President Donald Trump announced in Detroit Wednesday that standards requiring automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 will be reviewed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the standards as a single program alongside the Department of Transportation’s fuel economy rules, popularly known as Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards. They were put in place by the Obama administration not only to eliminate atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide but also to save a projected 12 billion barrels of oil.
Last year, the Obama administration speedily conducted a midterm review of whether the stricter 2022-2025 targets would be achievable. The review, which was required to be complete by 2018, found that the industry could easily meet the stricter standards.
“Today I am announcing we are going to cancel that executive action,” said Trump. “We are going to restore the originally scheduled midterm review and we are going to ensure any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs, your factories. We’re going to be fair.”
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt added that the standards “are costly for automakers and the American people,” noting that the EPA will work with the Department of Transportation “to take a fresh look to determine if this approach is realistic.”
Rolling back the standards will take more than a year of legal and regulatory reviews by the EPA and the Department of Transportation, The New York Times reports.
Trump did not take steps Wednesday to revoke a waiver that allows California and a dozen other states to enforce emissions standards more stringent than those of the EPA, Reuters reports. If those regulations remain intact, automakers will still be compelled to produce more fuel-efficient cars regardless of any changes at the federal level.
Pruitt: Let Congress Figure Out If the EPA Should Regulate Carbon Dioxide
In the same CNBC interview in which he doubted the contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt said Congress, not his own agency, should decide whether the EPA has the power to regulate greenhouse gases.
“Nowhere in the equation has Congress spoken,” said Pruitt. “The legislative branch has not addressed this issue at all. It’s a very fundamental question to say, ‘Are the tools in the toolbox available to the EPA to address this issue of CO2, as the court had recognized in 2007, with it being a pollutant?’”
The comment appeared to be a reference to Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the Supreme Court found that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act. That ruling prompted the EPA to promulgate the first-ever greenhouse gas regulations for motor vehicles.
Taking a legislative approach, reports ClimateWire, would get around a protracted rulemaking process and legal challenges that might beset efforts to rewrite federal regulations addressing climate change (subscription). Congress could instead simply change the definition of an air pollutant to exclude carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, putting into question a range of federal regulations from the Clean Power Plan to fuel economy standards.
That’s the intent of the Stopping EPA Overreach Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives introduced last week. H.R. 637 would amend the Clean Air Act so that the term ‘air pollutant’ does not include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, or sulfur hexafluoride.
The proposal would nullify the EPA’s regulation of carbon pollution, stating that “no federal agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under current law” and “no attempt to regulate greenhouse gases should be undertaken without further Congressional action.”
The bill would also repeal the Clean Power Plan and a rule setting methane emission standards for oil and gas operations. If it were to become law, legal recourse would be unlikely because the Clean Air Act would be explicitly rewritten.
Trump Unveils $1.1 Trillion Budget; Signs Another Executive Order
President Donald Trump unveiled his 2018 discretionary spending budget proposal Thursday, one that reduces many federal agency budgets. The largest cut of 31 percent is to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The move will result in the loss of 3,200 positions, or more than 20 percent of the EPA’s workforce, and terminates more than 50 EPA programs. It defunds the Clean Power Plan, which sets limits on carbon dioxide from existing fossil-fuel-fired power plants, and the Energy Star Program, which identifies and promotes energy efficiency in products.
“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it. So, I guess the first place that comes to mind will be the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that.”
The budget is only an outline, as Congress has the authority to set government spending levels and appropriate money.
Stating that he couldn’t “in good conscience be supportive” of the Trump administration’s major cuts to the EPA budget, Mustafa Ali stepped down as head of the EPA’s environmental justice office, which he helped found in 1992 to alleviate the impact of air, water and industrial pollution on poverty-stricken areas.
In a lengthy letter, Ali urged EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt not to kill the agency’s programs as Pruitt prepares to dismantle many in response to the Trump administration’s 2018 budget blueprint.
Setting the stage for the historic downsizing of federal agencies and the federal workforce in the budget proposal was an executive order signed Monday that requires government agencies to make themselves lean. The new White House review effort, the Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch, could identify additional areas for cuts within the EPA and the Department of Energy and Department of the Interior.
“Today there is duplication and redundancy everywhere,” said Trump. “This order requires a thorough examination of every executive department and agency to see where money is being wasted, how services can be improved and whether programs are truly serving American citizens.”
The order directs Mulvaney to “propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies … components of agencies and agency programs,” according to the White House. Agency heads have 180 days to submit a reorganization plan.
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.
In a Policy Forum article published in the journal Science, President Barack Obama says that the national policy trend toward a clean-energy economy is “irreversible” and that the trend will continue due to “the mounting economic and scientific evidence” of its value. The article points to the scientific case for actions on climate change, energy efficiency and emissions—the latest in a series of publications on different policy topics Obama has penned in academic journals, including the Harvard Law Review and the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The United States is showing that GHG [greenhouse gas] mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation,” Obama writes in Science just days before President-Elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20. “Evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term. Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1 percent to 5 percent of global GDP each year by 2100.”
The article goes on to cover many of the environmental policies that Trump has said he may axe when he takes office, including the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the global average 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.
“Were the United States to step away from Paris, it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition,” Obama writes. “This does not mean the next administration needs to follow identical domestic policies to my administration’s. There are multiple paths and mechanisms by which this country can achieve—efficiently and economically—the targets we embraced in the Paris Agreement.”
Obama also discusses the struggles of the coal industry, offering that because the cost of new electricity generation using natural gas is projected to remain low relative to coal, “it is unlikely that utilities will change course and choose to build coal-fired power plants, which would be more expensive than natural gas plants, regardless of any near-term changes in federal policy.”
While it will take some time to evaluate which of Trump’s statements about environmental policy actually provide guiding points for how he will govern, The Hill takes a look at what Trump has promised to date on environment and how much might actually be accomplished on day one. At a press conference Wednesday, Trump said he planned to make a decision on his nominee for the Supreme Court within two weeks of taking office—a decision that would have implications for environmental policy.
Trump Transition: Tillerson Confirmation Hearing
The Senate confirmation hearing for Trump’s pick to lead the Department of State began early on Wednesday with conversation and questions about Russian relations. Nominated for the most senior U.S. diplomat position, one responsible for enacting the U.S. government’s foreign policy, the former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson told senators that relations with Russia could be improved under his leadership despite concerns over his ties to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
“We’re not likely to ever be friends,” Tillerson said, noting that the United States and Russia do not hold the same values. “With Russia, engagement is necessary in order to define what that relationship going to be. There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.”
On the topic of climate change, Tillerson expressed that the “risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.” But he added, “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” and precisely what actions nations should take “seems to be the largest area of debate existing in the public discourse.”
Tillerson said he viewed the issue primarily as an engineering problem and that Trump has “invited my views on climate change. “He knows I am on the public record with my views. I look forward to providing those, if confirmed, to him and policies around how the United States should carry it out in these areas.”
What else was discussed? Tillerson clarified, and appeared to reconfirm, his support for a carbon tax, and made comments about the importance of maintaining a seat at the table on how to address climate change with international treaties.
EIA: United States Could Become Energy Exporter
The United States has not been a net exporter of energy since 1953, but it could regain that status by 2026. That’s the finding of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2017, which makes energy market projections through 2050 for scenarios with a high oil price, high and low oil and gas resource and technology, and high and low economic growth as well as for a scenario in which the Clean Power Plan is not implemented. In most of those projections, natural gas production increases.
“Natural gas production, we think, is actually going to go up quite a bit, with relatively low and stable prices, so that’s going to support higher levels of domestic consumption, especially in the electric power and industrial sectors, where we think there will be quite a bit of natural gas use,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski.
He noted that technology advances are helping reduce the cost for both fossil fuel production and renewables.
“EIA’s projections show how advances in technology are driving oil and natural gas production, renewables penetration, and demand-side efficiencies and reshaping the energy future,” he said.
Across the scenarios in the report, projections for energy consumption are more consistent than those for production, whose growth is dependent on technology, resource, and market conditions. The EIA finds that although zero-carbon renewables are expected to grow faster than any other energy source over the next three decades, their increase is not likely to significantly help the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement (subscription). Instead, energy-related carbon emissions will nearly flatline, falling from an annual rate of 1.4 percent between 2005 and 2016 to 0.2 percent between 2016 and 2040. That’s because carbon reductions from electricity plants’ switch from coal to natural gas and renewables will be offset by emissions from a growing chemical industry.
The fate of the Clean Power Plan will affect energy-related carbon emissions, according to the report (subscription), though not as much as greater use of renewables and natural gas. If the plan is rescinded or overturned, annual emissions would slightly increase to 5.4 billion metric tons through 2040. If the plan is implemented, those emissions would drop to 5 billion metric tons. The scenario without the Clean Power Plan has the highest greenhouse gas emissions, but such a scenario does not include a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, which the Clean Air Act currently appears to require. However, other avenues under the Clean Air Act may be used to pursue greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
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.
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.”
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.
“We are now able to put a number on the deaths caused by climate change in a heat wave,” said lead author Daniel Mitchell of the University of Oxford. “This has never been done before. Previous studies have attributed changes in heat waves to climate change, or related increased heat stress to human deaths, but none have combined the two.”
The study’s U.S. and U.K researchers calculated that, during a Europe-wide heat wave in summer 2003, 506 of 735 deaths in Paris and 64 of 315 deaths in London were due to a heat wave worsened by anthropogenic climate change. They reached that conclusion after putting the results of several thousand runs of two climate model simulations of the 2003 heat wave into a health impact assessment of death rates.
By comparing two scenarios—one reflecting the climate of 2003 without human influences and one reflecting all known climatic forces contributing to the 2003 heat wave—the researchers determined how climate change had affected that summer’s temperatures.
The study, reports Carbon Brief, analyzes a direct impact measure—mortality—rather than an indirect one—temperature. It links mortalities to climate and introduces another level of uncertainty, especially when long and reliable health datasets are not available for use in analyses.
Nevertheless, reports ClimateWire, the study demonstrates that losses can be directly linked to climate change and thus its framework can be used to assign costs of “loss and damage” and to improve planning and adaptation (subscription).
“It is often difficult to understand the implications of a planet that is one degree warmer than preindustrial levels in the global average, but we are now at the stage where we can identify the cost to our health of man-made global warming,” Mitchell said. “This research reveals that in two cities alone hundreds of deaths can be attributed to much higher temperatures resulting from human-induced climate change.”
Last week at a meeting held by the French government to study Paris Agreement-related actions to reduce health risks linked to climate change, the World Health Organization said that change is likely to kill 250,000 additional people each year by 2030—primarily through malaria, diarrhea, heat stress, and malnutrition. Children, women, older people, and the poor will be most affected.
Climate Change and Cloud Cover
A new study in the journal Nature suggests there’s evidence of climate change in satellite cloud records. By comparing satellite data from 1983 to 2009 to climate models, the authors found that the clouds forming most often are not low-lying reflective ones that cool the planet. Instead, cloud patterns were in line with what scientists would expect to see in climate models—an increase in greenhouse gases associated with human activity over the study period.
“Cloud changes most consistently predicted by global climate models are currently occurring in nature,” the authors write. “As cloud tops rise, their greenhouse effect becomes stronger.”
Clouds have both an Earth-cooling effect by reflecting solar radiation back to space and an Earth-warming effect by restricting the planet’s thermal infrared radiation.
“Even if there is no change in the overall coverage of clouds on the earth, clouds closer to the pole reflect less solar radiation because there is less solar radiation coming in closer to the pole,” said lead author Joel Norris of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In Science magazine, Norris noted one caveat: during the study period, two major volcanic eruptions cooled and then warmed the climate, producing cloud patterns similar to those produced by greenhouse gas-related warming.
Draft Proposes Extension of California Cap-and-Trade Program
The California Air Resources Board released a draft plan to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program beyond 2020, when it is set to expire. The program—one of the first economy-wide programs put in place—aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a fixed number of permits, called allowances, to emit a single ton; compliance entities and other market participants can buy and sell allowances, thereby enabling the market to determine the lowest-cost compliance path.
The draft plan calls to extend the program another decade and to reach emissions levels 40 percent below 1990 levels. It would include preliminary caps through 2050 “to signal the long-term trajectory of the program to inform investment decisions.”
No board vote is scheduled on the proposal until March 2017. A state appeals court is considering a challenge from the California Chamber of Commerce, which contends that the pollution-credit program is an illegal tax, not a fee.
A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that five of the uninhabitated Solomon Islands have submerged underwater and six more have experienced dramatic shoreline reductions due to man-made climate change. The study by a team of Australian researchers offers scientific evidence confirming anecdotal accounts of climate change impacts on Pacific islands. That evidence consists in part of radiocarbon tree dating and of aerial and satellite images of 33 islands dating back to 1947.
According to the study authors, the Western Pacific, where residents in many remote communities must constantly climb to higher elevations, is a hotspot for tracking sea-level rise.
The Solomon Islands have experienced nearly three times the global average of sea-level rise, 7–10 millimeters per year since 1993—rates consistent with those that can be expected across much of the Pacific in the second half of this century, reported Scientific American.
Previous research had attributed Pacific island shoreline changes to a mix of extreme events, seawalls, and inappropriate coastal development as well as sea-level rise. But the new study directly links island loss to climate-related phenomena.
Human disturbances, plate tectonics, hurricanes, and waves can mask the effects of climate change. So to hone in on those effects, the researchers studied islands with no human habitation—Nuatambu Island being the one notable exception.
“Rates of shoreline recession are substantially higher in areas exposed to high wave energy, indicating a synergistic interaction between sea-level rise and waves,” the study authors said. “Understanding these local factors that increase the susceptibility of islands to coastal erosion is critical to guide adaptation responses for these remote Pacific communities.”
U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions Fall But Global CO2 Concentrations Rise
The Energy Information Administration (EIA), which released the data, attributed the decline largely to “decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.” Such fuel use changes, the EIA reports, accounted for 68 percent of total energy-related carbon dioxide reductions from 2005 to 2015.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide concentrations at a remote Australia monitoring station—Cape Grim—are poised to hit a new high of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide for the first time in a few weeks. Though that mark is largely symbolic, the United Nations suggests that concentrations of all greenhouse gases should not be allowed to peak higher than 450 ppm this century to maximize chances of limiting global temperature rise.
“We wouldn’t have expected to reach the 400 ppm mark so early,” said David Etheridge, an atmospheric scientist with Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which runs the station. “With El Nino, the ocean essentially caps off its ability to take up heat so the concentrations are growing fast as warmer land areas release carbon. So we would have otherwise expected it to happen later in the year.”
The first 400 ppm milestone was hit in 2013 by a monitoring station in Mauna Loa. Cape Grim and Mauna Loa are among the stations that measure baseline carbon dioxide across the world. Their readings are unaffected by regional pollutions sources that would contaminate air quality.
Companies Relinquish Arctic Drilling Leases
The region is estimated to hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but tapping these resources has come at great risk for companies.
“Given the current environment, our prospects in the Chukchi Sea are not competitive within our portfolio,” said ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman. “This will effectively eliminate any near-term plans for Chukchi exploration for the company.”
Marketplace reports that data secured through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy have renounced all but one of their leases in the Chukchi Sea—meaning 80 percent of all area in the American Arctic leased in a 2008 sale has or will be abandoned.
Shell Spokesman Curtis Smith said “After extensive consideration and evaluation, Shell will relinquish all but one of its federal offshore leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Separate evaluations are underway for our federal offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea. This action is consistent with our earlier decision not to explore offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.”
Scientists have warned that severe drought and precipitation are among the risks of greenhouse-gas-induced climate change, but a study published in the journal Nature finds that extremely warm temperatures do not always translate into record wet and dry extremes. Highlighting the complexities in predicting the effects of planetary warming on precipitation, lead author Fredrik Ljungqvist of Stockholm University said that more dramatic wet-dry weather extremes had occurred in centuries cooler than the 20th century.
“Several other centuries show stronger and more widespread extremes,” he said. “We can’t say it’s more extreme now.”
In this first hemispheric-scale, centuries-long water availability assessment, the researchers statistically analyzed evidence for changes in precipitation and drought, compiling hundreds of precipitation records across the Northern Hemisphere from historical accounts as well as archives on such things as tree-rings and lake sediments.
They detected a pattern of alternating moisture regimes throughout the last 12 centuries, suggesting that “the instrumental period is too short to capture the full range of natural hydroclimate variability.”
Their finding that the last century’s temperature rise may not have affected the hydroclimate as much as previously thought challenges the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In a News and Views article published in Nature, Matthew Kirby of California State University at Fullerton suggested that current climate models should not be discarded because their results, which indicate that “dry gets dryer and wet gets wetter,” do not match the Ljungqvist team’s proxy results, which indicate no difference in the water dynamics of the 20th century and those of the pre-industrial era.
“Do their results invalidate current predictive models?” Kirby asked. “Certainly not. But they do highlight a big challenge for climate modellers, and present major research opportunities both for modellers and for climate scientists who work with proxy data.”
Study: Climate Change Causing Earth to Shift
A study published in the journal Science Advances reveals that climate change affects how Earth tilts on its axis. Although scientists have known that Earth’s spin axis has been drifting due to ice cap melt in Greenland and Antarctica, the new research suggests that changes in terrestrial water storage also play a role in the planet’s decadal axis swings. The finding is based on data collected from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite, which can detect changes in the mass of Earth’s ice sheets and oceans.
Before 2000, Earth’s spin axis was moving westward toward Canada, but since then, climate-change-driven ice loss has pulled the direction of drift eastward approximately seven inches a year—a shift that lead researcher Surendra Adhikari of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory described as “very dramatic” and that scientists say is meaningful.
“This is the first time we have solid evidence that changes in land water distribution on a global scale also shift which direction the axis moves to,” said Adhikari.
Although the study data doesn’t indicate whether the most recent shift in the pole is the result of human activities, the study authors think they will be able to use them to tease out man-made climate change later this year. Because polar motion and climate variability appear to be linked, scientists can examine historical records of the pole’s motion in relation to changes in Earth’s climate. If those changes are less dramatic than the ones evidenced today, scientists could assert that global warming has a controlling influence on Earth’s poles.
U.N. Climate Agreement Terms Studied, Launch Pegged Early
Next week on Earth Day (April 22), 130 countries are expected to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, which has a goal of limiting average surface temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. But already the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is looking into the feasibility of what U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres describes as “a moonshot”: limiting global emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Figueres believes the Paris agreement will take effect in 2018—two years sooner than currently slated.
The agreement will come into force once 55 parties representing 55 percent of the world’s total emissions have both signed and ratified it.
A study published in Nature finds that Antarctic ice-sheet collapse driven by greenhouse gas emissions could double the sea-level rise predicted for this century—from 3.2 feet according to a three-year-old United Nations estimate to upward of 6.5 feet by 2100. The research builds on the work of other recent studies pointing to an irreversible melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a result of human-caused climate change, but it suggests that sea-level rise could shift into high gear, becoming an existential problem for low-lying coastal cities within the lifespan of current generations of people absent rapid emissions cuts to contain warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The study findings are based on new computer simulations showing that warming of the atmosphere and the oceans makes the ice sheet vulnerable from above and below. By the 2050s, according to the simulations, the ice sheet would begin disintegrating, and parts of the higher, colder ice sheet of the East Antarctica would also eventually fall apart.
The climate model developed by the study authors accounts for ice loss through complex processes, including “hydro fracturing,” a process whereby meltwater on ice shelves causes huge chunks of ice to fall into the water. By reflecting these processes, the researchers were able to simulate past geological periods in which sea levels were higher than today but carbon dioxide levels were about the same or even much lower. They projected sea-level rise using versions of their model that best simulated these periods—the first model to do so.
Why is reconstruction of past rises in sea level important? High sea levels during warm intervals, such as the Pliocene and Eemian eras, imply that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is highly sensitive to climate warming.
“In the past, when global average temperatures were only slightly warmer than today, sea levels were much higher,” said study co-author Rob DeConto, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “At the high end, the worst-case scenarios, with sort of business as usual greenhouse gas emissions … we will literally be remapping coastlines. North America is kind of a bull’s eye for impacts of sea level rise if it’s the west Antarctic part of Antarctica that loses the ice first. That’s the place that we’re worried about losing ice first.”
Study: Health Impacts of Climate Change Significant
The public health impacts of climate change on people in the United States will be significant and wide ranging, according to a study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The study reflects data and analysis from eight agencies, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said that “Nearly all of the health threats, from increases in our exposure to excessive heat to more frequent, severe or longer-lasting extreme weather events to degraded air quality to diseases transmitted through food, water, and vectors (such as ticks and mosquitoes)—even stresses to our mental health—are expected to worsen.”
Without rapid efforts to combat climate change, extreme heat alone will cause more than 11,000 additional deaths in the summer of 2030, the study suggests. Other risks include worsening allergy and asthma conditions and increased exposure of food to certain pathogens and toxins. But climate change will not just exacerbate existing risks—it will give rise to unprecedented health problems such as the spread of Lyme disease in new locations.
“Every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change,” said White House Science Adviser John Holdren, adding that “Some are more vulnerable than others.”
These groups include pregnant women, children, the elderly, low-income people, communities of color and those with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions.
Release of the findings coincided with the Obama administration’s announcement of several new initiatives to address those impacts, such as expanding the scope of a presidential task force on childhood risks to include climate change (subscription). Other actions include creating climate change and health curricula for schools and establishing a Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, which will provide funding for prevention of climate-change-related health problems.
Paris Deal: Largest Polluters Agree to Sign
Last week, the White House announced that the United States and China will sign the Paris Agreement to combat global climate change at a United Nations ceremony April 22.
“Our cooperation and our joint statements were critical in arriving at the Paris agreement, and our two countries have agreed that we will not only sign the agreement on the first day possible, but we’re committing to formally join it as soon as possible this year,” said President Obama. “And we urge other countries to do the same.”
Brian Deese, senior adviser to President Obama, said swift approval of the agreement would keep emissions reductions efforts on track. Noting congressional action last year to extend tax credits for wind and solar energy and asserting firm legal ground for the Clean Power Plan, Deese said that the United States has both “the capacity and the tools” to meet its international commitments.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he expects at least 120 countries will sign the agreement at the April 22 ceremony at the U.N.’s New York headquarters. To enter into force, that agreement needs at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions to formally accede to it. So far, three Pacific island nations have ratified the deal.
Data released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that the string of monthly global heat records extended through February, when the average worldwide temperature was 2.18 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. The tenth straight record breaking month, February was the most above-normal month since meteorologists began tracking temperatures in 1880.
The nearly six-tenths of a degree margin by which it beat the old February record, set last year, had federal scientists describing temperatures as “staggering.” That margin was confirmed by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, which uses statistical techniques different than NOAA’s, as well as a University of Alabama Huntsville team and the private Remote Sensing System team, which relies on measurements from satellites.
“Yes, of course El Niño has a hand in the February and other monthly temperatures records we’ve been observing, but not the only hand, not even the winning hand,” Jessica Blunden of NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information told Mashable. “During the last big El Niño event of 97/98, temperatures departures from average were much lower compared with what we’re seeing now with this comparable event, which shows us that general warming is occurring over time.”
Many scientists say climate change is contributing to the recent high temperatures.
“We know that atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gases are continuing to increase, so that’s contributing to climate change and rising temperatures overall,” said Heather Graven, a climate scientists at the Imperial College of London.
Another clue that rising greenhouse gases are contributing to the recent high temperatures is the location of the warmest-compared-to-average temperatures—the far northern latitudes, which are relatively unaffected by El Niño and where Arctic sea ice set a new lowest-extent record for a February. In those latitudes, including Alaska, recorded temperatures were at least 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average—“above the upper bounds” of NOAA’s February Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies map.
Study: Carbon Dioxide Release Occurring Faster Than At Any Other Time
A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience, which comes on the heels of NOAA’s record temperature announcement, finds that humans are releasing climate-change-causing carbon dioxide 10 times faster than at any other time in the last 66 million years.
“I think to me it’s completely clear we have entered a completely new era in terms of what humans can do on this planet,” said Richard Zeebe, study co-author with the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “… If you look at the past and if you study the geologic record, every time when there was massive carbon release there were major changes on the planet and there were significant, large changes in the climate.”
To determine how carbon dioxide levels have influenced temperatures, researchers examined warming millions of years ago in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) by comparing carbon and oxygen tracers, called isotopes, deep in the New Jersey sea floor. PETM is thought to be a possible stand in for the potential impacts of carbon pollutions, as it refers to a period in history when the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide spiked. They found that 40.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere in 2014 but that no more than 4.4 billion tons was released in the peak year during PETM.
“Because our carbon release rate is unprecedented over such a long time period in Earth’s history, it also means that we have effectively entered a ‘no-analogue’ state,” said Zeebe. “This represents a big challenge for projecting future climate changes because we have no good comparison from the past. Our results suggest that future ocean acidification and possible effects on marine calcifying organisms will be more severe than during PETM.”
Climate Change Could Be Abrupt, Trigger Dire Consequences
Burning fossil fuels at the current pace will trigger an abrupt climate shift, according to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Authored by retired NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 18 others, the study uses global climate modeling, paleoclimate data and modern observation of interactions between the ocean and ice sheets (specifically the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves) to determine impacts associated with melt.
“We conclude that light freshwater added to upper layers of the ocean is already beginning to shut down North Atlantic Deep Water formation and Antarctic Bottom Water formation,” said Hansen. “This will have enormous consequences in future decades, if full shutdown is allowed to occur.”
The study, which stirred debate when it came out in draft form this summer, suggests that the impacts of global warming will not only happen more quickly than thought, but be more dire than envisioned. Holding temperatures to the 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels would not be enough to save the planet from experiencing collapsing ice sheets and megastorms.
The paper concludes that “if the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large-scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable.”
For the first time, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked an environmental risk—climate change—as the most severe economic risk facing the world. Global Risks Report 2016 says climate change is compounding and intensifying other social, economic, and humanitarian stresses such as mass migration, which it ranked as the threat most likely to materialize in the next 18 months.
“Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks,” said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Groups, one of the report collaborators.
Along with interaction with other risks, Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, head of global competitiveness and risks at the WEF, pointed to recent weather events and the frequency of natural disasters as justification for climate change’s top ranking this year. “We do see more severe and more likely weather events,” she said. “There are more droughts and floods. We have a higher and higher assessment of climate change.”
Among the priority actions outlined in the report: modifying financial systems to “unleash climate-resilient, low-carbon investments.” The authors found that incentives for such investments have yet to be incorporated into financial decision making despite increasing recognition of climate-change-related economic risks.
The report is based on a survey of 750 experts from economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and tech sectors about the perceived impact and likelihood of 29 prevalent global risks over a 10-year period.
Study: Rate of Man-Made Heat Energy Absorbed by Oceans Has Doubled
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that since 1997 heat uptake by the world’s oceans has nearly doubled by comparison with that uptake in the previous industrial era and that heat is mixing into deeper ocean layers, rather than remaining near the surface.
The study tracked how much man-made heat energy has been buried in the oceans in the past 150 years using ocean-observing data dating as far back as the 1870s. It included readings from high-tech underwater monitors and results of computer models.
Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of man-made heat energy. Since the industrial revolution, deepwater heat content has increased by “several tenths of a degree” when averaged out across the globe, according to Peter Gleckler, the study’s lead author. Although that energy is equivalent to less than 0.5 Celsius of warming averaged across the upper reaches of the ocean, Gleckler said it is still a “huge increase,” adding that “if we want to really understand how much heat is being trapped, we can’t just look at the upper ocean anymore, we need to look deeper.”
The study found that a third of the recent ocean heat buildup occurred at depths of 700 meters or greater, possibly explaining a pause in warming at the sea surface since the end of the 20th century. Why deeper waters may be absorbing greater amounts of heat is not fully understood, according to the study.
The University of California reported that the Nature Climate Change study “found that estimates of ocean warming over a range of times and depths are consistent with results from the latest generation of climate models, building confidence that the climate models are providing useful information.”
Official Numbers: 2015 Was the Hottest Year
Independent analyses by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.K. Met Office found that Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest they have been since record-keeping began.
NASA calculated the rise at 0.23 degree Fahrenheit above 2014 and suggested that 1998 was the only year that a new record was greater than the old record by such a large margin. NOAA put the increase at 0.29 degree Fahrenheit. The U.K. Met Office expects 2016 to set another record.
“A lot of times, you actually look at these numbers, when you break a record, you break it by a few hundredths of a degree,” said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “But this record, we literally smashed. It was over a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s a lot for the global temperature.”
Although 2015 temperatures were assisted by an ongoing El Nino weather pattern—which brings heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said “it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing.”
NASA used surface temperature measurements from more than 6,000 weather and research stations as well as ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures for its analysis. NOAA uses similar temperature data, but it also uses different baseline periods and methods.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of special issues, this week, of The Climate Post that focus on the climate talks in Paris.
Climate negotiators at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris have until Friday to reach a global deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most serious climate change impacts. Negotiators released a new, shorter draft of that deal. The 29-page document leaves some major sticking points unresolved, including whether to reduce overall global temperatures 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels or 2 degrees Celsius, who shoulders the cost of moving to a low-carbon economy and how often nations should review their emissions reduction plans.
“On these issues I ask you to scale up your consultations to speedily come to compromise solutions,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told conference delegates. “We’ve made progress but still a lot of work remains to be done. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Many of the countries supporting a 1.5 degree Celsius target are arguing that rich but still developing economies—among them, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and South Korea—provide funds to help the poorest countries adapt to climate change—a move that would upend the Kyoto Protocol’s funding structure, which demands that only those countries designated as industrialized in 1992 pay up (subscription). It may be best, Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon tells The Guardian, if developing countries were not treated as a single negotiating bloc.
“Sub-Saharan Africa is not the same as China,” Calderon said. “The G77 [comprising most of the biggest developing economies] is not the same as the Alliance of Small Island States. Arabian countries have different interests.”
On Tuesday, the European Union (EU) forged an alliance with 79 poor African and small-island countries that could, reports the Wall Street Journal, help eliminate the 20-year division between developed countries and developing countries on climate issues. It comes with $517 million in EU funding to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement focuses on some of the highly debated points at the conference so far—including calling for a mechanism to review emissions targets every five years.
Linking Carbon Markets Explored in Paris
As negotiators continue to stew on the details of the agreement’s level of ambition and funding for developing nations, an interesting undercurrent has permeated the talks—whether national commitments could be linked to create a “bottom-up” carbon market. With many nations now looking to carbon markets to execute their national programs—including the top emitter, China—many stakeholders are expressing a desire for collaborative language that would empower nations to bring their programs together.
In a COP 21 side event co-sponsored by the Nicholas Institute, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), stakeholders expressed the logic of such an approach and discussed the language necessary to enable it. According to my Nicholas Institute colleague Brian Murray, the gains from trade increase with the number of participants—the more participants, the lower the cost of compliance.
Steven Rose of EPRI took the concept even further, describing considerations suggested by his modeling of trading among the United States, China and the European Union.
“Expanding the partnership can be welfare improving in total,” he said, “but it can have distributional effects so there will be some strategic incentives and strategic thinking required in terms of the composition of those partnerships.”
These concepts were encouraged by industry representatives from Statoil and the Italian power company Enel. Discussion also focused on what would be required to achieve linkage. In a clear parallel to the “common elements” approach that allows U.S. states to permit linked systems under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, Brian Murray pointed out that only minimal common policies are required to permit jurisdictions to link.
The linkage could be accomplished fairly easily, he said, as long as each jurisdiction adopts a common unit to trade, allows units from other jurisdictions to be used in their own market and participates in a registry that ensures that each unit is counted only once.
There’s been some talk of reflecting the market linkage concept in the eventual climate agreement. A joint proposal from Brazil and the European Union has garnered interest. But the concept does not appear to be in the new draft text released today, and the United States is notably not pursuing it.
“I am speaking for a country that has no intention to use them (carbon markets) in an international concept,” said Christo Artusio, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Change. And without the U.S.’s support, it is unclear how far the enabling language will proceed.