate change is unprecedented, and warns that the world must act, together and immediately, on adaptation and mitigation. It says some changes are already inevitable and the risk of not acting is extreme: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts, globally.”

Also read: F&O ‘s Natural Security columnist Chris Wood; Tzeporah Berman in The Pointy End, on finding hope in environmental activism and on The Ugly Oil Sands Debate;  “expert witnesses” Brad Allenby On Geoengineering: a case for sophisticated thinking and Bradley J. Cardinale on Biodiversity in the Anthropocene; and An Argument for Carbon Divestment, by Desmond Tutu.

A selection of the wide range of reactions to the fifth IPCC report elsewhere on the Internet: 

In Hong Kong spiritual and religious leaders held an interfaith forum on November 3, reported the South China Morning Post. They are part of the international Our Voices movement launched this spring. The organization urges people to sign a petition asking world leaders to act on climate change, which it calls a moral issue as “a humanitarian and development emergency, and it’s already affecting many vulnerable communities … According to rigoruosly verified IPCC reports, it’s going to get unimaginably worse.”

 In Copenhagen, debate began over the future of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “After a six-year scientific marathon that involved about 4,000 authors, contributors and reviewers and 30,000 climate studies, the U.N.’s expert panel on climate change has published its latest assessment on global warming. Now many wonder what’s next,” reported the Associated Press (via Washington Post) in Future of UN climate body debated. 

Stewart Wallis, executive director of the New Economics Foundation, called for a new approach in attempts to overhaul the economic system.  “We and many other civil society organisations have been much better at saying what is wrong with the current system than providing a positive new story about how we can flourish while living within planetary ecological limits,” he wrote in An economic system that supports people and planet is still possible, in the British Guardian.

An editorial in The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates stopped barely short of climate denial in reacting to the IPCC report. In an editorial headlined Climate needs a careful response, it advocated full speed ahead but, with a nod to climate change, by alternative energy means: “The answer to the climate-change dilemma lies in a measured approach. We need to make practical changes such as those underway in the UAE, which is introducing nuclear and solar power and other sustainable technologies, but we must also do much more research. The need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels is acknowledged, but so too is the reality that only they can service immediate global energy needs. And one interpretation of eliminating greenhouse emissions altogether would mean eliminating all animal life, including humans.”

In Canada a group of independent policy analysts, economists, business people and former politicians today launched an organization called Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. It says it aims to “to align Canada’s economic and environmental aspirations. We believe this is both possible and critical for our country’s continuing prosperity.” The commission’s first report, identifying a set of policy targets that are extremely contentious in a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers, and which famously pulled out of the Kyoto Accord:  

  • Road-congestion pricing
  • Municipal user fees.
  • Carbon pricing.
  • Subsidy reform.
  • Air-pollution pricing.
  • Water pollution pricing.
  • Water use pricing.
  • Catastrophic risk pricing.

In the United States, where today’s mid-term elections will determine control of the Senate, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe called the IPCC ” a front for the environmental left” in a statement responding to its fifth report. Inhofe, senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has said he will lead the committee if the Republicans control the American Senate after today. An excerpt of his statement:

“The idea that our advanced industrialized economy would ever have zero carbon emissions is beyond extreme and further proof that the IPCC is nothing more than a front for the environmental left. It comes as no surprise that the IPCC is again advocating for the implementation of extreme climate change regulations that will cripple the global economy and send energy prices skyrocketing. The United States is in the midst of an energy renaissance that has the potential to bring about American energy independence, which would strengthen our national security and energy reliability for generations into the future. At a time of economic instability and increased threats to American interests, the IPCC’s report is little more than high hopes from the environmental left.”

U.S. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe in March, 2014. Photo By Glenn Fawcett, U.S. Department of Defence, public domain

U.S. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe in March, 2014. Photo By Glenn Fawcett, U.S. Department of Defence, public domain

Climate denial is a common and popular position in the United States where, for example, Fox News last week gave one of America’s most prominent deniers a “warm welcome,” reported Media Matters:

“The October 28 edition of Fox News’ The Kelly File featured John Coleman, co-founder of The Weather Channel, allowing him to promote his belief that “man-made global climate change is a myth.” During the segment, Coleman falsely claimed that the scientific consensus that human activities drive climate change is based on “bad, bad science” and repeated the falsehoods that an increase in Arctic ice disproves global warming and that polar bears are doing just fine. He also blamed Al Gore for making it difficult for a climate skeptic to “get on TV….

“For years, Coleman has been connected to the Heartland Institute, which has been funded by fossil-fuel interests, and its promotion of climate change denial. Coleman was featured at a Heartland Institute climate conference in July of this year.

 

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How does the IPCC know climate change is happening?

North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, U.S., in September, 2014. Photo by weesam via Flickr, Creative Commons

North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, U.S., September, 2014. Photo by weesam via Flickr, Creative Commons

By Mark Maslin, University College London
November 4, 2014

Climate change is one of the few scientific theories that makes us examine the whole basis of modern society. It is a challenge that has politicians arguing, sets nations against each other, queries individual lifestyle choices, and ultimately asks questions about humanity’s relationship with the rest of the planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its synthesis report on November 2, a document that brings together the findings from the IPCC’s three main working groups. It reiterates that the evidence for climate change is unequivocal, with evidence for a significant rise in global temperatures and sea level over the last hundred years. It also stresses that we control the future and the magnitude of shifting weather patterns and more extreme climate events depends on how much greenhouse gas we emit.

This is not the end of the world as envisaged by many environmentalists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it will mean substantial, even catastrophic challenges for billions of people.

Greenhouse gases absorb and re-emit some of the heat radiation given off by the Earth’s surface and warm the lower atmosphere. The most important greenhouse gas is water vapour, followed by carbon dioxide and methane, and without their warming presence in the atmosphere the Earth’s average surface temperature would be approximately -20°C.

While many of these gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, humans are responsible for increasing their concentration through burning fossil fuels, deforestation and other land use changes.

Although carbon dioxide is released naturally by volcanoes, ecosystems and some parts of the oceans, this release is more than compensated for through the carbon absorbed by plants and in other ocean regions, such as the North Atlantic. Had these natural carbon sinks not existed, CO2 would have built up twice as fast as it has done. Records of air bubbles in ancient ice show us that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are now at their highest concentrations for more than 800,000 years.

The IPCC presents six main lines of evidence for climate change.

  1. We have tracked the unprecedented recent rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

  2. We know from laboratory and atmospheric measurements that greenhouse gases do indeed absorb heat when they are present in the atmosphere.

  3. We have tracked significant increase in global temperatures of 0.85°C and sea level rise of 20cm over the past century.

  4. We have analysed the effects of natural events such as sunspots and volcanic eruptions on the climate, and though these are essential to understand the pattern of temperature changes over the past 150 years, they cannot explain the overall warming trend.

  5. We have observed significant changes in the Earth’s climate system including reduced snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere, retreat of sea ice in the Arctic, retreating glaciers on all continents, and shrinking of the area covered by permafrost and the increasing depth of its active layer. All of which are consistent with a warming global climate.

  6. We continually track global weather and have seen significant shifts in weather patterns and an increase in extreme events. Patterns of precipitation (rainfall and snowfall) have changed, with parts of North and South America, Europe and northern and central Asia becoming wetter, while the Sahel region of central Africa, southern Africa, the Mediterranean and southern Asia have become drier. Intense rainfall has become more frequent, along with major flooding. We’re also seeing more heat waves. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) between 1880 and the beginning of 2014, the 13 warmest years on record have all occurred within the past 16 years.

The continued burning of fossil fuels will inevitably lead to further climate warming. The complexity of the climate system is such that the extent of such warming is difficult to predict, particularly as the largest unknown is how much greenhouse gas we will emit over the next 85 years.

The IPCC has developed a range of emissions scenarios or Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) to examine the possible range of future climate change. Using scenarios ranging from buisness-as-usual to strong longer-term decline in emissions, the climate model projections suggest the global mean surface temperature could rise by between 2.8°C and 5.4°C by the end of the 21st century.


Global average surface temperature change. IPCC, Author provided

The sea level is projected to rise by between 52cm and 98cm by 2100, threatening coastal cities, low-lying deltas and small islands. Snow cover and sea ice are projected to continue to reduce, and some models suggest that the Arctic could be ice-free in late summer by the latter part of the 21st century. Heat waves, extreme rain and flash flood risks are projected to increase, threatening ecosystems and human settlements, health and security.


Global mean sea level rise IPCC, Author provided

These changes will not be spread uniformly around the world. Faster warming is expected near the poles, as the melting snow and sea ice exposes the darker underlying land and ocean surfaces which then absorb more of the sun’s radiation instead of reflecting it back to space in the way that brighter ice and snow do. Indeed, such “polar amplification” of global warming is already happening.

Changes in precipitation are also expected to vary from place to place. In the high-latitude regions (central and northern regions of Europe, Asia and North America) the year-round average precipitation is projected to increase, while in most sub-tropical land regions it is projected to decrease by as much as 20%, increasing the risk of drought.

In many other parts of the world, species and ecosystems may experience climatic conditions at the limits of their optimal or tolerable ranges or beyond. Human land use conversion for food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in species extinctions some 100 to 1000 times higher than background rates. Climate change will only speed things up.

The IPCC synthesis set in stark terms the global challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To keep global temperature rise below 2°C then global carbon emission must peak in the next ten years and from 2070 onward must be negative: we must start sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Despite 30 years of climate change negotiations there has been no deviation in greenhouse gas emissions from the business-as-usual pathway so many feel keeping the climate change to less than 2°C will prove impossible.

The failure of the international climate negotiation, most notably at Copenhagen in 2009, set back meaningful global cuts in emissions by at least a decade. Anticipation is building for the Paris conference in 2015 and there are some glimmers of hope.

China, now the largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, has discussed instigating a regional carbon-trading scheme which if successful would be rolled out across the whole country. Meanwhile the US, which has emitted a third of all the carbon pollution in the atmosphere, has placed the responsibility for regulating carbon dioxide emissions under the Environment Protection Agency, away from political wrangling in Washington.

Support and money are also needed to help developing countries mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to inevitable climate change. Trillions of dollars will be invested in energy over the next 15 years to keep pace with increasing demand – what we must do is ensure that it is directed towards developing cheap, clean, secure energy production rather than exploiting fossil fuels. We must also prepare for the worst and adapt. If implemented now, much of the costs and damage that could be caused by changing climate can be mitigated.

Climate change challenges the very way we organise our society. It needs to be seen within the context of the other great challenges of the 21st century: global poverty, population growth, environmental degradation, and global security. To meet these challenges we must change some of the basic rules of our society to allow us to adopt a much more global and long-term approach and in doing so develop a solution that can benefit everyone.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

ef52eccb-9e3e-4a1f-bc80-dd2a96e9fffaMark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Further reading:

Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding, by F&O

Climate change caused by humans will result in food shortages, mass extinctions and flooding, warns the world body of climate experts in its most comprehensive report yet, signed in Bonn on November 2, 2014. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the science is now 95 per cent conclusive, that today’s climate change is unprecedented, and warns that the world must act, together and immediately, on adaptation and mitigation. It says some changes are already inevitable and the risk of not acting is extreme. 

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate, and will continue with, 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. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in the form on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

IPCC report sounds loudest alarm yet on climate change impacts

Climate change caused by humans will result in food shortages, mass extinctions and flooding, warns the world body of climate experts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its most comprehensive report yet.

The report, signed in Bonn today, says the science is now 95 per cent conclusive, that today’s climate change is unprecedented, and warns that the world must act, together and immediately, on adaptation and mitigation. It says some changes are already inevitable and the risk of not acting is extreme: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts, globally.”

F&O provides a brief  introduction and summary, and verbatim excerpts from the IPCC’s latest, sobering, report and warning. … read (free*): Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding.

 

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Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding

U.S. Geological Survey Follow Shriveled and Cracked  When USGS mapped the glaciers in Icy Bay, Alaska in the 1950s, the glacier in this image was flat and hundreds of meters thick. Bedrock is emerging as Guyot retreats very rapidly. Taken in Jan 2010. Credit: Shad O'Neel, USGS.

ICY BAY, Alaska, 2010 — Alaska glaciers like Guyot, above, have changed dramatically since the U.S. Geological Survey set out to map them in the 1950s. At the time, said the survey, the glacier above was flat and hundreds of meters thick. This recent photo reveals bedrock. Photo by Shad O’Neel, USGS, Public Domain

 

WHAT:

Climate change caused by humans will result in food shortages, mass extinctions and flooding, warns the world body of climate experts in its most comprehensive report yet, signed in Bonn on November 2, 2014. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the science is now 95 per cent conclusive, that today’s climate change is unprecedented, and warns that the world must act, together and immediately, on adaptation and mitigation. It says some changes are already inevitable and the risk of not acting is extreme.

 WHO: 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world body for assessing the science related to climate change.  It was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

The IPCC assesses the thousands of scientific papers published each year to inform policymakers about what we know and don’t know about the risks related to climate change. The IPCC identifies where there is agreement in the scientific community, where there are differences of opinion, and where further research is needed.

WHERE: 

Globally, including in the IPCC’s 195 member countries.

WHEN:

The IPCC’s 5th report was released November 2, 2014; global climate change meetings are scheduled for December and next year.  

WHY:

Climate change respects no physical or human-made borders. The report’s key message is that climate change “exposes people, societies, economic sectors and ecosystems to risk …. high risk can result not only from high probability outcomes, but also from low probability outcomes with very severe consequences.” An imperfect ability to predict outcomes should not prevent them from being considered.

The IPCC’s fifth report on climate change draws, it says, on a “larger knowledge base of scientific, technical, and socio-economic literature” than any previous report since it was formed in 1988. It concludes that climate change risks are so certain and grave, states Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, that “to not act collaboratively and in a timely manner would fly in the face of both reason and responsibility.”

She called growing awareness of the crisis the good news: “governments everywhere have been increasingly internalizing and acting upon the IPCC’s findings as have cities, investors, companies and citizens ranging from environmental groups to faith-based organizations.”

All agencies and the scientific community “recognize that knowledge gaps remain and that further research is needed,” said a press statement from UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “But the empirical evidence is not only sufficient to judge the risks of inaction; it is also compelling in terms of the many co-benefits of acting now to maintain a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to below 2°C.”

The UNEP release calls climate change “not only a challenge and a cost, but is also an opportunity to move towards a more inclusive green economy in which measures deliver both immediate benefits in terms of reducing emissions and multiple benefits in improvements in public health, energy efficiency, food security and the ability to invest in mitigation measures while adapting to climate impacts and building long-term resilience.”

Barriers to “green” outcomes include a lack of adequate, large-scale financial incentives, said the UNEP statement. The good news, it added, is “significant public and private investments are beginning to flow into energy efficiency; up to US$365 billion in 2012, with US$254 billion entering the renewable energy sector in the same year. 

The IPCC report is broken into four topic areas:

  1. Observed evidence for a changing climate, the impacts caused by this change and the human contributions to it.
  2. Projections of future climate change, projected impacts and risks.
  3. Adaptation and mitigation as complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks
  4. Individual adaptation and mitigation options and policy approaches, with other societal objectives.

The report is dense, and includes figures and a stream of qualifications, including the level of confidence it has in each statement. It’s the product of a diverse and international committee, and so reading with a salt shaker in hand is recommended: it will have been subjected to influences from economic coercion to bullhorn diplomacy. But it’s also highly readable and, especially considering the many and diverse voices behind it, it is a shocking, and sobering, warning to humanity.

— Deborah Jones

 

VERBATIM: CLIMATE CHANGE 2014 SYNTHESIS REPORT, excerpts:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.

Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era driven largely by economic and population growth . From 2000 to 2010 emissions were the highest in history. Historical emissions have driven atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, to levels that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years, leading to an uptake of energy by the climate system.

The evidence for human influence on the climate system has grown since (the IPCC’s fourth report). Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, and in global mean sea-level rise; and it is extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Impacts are due to observed climate change, irrespective of its cause, indicating the sensitivity of natural and human systems to changing climate.

In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Impacts are due to observed climate change, irrespective of its cause, indicating the sensitivity of natural and human systems to changing climate.

Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. Some of these changes have been linked to human influences, including a decrease in cold temperature extremes, an increase in warm temperature extremes, an increase in extreme high sea levels and an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events in a number of regions.

Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.

Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development. Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts for people, species and ecosystems. Continued high emissions would lead to mostly negative impacts for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and economic development and amplify risks for livelihoods and for food and human security.

Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist (very high confidence). Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change (high confidence). Health impacts include greater likelihood of injury and death due to more intense heat waves and fires, increased risks from foodborne and waterborne diseases, and loss of work capacity and reduced labour productivity in vulnerable populations (high confidence). Risks of undernutrition in poor regions will increase (high confidence). Risks from vector-borne diseases are projected to generally increase with warming, due to the extension of the infection area and season, despite reductions in some areas that become too hot for disease vectors (medium confidence). Globally, the magnitude and severity of negative impacts will increasingly outweigh positive impacts (high confidence). By 2100 for RCP8.5, the combination of high temperature and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is expected to compromise common human activities, including growing food and working outdoors

In urban areas, climate change is projected to increase risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems, including risks from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise and storm surges (very high confidence).

Rural areas are expected to experience major impacts on water availability and supply, food security, infrastructure, and agricultural incomes, including shifts in the production areas of food and non-food crops around the world (high confidence). These impacts will disproportionately affect the welfare of the poor in rural areas, such as female-headed households and those with limited access to land, modern agricultural inputs, infrastructure, and education.

Aggregate economic losses accelerate with increasing temperature (limited evidence, high agreement) but global economic impacts from climate change are currently difficult to estimate. With recognized limitations, the existing incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for warming of ~2.5 °C above pre-industrial levels are 0.2% to 2.0% of income (medium evidence, medium agreement). Changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance are projected to have relatively larger impacts than climate change, for most economic sectors (medium evidence, high agreement). More severe and/or frequent weather hazards are projected to increase disaster- related losses and loss variability, posing challenges for affordable insurance, particularly in developing countries. International dimensions such as trade and relations among states are also important for understanding the risks of climate change at regional scales.

From a poverty perspective, climate change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing poverty traps and create new ones, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger (medium confidence). Climate change impacts are expected to exacerbate poverty in most developing countries and create new poverty pockets in countries with increasing inequality, in both developed and developing countries.

Climate change is projected to increase displacement of people (medium evidence, high agreement). Displacement risk increases when populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts. Expanding opportunities for mobility can reduce vulnerability for such populations. 

Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflict by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts, such as poverty and economic shocks.

Many aspects of climate change and its impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases.

 Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence). Mitigation involves some level of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side-effects, but these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation efforts. 

Mitigation and adaptation are complementary approaches for reducing risks of climate change impacts. They interact with one another and reduce risks over different timescales (high confidence). Benefits from adaptation can already be realized in addressing current risks, and can be realized in the future for addressing emerging risks. Adaptation has the potential to reduce climate change impacts over the next few decades, while mitigation has relatively little influence on climate outcomes over this timescale. Near- term and longer-term mitigation and adaptation, as well as development pathways, will determine the risks of climate change beyond mid-century. The potential for adaptation differs across sectors and will be limited by institutional and capacity constraints, increasing the long-term benefits of mitigation (high confidence). The level of mitigation will influence the rate and magnitude of climate change, and greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits (high confidence).

Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts, globally (high confidence).

Climate change poses an increasing threat to equitable and sustainable development (high confidence). Some climate-related impacts on development are already being observed. Climate change is a threat multiplier. It exacerbates other threats to social and natural systems, placing additional burdens particularly on the poor and constraining possible development paths for all. Development along current global pathways can contribute to climate risk and vulnerability, further eroding the basis for sustainable development.

Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales, and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link mitigation and adaptation with other societal objectives.

Adaptation and mitigation responses are underpinned by common enabling factors. These include effective institutions and governance, innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods, and behavioural and lifestyle choices.

In many countries, the private sector plays central roles in the processes that lead to emissions as well as to mitigation and adaptation. Within appropriate enabling environments, the private sector, along with the public sector, can play an important role in financing mitigation and adaptation (medium evidence, high agreement). The share of total mitigation finance from the private sector, acknowledging data limitations, is estimated to be on average between two-thirds and three-fourths on the global level (2010-2012) (limited evidence, medium agreement). In many countries, public finance interventions by governments and international development banks encourage climate investments by the private sector and provide finance where private sector investment is limited. The quality of a country’s enabling environment includes the effectiveness of its institutions, regulations and guidelines regarding the private sector, security of property rights, credibility of policies and other factors that have a substantial impact on whether private firms invest in new technologies and infrastructures. Dedicated policy instruments and financial arrangements, for example, credit insurance, feed-in tariffs, concessional finance or rebates provide an incentive for mitigation investment by improving the return adjusted for the risk for private actors. Public- private risk reduction initiatives (such as in the context of insurance systems) and economic diversification are examples of adaptation action enabling and relying on private sector participation.”

 

References:

IPCC home site: http://www.ipcc.ch

CLIMATE CHANGE 2014 SYNTHESIS REPORT: http://ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_LONGERREPORT.pdf

Approval of the Synthesis of Assessment Report 5 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Statement by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, November 2, 2014: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/ar5/CF%20IPCC%20AR5%20synthesis%20statement.pdf

Adoption of Latest IPCC Climate Science Sets World for Crucial Lima Talks, Underlines Urgent Need for Bold Political Agreement: press statement from UNEP, http://www.unep.org/newscentre/Default.aspx?DocumentID=2803&ArticleID=11034&l=en#sthash.n7uHkVDK.icbfLlGn.dpuf

 

 

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