Climate change has entered a new phase, said the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Monday. The WMO reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) “surged again to new records in 2016,” and it predicted that the annual average for CO2 would remain above 400 parts per million (ppm), 44 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, for generations.
The 400 ppm threshold, a symbolic red line in the methodical march of greenhouse gas concentrations, was continuously breached for the first time in 2015—a rise driven largely by fossil fuel emissions and aided by a strong El Niño, which “triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of sinks like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2,” the WMO said. Last year’s jump in carbon dioxide was the largest annual increase on record (subscription).
“The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.” “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not . . . Without tackling carbon dioxide emissions, we cannot tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation.”
Taalas added that improvements in the climate will be seen by 2060 if countries begin to lower their carbon dioxide emissions now.
Between 1990 and 2015, Earth experienced a 37 percent increase in radiative forcing—the warming effect on the climate—because of greenhouse gases from industrial, agricultural, and domestic activities, according to the WMO.
WMO’s announcement comes within a week of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s report that found September was the 11th consecutive month to set record high temperatures.
Study: Glacier Melt in Antarctica Could Help Predict Global Sea Level Rise
A number of research studies have suggested Antarctica’s ice is melting faster than previously thought, but two new studies may help better predict future Antarctica ice loss and global sea level rise. The studies examined the Pope, Kohler, and Smith glaciers—part of the Dotson and Crosson ice shelves—in West Antarctica.
“Our primary question is how the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica will contribute to sea level rise in the future, particularly following our observations of massive changes in the area over the last two decades,” said University of California Irvine’s Bernd Scheuchl, lead author on the first of the two studies published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Using satellite data, we continue to measure the evolution of the grounding line of these glaciers, which helps us determine their stability and how much mass the glacier is gaining or losing. Our results show that the observed glaciers continue to lose mass and thus contribute to global sea level rise.”
A second study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found that a significant portion of Antarctica is subject to “intense unbalanced melting” revealing high rates of ice loss from glaciers’ undersides. It also blames receding glacial grounding lines for the ice loss—spurred by an influx of warm ocean water beneath the ice shelves.
The glacier that saw the most melt, the study says, was Smith. It lost about 1,000 feet of ice between 2002 and 2009, which authors think is “a strong piece of evidence” that these glaciers, along with the larger Amundsen region, were subjected to a large influx of warm ocean water during that period.
“If I had been using data from only one instrument, I wouldn’t have believed what I was looking at, because the thinning was so large,” said author Ala Khazendar, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noting how the work shows how important it is to understand both the ocean circulation and seabed topography when determining future melt and sea level rise.
IEA: Significant Renewables Growth Expected by 2021
The renewable energy market is growing around the world, according to a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA raised its estimate of the amount of renewable energy on power grids 13 percent from its 2015 forecast. It forecasts a 825 gigawatt boost in capacity by 2021 (a 42 percent increase from today).
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
The growth will mostly be driven by four countries: China, the U.S., India and Mexico. China is the leader.
“About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world last year,” according to the report. “In China, which accounted for about half the wind additions and 40 percent of all renewable capacity increases, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.”
In the United States over the next five years, renewable capacity is forecast to grow to 328.2 gigawatts from 221.1 gigawatts. During this period, solar PV is forecast to nearly triple—from 26.1 gigawatts to 77.5 gigawatts—and wind to grow nearly 71.5 percent.
“Renewables are and still remain dependent on policies … to create the right market rules and the right framework to attract investments,” said Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA’s renewable energy division.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
On Saturday nearly 200 nations adopted an amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, agreeing to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), refrigerants that contribute to climate change and that are thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to the White House, the deal inked in Kigali, Rawanda, should reduce HFC use by more than 80 percent over 30 years, avoiding warming of up to 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Secretary of State John Kerry said adopting the amendment “is likely the single most important step that we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet.”
HFCs were introduced in the 1990s to replace chlorofluorocarbons, which were destroying the ozone layer. Scientists have been concerned that a forecast global explosion in the use of air conditioning could result in so much HFC leakage by century’s end that the global temperature would overshoot warming thresholds outlined in the Paris agreement.
The phase-out process outlined in the Montreal Protocol amendment groups countries into categories with different baselines and timelines (subscription). Richer economies, including the United States, will start limiting use of HFCs within a few years. Some developing countries, nations in Latin America and island states, will do so beginning in 2024. Other developing countries will reduce use in later years—China in 2029 and India in 2032, for example.
United Nations Says Climate Change Could Make Millions Food Insecure
A new report from the United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that the number of people living in poverty could rise “by between 35 and 122 million by 2030 relative to a future without climate change.” Sub-Saharan Africa would be hardest hit due to its population’s high dependence on agriculture.
The report comes on the heels of Sunday’s World Food Day, which the U.N. used to highlight the links among climate change, sustainable agriculture, and food and nutrition as well as the need to address climate change to meet the U.N. sustainable development goal of ending hunger by 2030.
“Unless action is taken now to make agriculture more sustainable, productive and resilient, climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in countries and regions that are already highly food-insecure,” said FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva. “Hunger, poverty and climate change need to be tackled together. This is, not least, a moral imperative as those who are now suffering most have contributed least to the changing climate.”
The 2016 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture urges countries to help their farmers reduce reliance on natural resources and more efficiently use water and fertilizer. That’s because agriculture is second only to the energy sector in warming the planet.
“Agriculture is contributing itself to about one fifth of the global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases,” said Rob Voss, director of the FAO team that produced the report.
To create a robust food system, Voss said the agriculture sector must switch to more sustainable practices, such as using heat-tolerant and drought-resistant crop varieties; increasing the capacity of soils and forestry to sequestrate carbon; reducing food losses and waste; and shifting diets away from animal-sourced foods.
World Bank: Carbon Trading Is Key to Cutting Climate Change Mitigation Costs
By 2030, large-scale carbon trading could reduce the cost of implementing climate change mitigation goals spelled out in countries’ national climate plans under the Paris Agreement by 32 percent, according to a World Bank report released Tuesday. By 2050, that cost could be cut by more than 50 percent said the report.
“The more we cooperate through carbon trading, the larger the savings and the greater the potential to increase ambition by countries in the short term,” John Roome, the World Bank’s senior director for climate change, said of the report’s findings, which indicate that cost-effectively limiting emissions reductions to meet a 2 degrees Celsius or lower warming limit will be difficult absent increased carbon trading.
In a blog post, Laura Tuck, the World Bank’s vice president for sustainable development, discussed carbon pricing’s potential to unlock the financing necessary to deliver on the Paris Agreement.
“Amid the enormous challenge ahead,” Tuck wrote, “I want to emphasize the transformative economic opportunity that putting a price on carbon pollution presents.”
Although noting the increase in carbon pricing initiatives, which resulted in $26 billion in revenue in 2016—a “modest” amount but up 60 percent from the year before—Tuck said she is “concerned that not enough governments, particularly in middle and low income countries, are aware of the transformative potential presented by carbon pricing.”
Last Presidential Debate: No Questions on Climate Change
In Las Vegas Wednesday night, candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took the stage for the last presidential debate—absent were any questions about climate change and energy policy. That’s four debates—including the vice presidential debate—in which the environment was mentioned only in passing (if at all).
Wednesday night, climate change received a mention from Hillary Clinton: “New jobs in clean energy, not only to fight climate change, which is a serious problem, but to create new opportunities and new businesses,” she said during a segment on the economy. Donald Trump discussed neither energy issues nor climate change.
Mother Jones reports environmental issues spanned just five minutes, 27 seconds in the three 2016 presidential debates.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
A week after the Paris Agreement to limit global warming met requirements to come into force, the subject of climate change was referenced only once in Tuesday’s second U.S. presidential debate—after audience member Ken Bone posed the question “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
“I have a comprehensive energy policy,” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton responded in the town-hall style debate, “but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem. And I support moving to more clean, renewable energy because I believe we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower.”
She prefaced the remark with a nod to the significance of expanded natural gas production.
“We are … producing a lot of natural gas, which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels, and I think that is an important transition,” said Clinton, who two days later delivered a climate change message in Florida with Al Gore.
Republican candidate Donald Trump did not mention climate change but did assert support for renewables and clean coal, which he suggested would be an option for another millennium.
“Now, I’m all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar,” Trump said, “but we need much more than wind and solar … There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.”
The short shrift given climate change during the debate did not match its popularity in an online poll organized by the Open Debate Coalition. Four questions on climate and energy made the poll’s top 30 crowd-sourced questions, which moderators of Sunday’s debate had agreed to consider. Of some 15,900 questions garnering 3.8 million votes in the poll, the fourth most popular was “What are the steps you will take to address climate change?”
In the two presidential debates so far, presidential candidates have mentioned “climate change” and “energy” only a few times. Yet, as highlighted by a report we have just co-published with Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the next administration will, through a combination of market forces, statutory deadlines, pending lawsuits, and open agency rulemakings, be forced to tackle a wide range of energy issues. The resulting decisions could shape the electricity sector for decades to come, and the chosen candidate will certainly play a large role in how the United States deals with climate change.
Study: Western Fire Season Worse Due to Climate Change
A new study in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that climate change impacts have made forests in the western United States drier and easier to burn, adding more than 16,000 square miles of forest fire area since 1984.
“We’re no longer waiting for human-caused climate change to leave its fingerprint on wildfire across the western U.S. It’s already here,” said lead author John Abatzoglou, a climatologist at the University of Idaho.
Rising temperatures that make the air drier and draw out moisture from vegetation have increased the likelihood of burning, according to annual wildfire data and climate models used by the authors.
“Climate change is playing a substantial role in the variability of fire activity … and we expect that to continue into the future,” Abatzoglou said. “The question is how are people going to respond to that.”
Aviation Industry Agrees to Curb Emissions
Member states of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to a market-based measure to offset the growth of emissions from international flights after 2020. The agreement, which involves 191 countries, caps carbon dioxide emissions at 2020 levels by 2035. Airlines will be encouraged to purchase credits through global carbon markets to offset their emissions for many flights beginning in 2021.
“Aviation can now claim its ‘Paris moment,’” said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, the president of the ICAO council, in a statement following the news.
The agreement initially starts off with voluntary participation, which becomes mandatory in 2027 through 2035. The United States, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and the aviation conference of the European Union (44 nations) have indicated they will participate in the voluntary portion of the agreement.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
European Union (EU) environment ministers on Friday approved ratification of the Paris Agreement. The approximately one-month EU ratification process means that the requirements for a 30-day countdown for the agreement to take effect will be met in November.
“Today is an important day not only for our action on climate but also for unity we have demonstrated,” said László Sólymos, EU Environment Council president and the Slovak minister for the environment. “This means that EU and its member states will add their weight to trigger the entry into force of the Paris Agreement.”
Thus far, 61 countries representing 47.79 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have joined the Paris Agreement. Ratification of the agreement is complete when 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sign on. The decision of the EU’s Environment Council to fast track ratification on behalf of the EU’s 28 member states, including the U.K., increases the share of ratifying nations’ emissions by 12 percent.
The Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 nations last December, aims to limit global warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times and to attempt to hold it to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The move by the EU came a day after seven distinguished climate scientists led by Robert Watson, a former chairman of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, asserted in a report that the opportunity to meet the 1.5 Celsius goal “has almost certainly already been missed” and that even the 2 Celsius pathway would be irrevocably lost absent increased emissions cuts under the Paris Agreement.
“If governments are serious about trying to achieve even the 2 degree goal, they will have to double and re-double their efforts—now,” Watson said. “I think it is fair to say that there is literally no chance of making the 1.5 C target.”
According to Watson and the other report authors, the world could experience 2 Celsius of warming—the point at which many scientists believe climate change will become dangerous—as early as 2050.
Poll: Deep Distrust of Climate Scientists, Political Divide on Climate Change
Climate scientists have a problem. A new Pew Research poll finds that most Americans doubt their consensus on global warming and don’t have “a lot” of trust in them to provide accurate information about the issue. According to the in-depth survey on “the politics of climate” released Tuesday, only 27 percent of Americans agree that “almost all” climate scientists say that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change—a figure Pew contrasted with a 2013 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stating with 95 percent certainty that human activity is the main cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century. Only one-third of those surveyed said that climate scientists understand “very well” whether global climate change is occurring.
Like other Pew surveys conducted from 2006 to 2015, the new survey finds that one of the strongest predictors of views on the causes, cures, and urgency of climate change is party identification: among the one third of Americans who say they care a great deal about climate change, 72 percent are Democrats and 24 percent are Republicans. Approximately three quarters of Democrats believe climate change is mainly a result of human activity; fewer than a quarter of Republicans concur.
“People on the ideological ends of either party—that is, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans—see the world through vastly different lenses across all of these judgments,” the report found.
The Pew survey also found no strong correlation between scientific knowledge and views on climate issues.
“To the extent that science knowledge influences people’s judgments related to climate change and trust in climate scientists, it does so among Democrats, but not Republicans,” wrote Pew researchers. “For example, Democrats with high science knowledge are especially likely to believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, to see scientists as having a firm understanding of climate change, and to trust climate scientists’ information about the causes of climate change. But Republicans with higher science knowledge are no more or less likely to hold these beliefs. Thus, people’s political orientations also tend to influence how knowledge about science affects their judgments and beliefs about climate matters and their trust in climate scientists.”
The political divide on solutions to climate change is as great as it is on causes: More than three quarters of liberal Democrats but less than a quarter of conservative Republicans said restricting emissions from power plants could make a big difference. A similar divide was evident in views on the usefulness of an international agreement to limit carbon emissions.
The survey did identify one area of agreement: more than 80 percent of Americans all across the political spectrum support greater use of wind and solar power, a view attributable to financial, health-related and environmental motivations.
EPA Data Says Power Plant Emissions Down
Greenhouse gas emissions from United States power plants dropped a little more than 6 percent last year compared to 2014 levels, according to data provided by 8,000 facilities and suppliers to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. These reporters account for about half of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Released annually, the data details emissions by industrial sector, geographic region and individual facilities. It found that in 2015, reported emissions from large industrial sources were 4.9 percent lower than 2014, and 8.2 percent lower than 2011. Petroleum and natural gas facilities were the second largest stationary source of emissions, reporting 231 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions—1.6 percent lower in 2015 than in 2014, but 4.1 percent higher than in 2011.
What was scheduled to be about 3.5 hours turned into nearly seven on Tuesday as 10 judges heard oral arguments in a rare “en banc” review of the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The controversial Clean Power Plan, based on Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, was first proposed in June 2014 to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. In setting those limits, the rule considers the ability to shift power generation to cleaner sources. Its supporters argue that the act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in this way. Its challengers allege the rule amounts to executive overreach because the EPA is effectively forcing owners and operators of coal plants to invest in their competitors—cleaner natural gas or renewable energy. They also contend that the rule undercuts the reliability of the electric grid by forcing coal-fired power plants offline. Moreover, opponents argue that EPA cannot regulate power plants under Section 111(d) in the first place because EPA already limits emissions like mercury under Section 112 of the act. Until these challenges are resolved, the Supreme Court has delayed implementation of the rule.
I was at the Tuesday hearing and wrote about some early takeaways for Bloomberg Government. From my seat in the courtroom, they included:
- It’s now clear that the EPA possesses the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The question now is whether the methods used by the EPA were permitted under the act. As Judge Tatel noted, the Supreme Court “did that work” in Massachusetts v. EPA.
- The case is caught up in a larger judicial discussion about how much deference to grant the executive branch. As Congress increasingly fails to legislate on major political issues of our day, the executive branch has been looking to existing statutes for the authority to address problems. But the courts are debating whether to provide the traditional broad deference to agencies as they pursue these initiatives, or whether “major” political issues require more scrutiny. EPA’s Clean Power Plan evoked this debate, and as a result may create more precedent that will guide future presidents on the extent of their power.
- The court repeatedly reflected on the Supreme Court’s AEP v. Connecticut ruling, which established that the EPA had the authority to regulate existing power plants and thereby forbade Connecticut from suing those plant owners directly. Any victory for the petitioners in this case will need to explain why that recognition of authority in AEP v. Connecticut does not presume that the EPA possesses the authority underlying the Clean Power Plan.
- Several jurists expressed concern that industry was arguing that the EPA could not consider the shifting of generation to cleaner sources in setting the standard, but nonetheless wanted that low cost option as a means of complying with the rule. Can the industry have its cake and eat it, too?
- The judges’ proficiency in understanding the electric grid was impressive, clearly aided by legal briefs from grid operators. What was not as clear, however, is whether this proficiency had convinced them that managing the generation sources across that system constituted the “best system of emissions reduction” under the act.
Although it is difficult to guess a case’s outcome from any oral argument, all in all the government came through it with clear indications of support from three or four judges. At least four other judges, however, either did not speak or evaluated the case in such a Socratic manner that their positions were more mysterious. With six votes needed for a win, supporters of the rule will be holding their breath until the opinion appears. Overall, the final word on the Clean Power Plan may not come until 2018 or later.
Presidential Debate Highlights Stark Contrasts on Climate Change, Energy Policy
Climate change and energy policy were touched on in the first debate between the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees on Monday. Early on, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, accused businessman and opponent Donald Trump of dismissing climate change as a hoax created by China to harm American competitiveness—a point Trump denied.
“Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese,” said Clinton, implicitly referring to a tweet in which Trump claimed that global warming “was created by the Chinese” to benefit their manufacturing sector. “I think it’s real. And I think it’s important that we grip this and deal with it, both at home and abroad.”
Politifact reports that although Trump indicated the 2012 tweet was a joke, he has a record of using the word “hoax” to describe climate change, especially on Twitter. CNN reported that in September 2015 Trump told its reporters that “I am not a believer in climate change” and that he refuted climate change’s role in the rise in extreme weather phenomena.
On energy, Trump said he favors all forms of energy, but he noted that coal industry workers have been put out of work by cheap natural gas and federal environmental regulations. Clinton, on the other hand, suggested that clean energy could be an important job creator.
“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels,” she said. “We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity.”
Trump responded with an implicit reference to the 2011 bankruptcy of the federally backed solar company Solyndra.
“She talks about solar panels,” replied Trump. “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one. … Now, look, I’m a great believer in all forms of energy, but we’re putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster.”
Fortune reports that Department of Energy figures show that the loan program that funded Solyndra has created thousands of jobs and that taxpayers have profited from that program because the vast majority of its other loans went to successful projects and companies.
Climate Change and National Security
Climate change will have significant effects on national security, according to a new report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It says these threats are wide-ranging—including adverse effects on food prices and availability, country stability, increased risk to human health, and heightened social and political tensions—and that these threats could affect the United States and other countries over the next 20 years.
“We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and damaged infrastructure on communities around the world,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Add to that an increased risk of conflict over water and land, and the large-scale displacement due to rising sea levels, and it’s not hard to see why the Pentagon has deemed climate change a ‘threat-multiplier,’ exacerbating the pressures and challenges far too many countries are already facing.”
The release of the report comes as the White House announced a new policy framework requiring federal agencies to take the impacts of climate change into account when making national security-related policies and plans. It directs several federal agencies to work together to include climate change in their national security planning—providing a timeline of 90 days to create an action plan and 150 days to create a plan to implement it.
Thirty-one new countries formally agreed to join the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions—bringing the total committed countries to 60. The Paris Agreement takes effect when it is formally adopted by at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, so far, these 60 country commitments only account for 48 percent of total global emissions.
Among the 31 countries who committed this week during Climate Week—a meeting in New York of international business and government leaders to examine progress toward meeting Paris Agreement goals—were Brazil, the world’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Mexico, Argentina, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kiribati and Bangladesh.
“Today we also heard commitments from many other countries to join the agreement this year. Their combined emissions will take us well past the required amount for the agreement to enter into force,” said Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. “I am convinced that the Paris Agreement will enter into force before the end of 2016.”
Germany, Austria, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the countries planning to formally join the agreement by the end of 2016.
“And in a demonstration of our commitment to the agreement reached in Paris, the U.K. will start its domestic procedures to enable ratification of the Paris agreement, and complete these before the end of the year,” said U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Ban Ki-Moon said he hopes the agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise to 2 Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration of keeping it to 1.5 Celsius, can come into force by the 22nd Conference of Parties in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November 2016.
Arctic Sea Ice Hits Second-Lowest Summer Measurement
Arctic ice levels have shrunk to their second-lowest recorded level, tying the 2007 minimum extent, according to a new report released by the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA)-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). On September 10, ice covered just 1.6 million square miles; the lowest level, 1.31 million square miles, was recorded September 17, 2012. Satellites have observed a trend of marked decrease since 1979.
“September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average,” NASA says.
According to NSIDC, all 10 of the lowest summer extents in the satellite record have occurred in the past 10 years. NASA, which released an animation depicting the evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover in 2016 from its wintertime maximum extent to its apparent yearly minimum, has called this pattern the “new normal” for Arctic ice.
“It was a stormy, cloudy, and fairly cool summer,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. “Historically, such weather conditions slow down the summer ice loss, but we still got down to essentially a tie for second lowest in the satellite record.”
NSIDC scientists suspect that the unusually thin sea ice pack melted from below by unusually mild ocean waters and that the ice loss may have been accelerated by a particularly notable late August ice breakup triggered by powerful storms.
“We’ve always known that the Arctic is going to be the early warning system for climate change,” Serreze said. “What we’ve seen this year is reinforcing that.”
He added that sometime in the next few decades the Arctic Ocean is headed for ice-free summers.
Poll Says Americans Care about Climate Change
Sixty-five percent of Americans think climate change is a problem that the government needs to address, according to a new survey by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Of those polled, 57 percent would pay at least $1 month, 39 percent would pay $10 a month and 20 percent would pay $50 a month to combat it.
Nearly 8 in 10 of the poll’s nearly 1,096 respondents indicated that the U.S. should maintain its commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions, even if other countries do not. The United States has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level in 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent.
Two laws signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will ratchet up California’s fight against climate change by launching efforts to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. SB-32 calls for increased renewable energy use, more electric cars, improved energy efficiency, and emissions cuts from key industries. AB-197 provides aid to low-income or minority communities located near polluting facilities and creates a legislative committee to oversee regulators, giving lawmakers a greater voice in how climate goals are met.
“What we are doing is farsighted and far-reaching,” said Brown at the bill’s signing. “I hope it sends a message across the country.”
The new legislation extends the state’s 2006 climate change law, which imposed limits on the carbon content of gasoline and diesel fuel and introduced a cap-and-trade program for polluters. It does not address the cap-and-trade program, which provides economic incentives to companies that achieve reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases. For each ton of greenhouse gases emitted, companies covered by the cap-and-trade program must purchase a permit. The state issues a limited number of permits through quarterly auctions.
Permit sales fizzled during the last two quarterly permit auctions, reports ABC News, but state officials say they are still on track to meet emissions goals. Brown has said the new legislation could provide leverage to convince businesses to support extension of the cap-and-trade program after 2020. If lawmakers don’t act to reauthorize the program soon, Brown said he might try putting the matter before voters in 2018.
Studies: Air Pollution Causes Premature Deaths, Lingers in Brain
Some 87 percent of the world’s population lives in areas affected by air pollution, which a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) finds is the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. In 2013, the most recent year for which relevant estimates are available, indoor and outdoor air pollution caused 5.5 million premature deaths globally and imposed an economic cost in lost wages alone of $225 billion.
“Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital and constrains economic growth,” said Laura Tuck, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. “We hope this study will translate the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policymakers so that more resources will be devoted to improving air quality.”
GDP losses due to air pollution are significant, according to the World Bank-IHME report. It estimates that in 2013 China lost nearly 10 percent of its GDP, India, 7.69 percent, and Sri Lanka and Cambodia, roughly 8 percent. Welfare costs to developed countries were also high—about $45 billion to the United States. China suffered the highest welfare losses—about $1.5 trillion—followed by India at about $505.
And a separate study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that industrial air pollution leaves magnetic particles in the brain. Because unusually high concentrations of these “magnetite” are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the findings raise the specter of an alarming new environmental risk factor for this and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes,” said the Lancaster Environment Center’s Barbara Maher, who led the new research.
Research Examines Increase in Methane Emissions
Scientists around the world have been trying to figure out whether oil and gas production, particularly a boom in that production in the United States, could be responsible for the global rise in methane since 2007. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to the debate (subscription).
“What’s going on in the gas and oil sector has been the big question with methane,” said lead author Andrew Rice, a researcher at Portland State University. “It’s not settled, but we give some new pieces to the puzzle.”
The study suggests that since the 1980s leaks by the fossil fuel industry have been increasing—by an average of 24 megatons per year. The increase went up in 2000 when methane emissions from biomass burning and rice cultivation decreased.
“We were kind of surprised by these results, to be completely honest,” Rice said. “I’d say up until our work, the evidence was showing that [fugitive] fossil fuel emissions were decreasing, based on ethane data.”
As G20 leaders concluded their meeting in Hangzhou on Monday, they reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change, but they did not agree on deadlines to ratify the Paris Agreement limiting Earth’s temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (subscription). Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement is significantly more likely to take effect this year because on Saturday the United States and China jointly announced that they are formally joining it.
The agreement enters into force once ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Together, the United States and China represent nearly 39 percent of the world’s emissions and bring the number of countries that have signed on to the agreement to 26, according to a count by the World Resources Institute. U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping said they will cooperate on two other global environmental agreements this year: one is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol related to air-conditioning in refrigeration and the other aims to reduce carbon emissions from aviation.
In his opening address to the G20 meeting, Jinping promoted domestic carbon targets and plans to cut a billion tons of coal production capacity in three to five years. Internationally, he declared it a priority to “jointly establish green and low-carbon global energy governance to promote global green development cooperation” (subscription).
On the eve of the G20 summit, a report by Climate Transparency has found that G20 countries’ pledged carbon cuts must be six times deeper to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. As a bloc, the G20 countries produce some 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Study Warns of Impacts Associated with Ocean Warming
Climate change is altering marine species, spreading disease, and threatening food security, according to a major scientific analysis of ocean warming impacts by 80 scientists from 12 countries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report said the soaring temperature of the oceans is the “greatest hidden challenge of our generation.”
“We perhaps haven’t realized the gross effect we are having on the oceans, we don’t appreciate what they do for us,” said Dan Laffoley, IUCN marine adviser and one of the report’s lead authors. “We are locking ourselves into a future where a lot of the poorer people in the world will miss out.”
An IUCN press release points to examples of the impacts of ocean warming in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, where there has been a reduction in the abundance of some fish species as the coral reefs they depend on die off, and in southeast Asia, there’s expected to be a 10-30 percent decrease in harvests from marine fisheries by 2050 relative to 1970-2000.
Change in the ocean, according to the report, is happening 1.5 to 5 times faster than on land and could penetrate the ocean at depths at or below 2,300 feet. The report calls for rapid and significant cuts to greenhouse gases, further research, and expansion of marine protected areas to help deal with these impacts.
Expert Working Group Says We Are Living in Age of Anthropocene
This week, members of the Working Group on the Anthropocene said that on the basis of humanity’s profound impact on Earth, it is formally recognizing a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The “age of the humans” designation would mean we’ve moved from the so-called Holocene epoch—the interglacial period during which Homo sapiens flourished—to an epoch in which human activity has manifested itself in ways that leave traces in the geological record, significantly altering the character of the entire biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and cryosphere.
“Our working model is that the optimal boundary is the mid-20th century,” said Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester. “If adopted—and we’re a long way from that—the Holocene would finish and the Anthropocene would formally be held to have begun.”
The approval process requires ratification by three other academic bodies and could take at least two years.
“Human action has certainly left traces on the earth for thousands of years, if you know where to look,” Zalasiewicz said. “The difference between that and what has happened in the last century or so is that the impact is global and taking place at pretty much the same time across the whole Earth. It is affecting the functioning of the whole earth system.”
A study published last week in Nature Geoscience provides the first measurements of greenhouse gases from permafrost under Arctic lakes in Alaska, Siberia, and Canada. Although the research reveals that only a small amount of old carbon has been released in the past 60 years, it also suggests that much more could be released as the Arctic warms up faster than any other place on Earth.
“It’s a lit fuse, but the length of that fuse is very long,” said lead author Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska. “According to the model projections, we’re getting ready for the part where it starts to explode. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
The scientists determined that the permafrost-carbon feedback is thus far small by looking at aerial photographs and using radiocarbon dating to determine the age of methane emitted from the Arctic lakes that are expanding to consume and thaw terrestrial permafrost. As that permafrost melts and decomposes, it releases ancient carbon as carbon dioxide and methane. Analysis of 113 radiocarbon dating measurements and 289 soil organic carbon measurements showed that approximately 0.2 to 2.5 petagrams of permafrost carbon was released as methane and carbon dioxide in the past six decades.
The billions of tons of carbon stored in permafrost are approximately double the amount currently in the atmosphere. Many researchers are concerned that emission of that stored carbon will contribute to warming that then contributes to permafrost thawing in an accelerating feedback loop.
NASA: Temperature Reconstructions Suggest Achievement of Paris Agreement Goals “Unlikely”
The Paris Agreement’s goal to limit Earth’s temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is unlikely to be achieved according to temperature reconstructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Those reconstructions reveal that the world is heating up faster than at any other time within the past 1,000 years. Over the next 100 years, according to NASA, it will continue to warm at least 20 times faster than the historical average.
“In the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination (of temperatures). Maintaining temperatures below the 1.5C guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or coordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2C.”
Using evidence left in tree rings, layers of ice in glaciers, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks, NASA figures that the past century’s warming of 0.7 degrees Celsius is roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.
This year, the average global temperature reached 1.38 Celsius above levels observed in the 19th century, just 0.12 Celsius below the 1.5 Celsius limit that nations aimed for in the Paris Agreement.
Climate Change Major Focus at G20 Summit
Climate change is among the topics world leaders are expected to discuss at a G20 summit in China, beginning September 4.
“This is the first time that the G20 leaders are gathering to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change, (and) how we implement them in parallel,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
President Obama, who began his 10-day trip to Asia on Wednesday, is expected to stress the urgency of climate change. And some media outlets are reporting that the United States and China are expected to announce their ratification of the Paris Agreement prior to the start of the G20 Summit, but the White House has made no formal statement to this effect.
“We’ve made the commitment that we will join in 2016. And we’ve made the commitment to do that as soon as possible this year,” said Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president. “With respect to exactly when, I don’t have any announcements on that front. But we’ve committed, and we’ve been working on that issue.”
Antarctica is home to Earth’s largest ice mass, which unlike the Arctic remains frozen year round. But a new satellite-based study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that atop the coastal Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land, large numbers of meltwater lakes have been forming.
The study suggests that the lakes—nearly 8,000 of them—appeared in the summer months between 2000 and 2013. Like lakes that have formed from the meltwater of ice sheets in areas such as Greenland, those in East Antarctica may affect rates and patterns of ice melt, ice flow and ice shelf disintegration.
“What we find is that the appearance of these lakes, unsurprisingly, is correlated directly with the air temperature in the region, and so the maximum number of lakes, and the total area of the lakes, as well as the depth of the lakes, all of these things peak when the air temperatures peak,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University in the U.K. and one of the study’s authors.
The concern is that the lakes’ meltwater will drain into the underlying ice, causing the ice sheet to weaken. The long-term effects are unknown, the authors say.
“We do not think that the lakes on Langhovde Glacier are at present affecting the glacier, but it will be important to monitor these in the future to see how they evolve with surface air temperature changes,” said lead study author Emily Langley of Durham University in the U.K.
Natural Gas Emissions to Edge Out Coal Emissions This Year
In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, released last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that for the first time since 1972 energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas will surpass those from coal. Although natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, its consumption has increased while coal consumption has decreased, leading to what the EIA expects will be 10 percent greater energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas than from coal in 2016.
The EIA estimates that this year natural gas will fuel 34 percent of U.S. electricity generation, compared with 30 percent for coal. Last year, natural gas generated slightly less than 33 percent of electricity, and coal generated slightly more than 33 percent.
The EIA also noted that annual U.S. carbon intensity rates have been falling since 2005, in part because of increased consumption of low- or zero-carbon electricity from nuclear plants and renewables. Along with the decrease in coal consumption, the increase in non-fossil fuel consumption has reduced U.S. total carbon intensity from 60 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2005 to 54 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2015.
But the EIA’s emissions numbers do not reflect emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas released by gas drilling and transport operations. The extent of methane emissions from oil and gas production and distribution is uncertain, complicating the climate impacts of switching from coal to gas. Once those emissions total more than 4 percent of total gas production, according to a study cited in Utility Dive, they begin to negate the climactic benefits of gas over coal.
Obama Uses Anniversary to Remind Country of Climate Change’s Threat to National Parks
As the United States marks the centennial of the National Park Service this week, its parks are being widely celebrated for their natural grandeur. But President Obama used the milestone as a reminder of the threat climate change poses to the parks in a video released Saturday.
“As president, I’m proud to have built upon America’s tradition of conservation. We’ve protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters—more than any administration in history,” said Obama.
“As we look ahead, the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”
The National Park Service warns that today’s “rapid climate change challenges national parks in ways we’ve never seen before. Glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate, increasingly destructive storms threaten cultural resources and park facilities, habitat is disrupted—the list goes on.”
How is the National Park Service planning for climate change? The Atlantic reports that although parks have been slow to adapt their management practices, they are taking steps to cut emissions and educate the public about climate change and its effects. It reports that the visitors’ center at California’s Pinnacles National Park runs on electricity from solar panels, passenger vehicles are banned in Zion National Park during the summer, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, several beach restoration projects are in the works due to erosion caused partly by sea-level rise.