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Clean Power Plan Faces Appeals Court Showdown
The merits of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan will be argued before the full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, as the legal challenge against it moves one step closer to the Supreme Court.
The plan will be heard before all 11 D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judges instead of the usual three, effectively fast-tracking the case through the court system, said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
A power plant in Florida.
The Clean Power Plan is the Environmental Protection Agency’s strategy to dramatically cut pollution from coal-fired power plants — the biggest single source of carbon dioxide that is driving climate change — by reducing their emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The EPA finalized the plan last year, but the Supreme Court in February temporarily blocked, or stayed, the plan from taking effect while the legal challenge against it winds its way through the courts. It was one of the last court actions taken before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
The stakes are high: The Clean Power Plan lent the U.S. credibility during the Paris climate negotiations last year. If the court tosses out the plan, it could undermine the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to prevent global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F).
After the Supreme Court blocked the plan, the Court of Appeals may have felt pressure to prevent further delays by allowing all 11 judges to hear the case from the beginning, said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU.
With the support of the coal industry and some electric utilities, 24 states are suing the Obama administration, arguing that the Clean Power Plan violates the Constitution and is a burden to their economies.
“The state cannot support EPA’s ill-conceived Clean Power Plan, which is uncommonly cumbersome, difficult and costly to implement, could undermine (power grid) reliability and would yield insufficient results given the effort to comply,” New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin wrote in a letter to the EPA last year, asking it to kill the plan.
The plan’s challengers are accusing the administration of government overreach because they say that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate a state’s carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act — a claim disputed by environmental groups, the EPA and many legal experts.
“Critics are wrong to suggest that the Clean Power Plan represents a dramatic overstepping of these statutory boundaries,” legal scholars at the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law wrote in a brief published this week. “It is not the reckless power grab that opponents describe, but a straightforward application of EPA’s longstanding Clean Air Act authority to regulate dangerous emissions from stationary sources of pollution.”
The Navajo Generating Station coal-fired power plant in Arizona.
Credit: Alex Proimos/flickr
In addition to regulating air pollution, the EPA has longstanding authority to regulate water quality in rivers and streams, drinking water systems and underground aquifers, and it regulates toxic substances found in homes, consumer products and the outdoor environment.
The states believe the Clean Power Plan will force many workers in the coal industry — already hurting as natural gas overtakes coal as America’s leading source of electricity — to lose their jobs.
A full panel of appeals court judges often only hears a case when one side requests it after losing the case before a three-judge panel. Only the most significant cases are heard by the full panel from the outset, Revesz said.
The fate of the Clean Power Plan also hinges in large part on the November election, Gerrard said. The outcome is likely to be affected by the person the next president selects to replace Justice Scalia, who often voted against environmental regulation during his tenure on the court.
“If Trump wins and if he carries through on his promise to make a Supreme Court appointment in the mold of Justice Scalia, the prospects for the Clean Power Plan litigation — regardless of what the D.C. Circuit does — would not be bright,” Gerrard said.
What 2 Million Years of Temps Say About the Future
That the climate has changed before is a given. So is the reality that humans are changing it now by dumping carbon pollution in the atmosphere.
The deep history of temperature changes can inform us about what comes next for our fair planet and new research published Monday in Nature provides a continuous 2-million-year record of the past. It shows that in the long term, the world could be in for more warming than expected even if we cap greenhouse gas emissions today.
Boxes of ocean sediment cores, which are used for past climate reconstructions.
Credit: Cynthia Thomson
Numerous other papers have shown a strong link between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and temperature fluctuations. It’s a process that’s taken place for eons and has largely been driven by natural factors. Humans have altered that equation, however, pouring enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so that levels are higher than they’ve been in millions of years.
A temperature record of the distant past is a bit harder to come by, though. Carolyn Snyder, the author of the new paper, used a number of records from ocean sediment and ice cores for the new reconstruction. The resulting paper came out of her PhD research while at Stanford.
It shows the globe cooled continuously until about 1.2 million years ago when it entered a much more tumultuous (at least on geological timescales) cycle of warming and cooling on roughly 100,000-year intervals. The rise and fall of temperatures during that time is closely tied to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
That coupling is still apparent today as the world has warmed about 1.8°F since the start of the Industrial Revolution as humans have steadily added carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Snyder’s research provides a new estimate for how much more the planet could warm in the centuries to come.
Based on where we are today, with carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million, her findings indicate that the world could be in for more global warming than scientists currently anticipate. If the relationship between greenhouse gas levels and global temperatures from the past 800,000 years are similar into the future, it suggests that today's greenhouse gas levels may have already committed the Earth to 9°F (5°C) more warming over the coming millennia.
“Although this research does not provide a forecast or prediction of future global warming, there are broad, general insights that can be drawn from the past,” Snyder said in an email.
The findings are based on a measure called earth system sensitivity, or how much the planet will warm per doubling of carbon dioxide. This study indicates that it could be as high as 16.2°F (9°C), nearly double most previous estimates. It’s a disconcerting finding, but also one that, because it’s so dramatic, will need to be further dissected.
“The estimate of earth system sensitivity is so much higher than the prevailing estimates that one has to consider it somewhat of an outlier, and treat it with an appropriate level of skepticism,” Michael Mann, a paleoclimate expert at Penn State, said. “I regard the study as provocative and interesting, but the quantitative findings must be viewed rather skeptically until the analysis has been thoroughly vetted by the scientific community.”
While scientists might disagree on a degree or two of warming millennia down the road, it is clear that human-driven carbon pollution is now one of the dominant drivers of earth’s climate. Continuing to dump carbon into the atmosphere has already altered the climate and continuing to do so will pose further risks not just from increasing temperatures but rising seas, more erratic weather and ocean acidification.
Those impacts are worrisome enough. But the long-term impacts speak to just how lasting our influence on the planet will be. It will take millennia of global warming to balance out all the carbon pollution we’ve already added to the atmosphere, yet another sign we’ve entered a geological epoch shaped by humanity. It means that while we’ll be long gone, future generations will be left to deal with the fallout from our actions today.
America’s Climate Plan Falls Short of its Promises
The federal government will need to ramp up its fight against climate pollution if it wants to keep a key promise under a United Nations pact, new research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows.
The U.S. pledged during United Nations meetings in France last year to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution by a little more than a quarter in 2025, compared with 2005. When it comes to living up to this commitment, the research showed current rules and policies alone would be insufficient.
A transition to cleaner alternatives for America's electrical grid will need to accelerate if the nation is to live up to its international obligations.
Credit: U.S. Department of Energy/flickr
“Federal climate policy is falling short of the United States' pledge in Paris — and not by a small amount,” said Danny Cullenward, a Carnegie Institution for Science researcher who helped the national lab scientists develop their study.
Less than a year after it was negotiated, the Paris Agreement is poised to take effect. Even if all countries keep all promises made under it, the goal of keeping global warming to well below 2°C (3.6°F) isn’t expected to be achieved. Efforts are being made to improve national pledges in the years ahead.
The research published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change comes one day before the opening of an important chapter in a sprawling court battle that will decide the fate of America’s most important suite of climate change regulations — the Clean Power Plan, affecting power plants.
“I don't envy those planning climate policy,” Cullenward said. “They’re caught between fierce opposition to the Clean Power Plan and the knowledge that federal climate efforts need redoubling if the U.S. is to fulfill its Paris promise.”
The researchers analyzed federal projections for energy industry changes and the likely effects of climate rules that have been put in place by federal and state agencies. They projected that greenhouse gas emissions would fall nationwide by the equivalent of 300 million to 350 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2025, compared with 2005.
Living up to America’s new international commitment would require reducing greenhouse gas pollution by about 1,000 million to 2,000 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2025, the researchers calculated. That means existing climate rules are not enough.
Rules analyzed included regulatory policies affecting methane from oil drilling, coolants from fridges, carbon dioxide from power plants and other gases and industries.
“We had projections of where greenhouse gases would be in 2025 in the absence of any policies,” said Jeffery Greenblatt, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher who led the analysis. “Then we layered on reductions that would occur from these policies.”
Finding a scenario in which the lower bound of America’s pledged pollution reduction could be achieved took a lot of creativity, requiring the researchers to consider climate policies that were previously rejected or that haven’t been formally proposed.
If the power plant rule survives court challenges, and if a long list of proposed and suggested policy ideas become reality, the researchers found the U.S. may reduce its emissions by 1,200 million tons in 2025. That might or might not be enough to keep America’s promise to the world.
Karl Hausker, an analyst at the nonprofit World Resources Institute who researches American climate policy, said the findings corroborated findings by himself and others — and he said they come as America finds itself at a “huge fork in the road.”
During his final address to the U.N. General Assembly last week, President Obama warned of the dangers of climate change.
Credit: U.S. Department of State/flickr
Whichever presidential candidate wins the November election will have sweeping influence over the future of American climate policy. Individually, Americans are some of the world’s worst climate polluters. Efforts to address their impacts affect global policy and temperatures.
The world is set to break a temperature record in 2016 that was set in 2015, which broke the mark set one year prior. August was the hottest month ever recorded, equaling the record set in July. Rising temperatures are making heat waves, storms and floods worse.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has embraced the fight against global warming started by President Obama. Republican nominee Donald Trump has vowed to end it, such as by disbanding the EPA and abandoning international commitments.
Polluting industries and conservative states are suing the EPA in an attempt to overturn its new power plant rules, arguing that the agency overstepped its legal boundaries. The rules haven’t taken effect yet, but they’re the linchpin of American climate policy.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear opening arguments in the case Tuesday, with an eventual ruling likely from the Supreme Court. A judicial appointment by the next president could tip the Supreme Court against or in favor of environmental regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan.
“The target the U.S. has put forward — it’s ambitious, but it can be done,” Hausker said. “There are more steps to be taken. The next president, for it to be successful, will have to continue to move forward.”
Terns Flee Warming Temps in Epic Migration to Alaska
By Oliver Milman, The Guardian
Eyebrows would be raised if American crocodiles, found on the southern tip of Florida, decided to relocate to New York’s Fifth Avenue or Moroccan camels suddenly joined the tourist throng outside Buckingham Palace in London. Yet this is the scale of species shift that appears to be under way in Alaska.
In July, researchers in Cape Krusenstern national monument on the north-west coast of Alaska were startled to discover a nest containing Caspian terns on the gravely beach of a lagoon. The birds were an incredible 1,000 miles further north than the species had been previously recorded.
“There was plenty of shock, it is a very unusual situation,” said Dr Martin Robards, Arctic program director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which found the nest. “We checked with Caspian tern experts and they were all very surprised they were this far north. We get Arctic terns here but these terns are much bigger, they really stand out.”
The terns, usually found in Washington state, successfully bred and chicks have now flown the nest. While it remains to be seen whether Caspian terns will become ensconced long-term within the Arctic circle, the epic relocation is emblematic of how warming temperatures are causing a huge upheaval in the basic rhythms of Alaska’s environment.
This week, scientists will gather at the White House’s first ever Arctic science meeting to deliver the confronting news.
“I’ve been up here 25 years and the amount of change that has occurred in Alaska is shocking,” said Robards. “We’ve been focusing on things such as the temperature and sea ice here but now we are thinking ‘oh my God what is going on with the wildlife?’”
Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S., with the winter temperature 6°F (3.3°C) warmer than it was 60 years ago. Snow and ice has retreated, spring is coming earlier. The landscape is changing and so are its residents.
“To be 1,000 miles further north attests to how much the globe has warmed,” said Terry Root, a biologist and senior fellow at Stanford University. “Birds follow their physiology, nothing else. If they think they should move, they move. Alaska has warmed so much that it is causing havoc to a lot of nature.”
While most species aren’t able to move as far as terns, scientists are noticing shifts across Alaska. Moose and beavers have moved north of the Brooks Range and onto the Arctic plain, which increasingly offers suitable vegetation as the region warms up and greens.
Red foxes have moved in and have started to outcompete Arctic foxes. A similar thing may happen if the beefy Caspian terns start to push out their smaller cousins. The relationship between grizzly bears and polar bears may be a little more amicable – as their range starts to overlap there have been reports of a hybrid “pizzly” bears in the Arctic.
But the situation for polar bears is otherwise grim – they are losing life-sustaining sea ice critical for hunting and breeding across the Arctic. They are being forced onto land, where they risk starvation. This desperate scenario is shared with walruses, which have already suffered a 50 percent drop since the 1980s. In recent years tens of thousands of the tusked beasts have had to crowd ashore, with many perishing in stampedes.
The melting on land is just as stark. Over the past decade, Alaska has lost 850 gigatonnes of water from its shrinking glaciers, enough to raise the global sea level by 2.9mm. We are living through the fastest Arctic glacier decline in at least 6,000 years, according to Dr Martin Sharp, professor of Earth and atmospheric science at the University of Alberta.
“If the warming trends continue then we expect to see continuous retreat,” Sharp said. “We are seeing the complete loss of glaciers, areas that had ice caps in the 1950s don’t have them now. That trend will probably increase.”
Alaska is being locked into an unhappy cycle of events. As the declining glaciers lose albedo, or reflectivity from sunlight, they absorb more heat and therefore melt further.
The vegetation poking through thawing permafrost aids the spread of wildfire which in turn releases more carbon dioxide – flames have recently licked areas of Alaskan forest previously unburned for thousands of years. The amount of area burned each year in the state is expected to double by 2050 even if the world acts swiftly on climate change.
Summer Arctic sea ice is forecast to winnow away completely by the 2030s, which will be a boon for tourism operators looking to traverse the opening north-west sea passage. The Crystal Serenity cruise ship, with passengers that paid up to $100,000 for a cabin, arrived safely in New York last week after a 32-day journey through this newly reliable corridor.
But this decline threatens more traditional pursuits. Indigenous communities are finding the thinning ice too treacherous for fishing, while the 1,000-mile Iditarod dog sled race faces an uncertain future. After record winter warmth, Alaska baked as the season turned to spring – the temperature from January to April was an incredible 11.3F (6.2C) warmer than the long-term average taken from the 20th century.
Still, Alaska and neighboring Canada may well prove a haven for overheated animal species in the future. The state will still be cooler than the lower 48 states and has plenty of wilderness.
“The Caspian tern is a success story in many ways,” said Root. “Unfortunately, many animals won’t be able to move. There’s only so far a salamander can crawl or a gopher tortoise can walk. We stand at the beginning of a mass extinction event."
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
100 Countries Push to Phase Out HFCs
By Oliver Milman, The Guardian
A loose coalition of more than 100 countries, including the U.S. and European nations, is pushing for an early phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a powerful greenhouse gas that if left unchecked is set to add a potentially disastrous 0.5°C to global temperatures by the end of the century.
At a meeting in New York on Thursday, world leaders called for an “ambitious phase-down schedule” for HFCs, which are commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioning systems, and pledged adaptation money for developing nations where HFC use is rapidly increasing.
“The growth in some HFCs is extraordinarily fast right now so it’s critical that we have an ambitious agreement,” a White House official told the Guardian. “This is an extraordinarily important opportunity.”
Concerns over the gaping ozone hole over Antarctica spurred countries to agree to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), an ozone-depleting gas found in fridges and aerosols, in the 1987 Montreal Protocol.
While this proved successful – scientists recently forecast the ozone layer may well be completely healed by the middle of the century – CFCs have been routinely replaced by HFCs, which trap thousands of times more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Their growing use in developing countries could mean they account for nearly 20 percent of all emissions by 2050. The replacement of HFCs could prove crucial if the world is to avoid dangerous runaway climate change, driven by a temperature rise of 2°C or more.
The new coalition of nations, which will push for an early phase-out of HFCs at a gathering in Rwanda next month, includes the U.S., all 28 European Union nations, all 54 countries in Africa and South American nations including Argentina and Colombia.
The U.S. is proposing that growth in HFC use be “frozen” at 2021 levels and then scaled down so that it is largely eliminated by 2050. China wants a later peaking date, at 2025, but is still considered part of an early drawdown group when compared to other Asian nations. India is the most reluctant, having pushed for a 2031 date.
A group of 16 countries, including the U.S., UK, Japan, Germany and Australia, has agreed to provide $27 million next year to help support an early end to HFCs. Private philanthropists have pitched in even more, pledging $53 million to efforts to promote energy efficient alternatives.
“This effort to reduce potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons while cutting energy waste and costs is a great example of the critical role innovation can play in addressing climate change while prioritizing international development,” said the Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, one of the donors via his foundation.
“This initiative is a great opportunity for the public and private sectors to work together to solve a critical problem.”
Jamshyd Godrej, chairman of Indian multinational form Godrej & Boyce, said a phase-out of HFCs would provide India with “significant energy and financial savings for consumers, industry and government.”
The growing use of air conditioning and refrigeration risks undermining international efforts to cut emissions to avoid dangerous heatwaves, extreme weather and sea level rise.
Worldwide power consumption for air conditioning alone is forecast to surge 33-fold by 2100 as developing world incomes rise and urbanization advances. By mid-century people will use more energy for cooling than heating.
“Most people tend to think of energy in terms of heat and light and transport,” said Toby Peters, visiting professor of power and the cold economy at the University of Birmingham, last October.
“But more and more, it’s going to be about cold. Demand for cold is already huge, it’s growing fast, and we’re meeting it in basically the same way we’ve been doing for a century.
“Cold is the Cinderella of the energy debate. If we don’t change the way we do it, the consequences are going to be dramatic.”
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
Greenland is Losing More Ice Than Scientists Thought
Bad news keeps flowing for the icy landscapes of the world.
Rising temperatures are melting ice and sending it to the ocean, a process that is pushing sea levels higher and altering the landscape at both poles. The latest news comes from Greenland, where researchers have used high-tech satellite and GPS measurements to see how much mass the ice sheet is losing.
Their results, published this week in Science Advances, indicate that it’s melting faster than previous estimates, particularly in areas where the ice sheet comes in direct contact with the ocean. It’s a troubling finding for the future of coastal areas around the world.
Using new measurements, scientists have discovered that Greenland's ice sheet is losing more mass than previously thought.
Credit: Rita Willaert/flickr
The Greenland ice sheet contains enough water that, if melted, would raise sea levels up to 23 feet. Rising temperatures have already eaten away at it, and Greenland’s ice sheet is responsible for about 30 percent of the observed foot of sea level rise since the start of the 20th century. While the rest of the ice sheet isn’t going to disappear overnight, it’s fate is intimately tied to the fate of communities along the coast.
“Greenland is one of the more pronounced contributors to sea level rise,” Michael Willis, a remote sensing expert at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and co-author of the study, said. “In order to know how Greenland’s ice may change in the future, we need to focus on the areas where the changes have occurred over both short and long time periods.”
Because of Greenland’s remoteness and sheer mass, measuring changes is a challenge. The land under the ice sheet also adds another wrinkle. Ice started receding due to natural forces 20,000 years ago, and the land underneath has been slowly rising in response.
The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), the satellites tasked with measuring the mass changes in Greenland and other icy landscapes around the world, has a hard time time seeing the difference between rising land and ice.
“GRACE can only measure mass change,” Willis said. “It cannot tell you what is changing mass.”
To get that end of the equation, Willis and his colleagues turned to GPS sensors set up across Greenland. Comparing them to satellite data, they found that the Greenland ice sheet was losing mass 8 percent faster than previous estimates.
The edge of Gyldenlove Glacier, located in southeast Greenland, is one of the glaciers that flows directly into the ocean. It's located in one of the fastest melting parts of Greenland.
Credit: NASA ICE/flickr
The areas losing mass the fastest are spots where the ice sheet has a direct connection to the ocean. Rising ocean waters and air temperatures are essentially putting ice in a vise grip of warming and speeding up melt. Geology is also compounding the rapid loss of ice in those regions.
“The ice sheet in these basins is also steeper than the average for the ice sheet, therefore the ice flows, on average, faster there, too,” Willis said. “Simply put, the shape of the ice sheet and the contact with the ocean makes it likely that these areas respond more pronouncedly to changes in climate boundary conditions — be they atmospheric, oceanic or glaciological.”
The revised mass loss estimates will provide an important tool for researchers going forward as they estimate sea level rise as well as the potential for an even more dramatic slowdown in Atlantic ocean circulation.
“The finding shows the precision of the state of the art in mass budget work,” Jason Box, an ice sheet researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, said in an email. “Being that precise with a 2-mile thick dome of ice three times the acreage of Texas ain't bad.”
Obama Just Tied Climate Change to National Security
On Wednesday, President Obama took another step toward securing his climate legacy. This time his focus wasn’t on energy, public lands or international diplomacy. It was on national security and making sure the U.S. military is prepared for a more unstable future.
The White House published a presidential memorandum setting up a timetable for more than 20 federal agencies to come up with a plan to put climate science into action when it comes to national security.
“It’s not a new direction, but it is reinforcing and formalizing a direction in which the U.S. government was already headed,” Sherri Goodman, a fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, said. “That’s how you turn concepts into action in the government. You have to have plans to get agencies to act.”
Aid workers delivering insulation to Syrian refugees in Iraq ahead of winter.
Accompanying the memo was a report from National Intelligence Council outlining what some of the main climate threats will be to national security in the coming decades.
According to the national security-oriented blog New Security Beat, this the first unclassified report from the U.S. intelligence community that explicitly looks at the impact of climate change on national security. It indicates that climate change is not a distant future problem, but something that requires planning here and now. Specifically, the report said that “the effects resulting from changing trends in extreme weather events suggest that climate-related disruptions are under way.”
Examples of climate disruption are peppered throughout the report from how drought-induced food shortages in Mali led insurgent groups to start a “food for jihad” campaign, to how melting sea ice is raising tensions in the Arctic between Canada, Russia and other countries with a stake in the region.
Climate impacts have the power to destabilize the regions where they occur as well as places thousands of miles away. The Syrian civil war is the most notable example. Research has tied its start, in part, to a climate change-fueled drought that has sparked the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, according to Goodman. Other researchers were also quick to point out the chain of impacts the drought has had.
Afghan National Army commandos and coalition forces board a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan's Khandar province.
“Climate change has contributed to the emergence of civil war, refugee flows and other elements of instability,” Marc Levy, the deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said. “But the follow-on impacts from climate-triggered instability extend worldwide, as seen in the European refugee crisis, which has strong connections to the Syrian conflict, which in turn has strong connections to climate stress.”
Yet the present security concerns could pale in comparison to the future as the climate becomes more unstable. Sea level rise could swamp megacities in developing countries with fewer resources to cope, leading to a massive exodus of people, while water shortages could create more intense conflict, particularly in arid regions.
Even the infrastructure itself that supports the U.S. military faces challenges from climate change. A 2014 government report found that while the military is aware of the risks climate change poses to its 7,600 installations around the world, little action has been taken to address them because there’s been no strong guidance.
The new Presidential Memorandum changes that by laying out a timeline for creating a plan and implementing it.
“The tools available for the military to plan for a more unstable world are woefully inadequate, because we have systematically underinvested in the development of such tools out of a combination of a failure of imagination to do what is needed and a failure of courage to stand up to the political opponents of meaningful climate change,” Levy said. “What is so important about yesterday's Presidential decision is that it shakes free from those self-imposed shackles so that we can do what is needed.”
Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, sits directly on the coast and is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.
Credit: Heinrich Boll-Stiftung/flickr
The memo gives a host of federal agencies a mandate to work together to include climate change in their national security planning and a timeline of 90 days to create an action plan and 150 days to create a plan to implement it.
The implementation of any plans will fall squarely on the next administration. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump could choose to go forward with the plan, restructure it or strike it down depending on their priorities. The latter would pose a major setback for the military, though, which will have to contend with more instability and the potential of major unknowns ahead.
“(This initiative) integrates government planning so we know where we are vulnerable and can act accordingly rather than waiting until disaster hits,” Ruth Greenspan Bell, a security expert at the Wilson Center, said. “The essence of good defense is anticipating and acting on risk.”
UN Climate Pact Moves Closer to Taking Effect
NEW YORK – As United Nations diplomats gather in New York this week, climate wonks may be feeling like anxious children on a long drive to a beach.
“Are we there yet?”
A slew of documents filed by national representatives on Wednesday thrust the new UN climate treaty closer to taking effect — a “hairbreadth” away, as Maldives foreign minister Mohamed Asim put it in a statement. But it’s not quite there yet.
Meetings at the United Nations this week.
During meetings in France in December, nearly 200 countries agreed to take steps to fight global warming under a new pact, such as by protecting forests and replacing coal power generation with cleaner alternatives. But the agreement hasn’t actually taken effect yet, because that requires an extra bureaucratic step — one that sometimes takes years to complete.
For the treaty to become law, or “take legal force,” at least 55 countries responsible for at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions need to have filed documents known as “instruments of ratification,” indicating they’re ready to join the pact.
Under pressure from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Asim and representatives of other nations, 31 countries filed their ratification documents during a ceremony on Wednesday morning. That ceremony coincided with annual UN meetings.
“The remarkable support for this agreement reflects the urgency and magnitude of the challenge,” Ki-moon said at the beginning of the proceedings. “Today will take us one step closer to bringing the Paris agreement into force this year.”
With the U.S., Brazil and China among the countries that have already submitted their paperwork, Wednesday’s ceremony pushed the number that are formally poised to join the agreement over the threshold of 55 — but they collectively release 48 percent of yearly global climate pollution. That means more countries must sign on before the agreement can take force.
“This is much faster than most people had anticipated,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia Law School who focuses on environmental law. “It’s a sign of the strong international consensus behind the Paris Agreement.”
Russia, India and Japan have agreed to join the pact, but they haven’t submitted their instruments of ratification. Climate experts this week are watching closely for any Paris pact filings from those countries, “some combination” of which would help get the agreement “over the limit,” said Alex Hanafi, an official with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Meanwhile, EU environment ministers will meet Sept. 30 to discuss options for fast-tracking the bloc’s entry into the agreement.
“There’s a push within the EU to get them to be the ones that help bring this thing into force,” Hanafi said. “They don’t want to be seen as behind the times.”
A long-lasting storm that triggered fatal flooding in Louisiana last month was made more likely by greenhouse gas pollution, scientists have determined.
The Paris agreement formally covers pollution released after 2020. If it takes effect by early October, countries that have formally joined the pact may have more influence than others during meetings in November in crafting rules for how it will be implemented.
And if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wins the November election, taking the agreement into legal force before his January inauguration would make it more difficult for him to follow through with his pledge of dumping the agreement — though he would still have options for doing so.
The possibility that a Trump presidency could trounce emerging global cooperation on climate change is worrying leaders, whose nations are being forced to confront the realities of a warming world. Nearly 2°F of warming since the 1800s is worsening the deadly impacts of heat waves, storms and floods. It’s also rattling scientists.
Prominent researchers published an open letter on Tuesday, stating they “are certain beyond a reasonable doubt,” that “the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks.”
In the letter, hundreds of scientists, including Cambridge University professor Stephen Hawking, University of Maryland professor Rita Colwell and Harvard professor emeritus E.O. Wilson denounced Trump and other Republicans who deny the science of climate change.
“From studies of changes in temperature and sea level over the last million years, we know that the climate system has tipping points,” the scientists wrote. “The political system also has tipping points. Thus it is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord.”
Paul Ehrlich, a conservation biology professor at Stanford who signed the letter, said he doubted it would have an impact, given the well-funded efforts underway to “denigrate the people’s opinions of science.” But he said scientists “must make every single effort” they can to protect human civilization from an “existential risk.”
“I’ve spent almost 60 years studying these issues — that tells me that society ought to at least listen to my opinions as much as Donald Trump’s,” Ehrlich said. “It’s idiotic to focus on the opinions of people who have never so much as looked at any of these problems.”
When it Rains it Pours, and Sewage Hits the Fan
Research Analysis by Climate Central
Record rainstorms across the U.S. in the past year have continued to make national news, causing billions of dollars of flood damage and killing dozens. But what has barely made headlines are that these floods often cause massive overflows of untreated sewage into streams, rivers, bays, canals, and even streets and homes. See the full report.
Climate Central has investigated the extent of these sewage overflows. In most cases, we found reports that millions of gallons of untreated sewage were released into streets and waterways. These overflows can have devastating consequences for public health and the environment: they can trigger dangerous outbreaks of waterborne diseases and are often linked to fish kills. And when sewage overflows into homes and businesses, expensive remediation and decontamination is needed to make them safe again.
Worse was the discovery that the true extent of sewage overflow is often undocumented and largely unknown.
From the 70 sewage overflows we identified that had occurred in the past 20 months, overflows of more than one billion gallons combined were reported, triggering health warnings in dozens of cities. Local officials confirmed that these reported volumes are likely underestimating the true extent of overflows; during these flooding emergencies, there is typically no reliable way to determine how much untreated sewage gets into the waterways.
With a backdrop of antiquated and overpopulated sewer systems, the increase in rain and heavy downpours in recent decades — one of the ongoing impacts of climate change — continues to trigger overflows that affect millions of Americans every year.
While many cities are working toward upgrading their sewer systems, they can’t eliminate their sewage overflow risks entirely. Climate models project that both overall precipitation, and the amount of rain falling in heavy downpours, will continue to increase this century with continued climate change, which could cause even more overflows.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the epic rains in Louisiana in August 2016 that flooded 60,000 homes and killed 13, were made nearly twice as likely due to carbon pollution in the atmosphere. Climate Central’s analysis of more than 3,000 rain gauges nationwide shows that heavy downpours are happening more frequently than they did in the 1950s. We found that all but two of the Lower 48 states have seen an increase in the number of heavy downpours happening each year, on average, compared to the 1950s, and 28 states have seen at least a 25 percent increase in these heaviest events. With downpours projected to be even more frequent and intense as the world continues to warm, we can expect more of these costly and dangerous overflows for many years to come.
Editor's note: This entry has been updated to reflect a larger volume of sewage overflow after Hurricane Hermine in St. Petersburg, as estimated by city officials.
Report and analysis by Alyson Kenward, PhD, Nicole Zenes, James Bronzan, Jennifer Brady, Kasturi Shah
This is What Climate Change Sounds Like, in D Minor
Despite spending countless hours of her PhD at Stanford making visits to remote stretches of Alaska, poring over yellow cedar measurements and photos and ultimately publishing her findings, Lauren Oakes was about to experience her data in a new way.
Driving for a weekend trip to the Sierras, she turned the volume way up in her car and hit play. A cascading piano was joined by a flute, cello and other instruments. As the piece continued, the piano’s high staccato notes gave way to lower, more intermittent ones before ending on a wave of strings, leaving a sense of another movement yet to be written.
Oakes had just heard the sound of climate change in Alaska’s yellow cedar forests and the ways it’s already altered the landscape. It wasn’t just a composer’s impression of her research, though. She had just heard her data — data meticulously collected and pored over for years — translated from numbers and charts into music.
“To hear the patterns it took me years to understand was incredible,” she said.
The piece has the potential to change how researchers and the public engage with data. Music based on data has the potential to reveal new patterns to scientists and get data out of the arcane language of empirical orthogonal functions, p-values and Kruskal-Wallis tests and into a language that everyone can understand.
The research Oakes had just heard came courtesy of Nik Sawe, a fellow Stanford PhD student at the time the music was created and a current researcher there. He had emailed a group of fellow students at the university hoping to find some data to turn into music after going to a talk about using a technique called data sonification to make music from seizure data.
“When you look at the readout that a doctor could analyze, it looked like noise,” he said. “But when you hear the stuff with one speaker playing the healthy side of a brain and one playing the afflicted side, you can hear the difference with this structured noise.”
If it worked for medical data, Sawe thought it could work for environmental data as well. He had written a computer program that essentially reads data as sheet music, much like a player piano.
And Oakes’ work presented a compelling piece. There were multiple types of trees in the forest and a clear progression as climate change is killing off yellow cedars. Rising temperatures are decimating snowpack, but when still frequent cold snaps hit, there’s not enough insulation to protect the cedar’s shallow roots so they die.
It’s an odd scenario — death by freezing in a warming world — but one that could have profound impacts on one of the most culturally and economically important trees in Alaska as it dies out and other, less valuable trees take its place.
“Culturally, they’ve been used for about 9,000 years in carvings,” Oakes, now a lecturer at Stanford, said. “From an economic standpoint, they are the most valuable conifer in Alaska. Even though right now they comprise a lower percentage of the forest in terms of density, when there is a sale for timber in Alaska, they tend to drive it.”
That’s why Sawe picked up Oakes’ data and turned it into tunes. Though a computer played the music, Sawe helped arrange the piece so it made sense. He assigned different trees to different instruments based on their role in the forest (though in the case of sitka spruce, he assigned it to the cello because it’s a common wood used in cello construction) and a key so all the players were on the same page (in this case, a rather foreboding D minor).
Each note in the piece is a single tree from one of Oakes’ study sites while its pitch conveys the age and loudness conveys its size. All the parts are played by a computer using a Musical Instrument Digital Interface, known more frequently by its less wonky acronym MIDI.
Together, the piece conveys a forest in flux. Sawe also isolated the piano as a solo piece to highlight what’s happening to yellow cedars in particular. In that context, the lively tinkle of notes reminiscent of Philip Glass slips into a dirge by the end as gaps of silence and single notes dominate the piece.
Sawe isn’t a composer by trade — he studies how why we make decisions on the environment using a mix of neurology and economics — but he is someone who wants to take complex data and make it understandable.
“With data sonification, you can handle a lot more dimensions if you’re listening to data than looking at it,” he said. “It’s useful for scientists on the one hand but on the other hand, the fact that you can take something like the data from 2,000 trees in Alaska and give someone a 20-second description of what that song is portraying and they pick it up (means) it has huge potential to share these narratives with people.”
For Oakes, that’s exactly what she was hoping for when she responded back to Sawe’s initial email. She wanted her data to be so compelling that people would have to stop and pay attention to it.
The early feedback indicates the project has already realized some of that potential. The California Academy of Science has reached out to them about a public event and Stanford has expressed interest in having a chamber music group do a live performance of the piece. And Sawe has started working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to explore some of their Pacific Ocean data for another data sonification project down the road that could add another song to the soundtrack of climate change.
While data sonification is still far from the mainstream scientific process, music could be a lynch pin for taking climate research out of the pages of academic journals and into our lives. And it may serve as a reminder that we’re all composers and our choices will define what the next movement sounds like.