Tag Archives: Climate Progress

June heat, floods, fires–is it climate change?

This post by Joe Romm on Climate Progress confirms the link between the hottest June on record ever, on the mainland; the worst-ever forest fires in Colorado; and recent devastating floods in Minnesota–while also chastising the media for scarcely mentioning the role of climate change in these disastrous weather events. Be sure to read the comments on this post; the first commenter points to a chain of causes of the Colorado fires, also ignored by the media: They’ve had a pine beetle epidemic (caused by global warming) which kills the trees, providing plenty of dry wood to feed the flames and ignite when struck by lightning in the next storm. (Reminds me of that nursery rhyme: this is the pine beetle that ate the tree that fed the flames that were caused by the more frequent storms that came in the heat that global warming built.)

Romm quotes a Twin Cities meteorologist on the floods there: “People who say ‘you can’t link any one event with climate change’ are missing the point. Climate and weather are now hopelessly intertwined, linked — flip sides of the same coin. It’s basic physics: a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor.  If there’s more water floating overhead you increase the potential for these extreme rainfall events. . . . ” See also Romm’s June 14 post in which a similar point was made by a climate analyst at NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research). A pull quote for you: “it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these [events like the 2010 Nashville flood] with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change.”

How will I balance this sensational story with some better news? If only I could say, people are making the connection and demanding coverage of climate change from their news outlets–and bold action from our leaders: are you listening, President Obama and Congress?

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More good news from the Earth Summit, despite overall failure

Clearly, no major milestones toward sustainable development came out of the three-day Earth Summit in Rio: no binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions, no treaty, no pledges of monetary support by rich nations to enable developing countries to industrialize through green energy–and only a weak, non-binding agreement to end fossil-fuel subsidies. But there are several positive signs that people aren’t waiting for governments to tame rapacious corporations or act sensibly in time to save the Earth. (The stated goal of Rio+20 was sustainable development, although slowing global warming by reducing carbon emissions was the crucial objective.)

To go with two recent posts about action taken beyond the framework of a global treaty and beyond Rio+20 at the grass-roots level, here is news about a coalition of 16 nations including the US working to combat short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) such as black carbon, soot, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. As reported in Climate Progress, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition has in just four months developed a model of international cooperation to tackle SLCPs using existing solutions. The group claims to be on track to cut cut the rate of global warming in half in the short term. (SLCPs are short-lived but potent, so the effect of shutting them off is dramatic.) This bodes well for the health of people as well as of the Earth, because SLCPs cause respiratory disease and premature death of millions each year, and they cause crop losses as well as Arctic ice to melt. See my post of a few months back that presented two perspectives on whether reducing SLCPs such as black carbon from cookstoves was the way to go or if focusing on this goal  would mean neglecting the longer-lasting pollutant, carbon dioxide. Entitled “Don’t let good news on one climate-change front cause neglect of the main chance” this post quoted from a summary that asked, “Should we fight soot instead of CO2?” If you don’t want to go back to the archive, the answer is, “it’s not a choice–we must fight both.”

Earth on the brink

It has taken me awhile to figure out how to call attention to some really scary climate news while keeping to my goal of publishing posts that are 50 percent positive. Some news, such as the record high temperatures across the US this spring, I can balance with a good-news story: the US has cut its carbon emissions significantly and is on track to hit President Obama’s commitment to reduce global warming pollution between 2005 and 2020 by 17 percent. But in the case of the June 6 paper published in Nature warning that Earth may be fast approaching a tipping-point, a shift to a much-less-hospitable ecosystem, it takes work to be optimistic. And so I follow the lead author of the study in viewing the warning itself as good news. As Anthony Barnosky, a paleoecologist, told an interviewer from Wired, “There have been big, planetary shifts before.” The difference is, we know that one is imminent. Unlike us, “the dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming.”

The study, in which 22 scientists warn of impending and irrevocable major changes in the biosphere, is behind a paywall, but summaries abound in blogs. I recommend starting with David Roberts’ post on Grist or the Wired write-up, or one of the few front-page news stories, in the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because Barnosky is from nearby UC Berkeley). Most accounts refer to a tipping point for Earth, but the paper itself uses the term “status shift”–an irreversible transition of an ecological system from one state to another. Many such transitions are localized, but there have been global ones, such as the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago. It’s not just the warming of the planet that is leading to a status shift, say the scientists; it’s the explosion of population, which means ever-more resources for the extra billions to consume. More people means habitat destruction, the disappearance of plant and animal species, over-exploitation of energy resources, and more carbon emissions, producing more warming.

Here’s a video of lead author Anthony Barnosky, of UC Berkeley, on the findings:

James H. Brown, a macroecologist who is one of the authors, is quoted in the Times‘s Green blog as saying,  “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.” How we can gently deflate the bubble is what the commentators explore in the posts. Common to all the scenarios for avoiding the brink are the need to dramatically slow population growth,  get off fossil fuels and onto alternative forms of energy, develop more efficient food production, and practice better ecosystem management.

The analysis includes reaction from climate scientists with different perspectives, such as those who would greatly expand the time frame of these changes (the paper warns that they may occur within a few generations),  To keep away from what would tip this blog toward doom and gloom I seized on the judgment of those who say this shift is neither imminent nor inevitable, which echoes Barnosky’s belief expressed in the video and in interviews that humanity can pull together and avoid the doomsday scenario. In an interview with the Green blog’s Justin Gillis, Barnosky pointed out that “while many species are threatened directly and indirectly by human activity, the number actually driven extinct in the last 200 years is estimated to be only 1 to 2 percent of all species on earth. ‘We still have almost all the species that we regard as valuable out there to be saved. . . . We as people have it in our power to do that.’”

I’ll give the final word in this post to  David Roberts, in a June 11 post in Grist, who stated the goal in larger terms–namely, that we have to conceive of ourselves as global citizens, not just as members of a family, or a tribe, as  Thunder or Heat fans. Even thinking of ourselves as North Americans isn’t  enough. We are “those who live on Earth”; our fellow tribe members are all human beings.  Only in this way will we be able to “envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.” By this, I take him to mean we ought to go beyond technological fixes like geoengineering, which has recently become a hot topic. More about this in upcoming posts.

There’s No Reason to Build the Keystone XL Pipeline–and Many Reasons Not To

There are many reasons to oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline to get oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries, such as likely environmental damage from spills, the energy required to get the oil out, and the threat to aquifers along the route, but the biggest threat the Keystone pipeline poses is the catastrophic amounts of carbon that will be released if this oil is extracted and burned. As Bill McKibben of 350.org has said frequently, citing NASA’s Jim Hansen, if the world’s second largest deposit of oil is tapped, the amount of carbon released will essentially doom all mitigation efforts: it will be “game over” for the climate. Given the lack of political will to act on other than short-term interest, even this warning is not likely to stop the project at a time of high oil prices and growing demand. Indeed, NPR reported on Morning Edition on January 18 that extraction of the tar sands oil continues, with much of it traveling on huge tankers and existing pipelines to the American West Coast and with plans to expand pipelines to the East Coast.

But Republicans’ and the oil industry’s claim that the project would provide jobs has been thoroughly debunked, at least on the blogs, which is the only place you are likely to find the story. On January 11 Danielle Droitsch of the National Resources Defense Council punctured claims that the pipeline will provide thousands of jobs. She showed that linking Keystone XL to job creation is a scam–a pretense to get the oil to international customers, for the US is already reducing its oil imports and the tar sands extracted oil would glut the market, lowering the price and thus oil companies’ profits. A subhead neatly sums up her contentions:  The Oil Goes to China, the Permanent Jobs Go to Canada, We Get the Spills, and the World Gets Warmer. (Note: I’m linking to the January 13 repost on Climate Progress because of the number of substantive comments it received there. Also, a video from CNN posted there has an interview with an executive of  TransCanada conceding that permanent jobs created will number only in the hundreds; some thousands would be hired, but only on a temporary basis, to construct the pipeline.)

Droitsch argues that not only would few jobs be created (under 100 permanent ones); building the pipeline would hinder the creation of  jobs in the  renewable energy sector, which is where they are growing exponentially. She asserts, “The evidence shows the future of job creation is in global clean energy markets,” and  “approving Keystone will set that task back decades.” On January 18, with news outlets reporting that Obama was set to reject the pipeline, Sarah Laskow confirmed Droitsch’s claim on Grist.org. Although mainstream media continue to report Republican claims that rejecting the pipeline makes Obama a job-killer, they ought to cite the evidence provided by Laskow that proves clean energy policies create more jobs than Keystone. Her figures, borrowed from Think Progress, derive from an independent study of job creation caused by programs such as the Energy Department’s loan guarantees and the EPA’s new mercury emissions rule.

This won’t stop the extraction of tar sands oil. But there are a couple of ways to slow it: decrease demand for gasoline and increase production of energy from alternative sources. As the Morning Edition reporter said, “by raising fuel efficiency standards, as the Obama administration recently did, . . . you stand a much better chance of slowing production in the oil sands.” Opponents of Keystone  will take heart from today’s decision, for building one pipeline opens the gate to many more, and stopping this big one for now buys time for activists to work on the other front: reducing consumption of fossil fuels in as many ways as we can think of.