Climate Change As Threat

Here’s some evidence that the media in the US and some other countries is not doing a very good job of explaining the implications of climate change, and how the threat of climate change should be seen relative to other threats. My guess is that far more than 40% of Americans would label “terrorism” a “major threat.” But the sort of terrorism most Americans worry about (bombs on planes, for example) is nothing compared to how climate change will impact humanity and the planet.

There are two existential threats right now. Nuclear terrorism. And climate change. But apparently that’s not the message that the public is getting (click image for full size).

And, of course, in the US climate change belief breaks down along political lines.

How Bad Will Climate Change Be?

Chris Mooney, at Mother Jones, breaks down the 5 most worrisome conclusions of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 Summary for Policymakers report:

We’re on course to change the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.” This is a general statement in the draft report about the consequences of continued greenhouse gas emissions “at or above current rates.” Unprecedented changes will sweep across planetary systems, ranging from sea level to the acidification of the ocean.

Ocean acidification is “virtually certain” to increase. Under all report scenarios, the acidification of the world’s oceans will increase—the draft report calls this outcome “virtually certain.” As we have previously reported, more acidity “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems from phytoplankton to coral reefs, and from Antarctic systems reliant on sea urchins to many human food webs dependent on everything from oysters to salmon.”

Long-term, sea level rise could be 5 to 10 meters. Journalists are already citing the draft report’s prediction that by the year 2100, we could see as much as three feet of sea level rise. But there is also a more long-range sea level scenario alluded to in the draft report, and it’s far more dramatic and alarming.

This also implies a substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The draft report adds that during the last interglacial period, the melting of Greenland “very likely” contributed between 1.4 and 4.3 meters of global sea level rise, with additional contributions coming from the melting of Antarctica. If Greenland were to melt entirely, it is estimated that sea level would rise by about seven meters.

Much of the carbon we’ve emitted will stay in the atmosphere for a millennium…even after we’ve stopped emitting it. The draft report says that 20 percent of the carbon dioxidecurrently in the atmosphere will stay there for an almost unimaginably long time—more than 1,000 years. Even if we were to completely cease all greenhouse gas emissions, the draft report adds, warming would continue for “many centuries.” “A large fraction of climate change,” the document intones, “is thus irreversible on a human time scale.”

Read Mooney’s full analysis here.

Depressing, no? Well, at least Al Gore is optimistic about the future, at least in this interview with the Washington Post:

But in spite of the continued released of 90 million tons of global warming pollution every day into the atmosphere, as if it’s an open sewer, we are now seeing the approach of a global political tipping point.

The appearance of more extreme and more frequent weather events has had a very profound impact on public opinion in countries throughout the world. You mentioned my movie back in the day. The single most common criticism from skeptics when the film came out focused on the animation showing ocean water flowing into the World Trade Center memorial site. Skeptics called that demagogic and absurd and irresponsible. It happened last October 29th, years ahead of schedule, and the impact of that and many, many other similar events here and around the world has really begun to create a profound shift.

A second factor is the sharp and unexpectedly steep decrease in prices for electricity produced from wind and solar and the demand destruction for fossil fuel energy from new efficiency improvements. The difference between 32 degrees fahrenheit and 33 degrees fahrenheit seems larger than just one degree. It’s the difference between water and ice. And by analogy there’s a similar difference between renewable electricity that’s more expensive than electricity from coal and renewable electricity that’s less expensive. And in quite a few countries in the world and some parts of the United States we’ve crossed that threshold and in the next few years we’re going to see that crossed in nations and regions containing most of the world’s population.

Gore’s optimism, unfortunately, is not really about mitigating the damage that the IPCC predicts. It’s more about finally “winning the conversation” about climate change and starting to react to climate change on a global scale. Of course, we are very late in the “conversation” and much of the damage warming will cause is already baked (get it?) into our future.

Full Gore interview is here.

Phew, Glad We Settled That

Because it would nice to stop arguing about this and focus on solutions:

An international panel of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could conceivably rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a draft summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change doubters, attributing it most likely to short-term factors.

The report emphasizes that the basic facts about future climate change are more established than ever, justifying the rise in global concern. It also reiterates that the consequences of escalating emissions are likely to be profound.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the draft report says. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

I suppose there will next be a demand for ABSOLUTE certainty. In the meantime here is a partial glimpse of what we are destroying:

It’s (Still) Getting Hot Up In Here

The latest World Energy Outlook is out. And it ain’t looking so good:

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions increased by 1.4 percent in 2012, a pace that could lead to a temperature increase of as much as 5.3 degrees C (9 degrees F) over pre-industrial times, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook. Despite significant improvements in some regions, including the U.S. and Europe, a record 31.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide were emitted worldwide during the year, including a 5.8-percent increase in Japan, where more fossil fuels were burned to compensate for reductions in nuclear power. While the rate of emissions growth in China was dramatically lower than in recent years, it still emitted 3.8 percent more carbon dioxide in 2012 than in 2011.

Ocean Investigations: Chasing Glass

Over the past 25 years, C. Drew Harvell has meticulously recovered more than 200 models in a mostly forgotten collection of 570 glass sculptures created by a pair of father-and-son glassmakers, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, in the 1860s. (Photo: Jeffery DelViscio/The New York Times)


A very cool effort to find and film oceanic hundreds of oceanic species that were captured in exquisite detail by a family of 19th century glassmakers:

I’ve been a marine biologist my entire professional life, spending more than 25 years researching the health of corals and sustainability of reefs. I’m captivated by the magic of sessile invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea squirts — creatures vital to the ecosystem yet too often overlooked in favor of more visible animals like sharks and whales.

The filmmaker David O. Brown and I want to change that. To make a documentary, “Fragile Legacy,” we are on a quest to lure these elusive and delicate invertebrates in front of the camera lens.

Our inspiration springs from an unlikely source: a collection of 570 superbly wrought, anatomically perfect glass sculptures of marine creatures from the 19th century.

These delicate folds and strands of glass make up theBlaschka collection of glass invertebrates at Cornell, of which I am the curator — enchanting and impossibly rare jellyfishes of the open ocean; more common but equally beautiful octopus, squid, anemones and nudibranchs from British tide pools and Mediterranean shores.

How many will be thriving? How many will be impossible to find? It’s an interesting snapshot of what has happened in the oceans over the past 200 years.

Make sure you check out the spectacular multimedia presentation that compares the glass versions to the real thing.

Watching The Arctic Change

NASA is on it, with satellite imagery and video:

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured this view of extensive sea-ice fracturing off the northern coast of Alaska. The event began in late-January and spread west towardBanks Island throughout February and March 2013.

Visualizations of the Arctic often give the impression that the ice cap is a continuous sheet of stationary, floating ice. In fact, it is a collection of smaller pieces that constantly shift, crack, and grind against one another as they are jostled by winds and ocean currents. Especially during the summer—but even during the height of winter—cracks—or leads—open up between pieces of ice.

That was what was happening on the left side of the animation (below) in late January. A high-pressure weather system was parked over the region, producing warmer temperatures and winds that flowed in a southwesterly direction. That fueled the Beaufort Gyre, a wind-driven ocean current that flows clockwise. The gyre was the key force pulling pieces of ice west past Point Barrow, the northern nub of Alaska that protrudes into the Beaufort Sea.

Scientist Ken Dunton is on it, too, and he captures the challenge of change in much more human terms:

The Relentless Rise Of CO2 Concentrations

Despite the global economic stagnation, in 2012 the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by 2.67 part per million, the second highest jump since levels were first measured in 1959:

 The new data, collected in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, suggests that levels of heat-trapping CO2 are now just under 395 parts per million (ppm) and could hit 400 ppm within two years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The one-year increase was second only to 1998, when CO2 concentrations jumped by 2.84 parts per million; pre-industrial atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were 280 ppm.

Just one more data point which says 1) we are almost certainly in for a global temperature increase that exceeds the 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) threshold that scientists consider dangerous; and 2) we could see 4.5 degrees F increases within decades.

I’d say that calls for a paradigm shift in human thinking and behavior. Who’s in?

Climate Change IS An Existential Threat

Oddly, though, despite repeated warnings from the scientific and conservation community, it never seems to get elevated above all the other problems publics and governments face. And in the United States, I would argue, it is a lower priority than many.

And that’s despite the steady accumulation of data and research, like this, which indicates that every centigrade degree of global temperature increase could result in seven times as many Katrinas.

For anyone who wants to make the case for urgency and sacrifice, David Roberts has a really nice piece (explaining for the 545th time) that there are 2 big reasons that climate change really is a different beast from the many global challenges it gets lumped in with:

The public-policy implications are straightforward: Because CO2 is slow to drain, and the damages are cumulative, we need to reduce the amount of CO2 we’re spewing out of the faucet now, as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Yes, we’ll need new technologies and techniques to drive emissions down near to zero, and we should R&D the hell out of them. But we absolutely cannot afford to wait. There is no benign neglect possible here. Neglect is malign….

….The damage we’re doing now is something the next 40 to 50 generations will have to cope with, even if we stop emitting CO2 tomorrow. And the CO2 we’ve already released has locked in another 50 or 100 years of damage (because of the slow draining). There is no “reversing” climate change. There is only reducing the amount we change the climate.

Both these facts about climate change set it apart from other environmental problems. They also, for what it’s worth, set it apart from social problems like poverty, crime, or poor healthcare. All of those problems are serious; they all have an impact on public health. But they can all be measurably affected by public policy within our lifetimes. They are bad but they are not cumulative. They are not becoming less solvable over time.

Climate change, on the other hand, is forever.

Or at least a few eons. (Click image for full size)

To me, there are three existential threats we face: 1) nuclear war; 2) a highly contagious, drug-resistant, virus or bacteria; and 3) climate change. Those are the key problems humanity should be working on together, with climate change arguably being the most difficult to address, and requiring the most sacrifice.

But we are asleep. History will not, and should not, be kind. Our willful avoidance will be inexplicable. It is already inexplicable.

Meat Is Killing The Planet (Part 2): The Carbon Chasm

Forget the floating pigs (I know you are eager to forget the floating pigs). Perhaps the most compelling planet-saving rationale for giving up meat is the massive carbon footprint generated by the global meat industry. When people think about reducing their personal carbon footprint (if they think about it), they usually turn their thermostats down, buy fuel-efficient cars, and shut off lights when they are not using them. All good things to do.

But a choice that people don’t usually think about–and that has an outsized impact on their personal carbon footprint–is meat-eating. Numbers are inherently slippery, but one recent study concluded that the contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to global warming contributed by a vegan are about 40% less than the GHG contributions of a meat-lover:

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 11.34.49 AM


America’s most prominent vegan?

So in some ways, choosing to eat meat is like choosing to have a few Hummers in your garage, cranking your heat and AC up, and leaving all your lights on. Most environmentally conscious people would be appalled by a neighbor that lived like that. But somehow meat doesn’t enter into the carbon equation when people are thinking about their personal impact on the planet. And it should because it is such a major factor.

So think about getting rid of those Hummers on your plate. And if you are worried that your friends and family will scorn you for going vegetarian or vegan, I’ve got good news for you. America, despite it’s meat-celebrating culture, is warming up to the meatless:

About half of American voters view vegetarians favorably, and less than a quarter view them unfavorably. Vegans are viewed less positively, but still have significantly more than a third of American voters seeing them favorably. Generally, women, Democrats, and younger respondents have a more positive opinion of vegetarians and vegans. These are among the results of a poll of 500 registered American voters conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a North Carolina-based firm, from February 21st to 24th. The survey asked what respondents like to eat, what they think of fast-food, which chain restaurants they like most, and a number of other food-related issues, as well as key demographic information.

So you can be healthy, planet-friendly, AND popular (though apparently you’ll need to go easy on the vegan righteousness). And there will be fewer dead pigs floating in the rivers.