ON NOVEMBER 2ND the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents mainstream scientific opinion, said that it was extremely likely that climate change is the product of human activity. Extremely likely in IPCC speak means having a probability of over 95%. The claim forms part of its fifth assessment on the state of the global climate. In its first assessment, in 1990, the IPCC had said that “the observed increase [in air temperatures] could be largely due to natural variability.” Why have climate scientists become so much more certain that climate change is man-made, not natural?
Many factors influence the climate but perhaps the single most important is carbon dioxide (CO₂). CO₂ absorbs infra-red heat at a constant rate and at a higher rate than nitrogen and oxygen—the main constituent parts of the atmosphere—so the more CO₂ in the air, the more the atmosphere will tend to warm up. Scientists attribute climate change to human activity mainly because people have been responsible for large increases in CO₂. At the start of the industrial revolution, in about 1800, there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO₂ in the atmosphere. That had been the level for most of human history. This year, however, concentrations exceeded 400 ppm, the first time it had reached that level for a million years.
Most of the increase has been caused by people burning fossil fuels. In the United States, for example, 38% of the CO₂ produced in 2012 came from generating electricity and 32% came from vehicle emissions (the rest came from industrial processes, buildings and other smaller CO₂ production). People also produce CO₂ when they cut down forests for farmland and pasture
The Earth is locked on an “irreversible” course of climatic disruption from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the impacts will only worsen unless nations agree to dramatic cuts in pollution, an international panel of climate scientists warned Sunday.
The planet faces a future of extreme weather, rising sea levels and melting polar ice from soaring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, the U.N. panel said. Only an unprecedented global effort to slash emissions within a relatively short time period will prevent temperatures from crossing a threshold that scientists say could trigger far more dangerous disruptions, the panel warned.
“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts,” concluded the report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which draws on contributions from thousands of scientists from around the world.
The report said some impacts of climate change will “continue for centuries,” even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop. The question facing governments is whether they can act to slow warming to a pace at which humans and natural ecosystems can adapt, or risk “abrupt and irreversible changes” as the atmosphere and oceans absorb ever-greater amounts of thermal energy within a blanket of heat-trapping gases, according to scientists who contributed to the report.
Meanwhile in Canada, we don’t care about climate change, only our own economy.
Canada’s hopes of securing an outlet for its landlocked oil wealth and pulling an end run around the eternally deadlocked Keystone XL project took a big step forward Thursday with the release of formal plans to build a U.S. $11 billion pipeline to the Atlantic.
TransCanada, the biggest Canadian pipeline company, submitted its application to Canadian energy regulators for a nearly 3,000-mile-long, million-barrel-a-day pipe running from oil-rich western Canada to refineries and shipping terminals in the east. The so-called Energy East Pipeline Project, which TransCanada officials hope could be in operation as soon as 2018, would provide an export outlet for huge volumes of current and future oil production that right now has no easy way to get to market.
The project wouldn’t replace the Keystone XL pipeline — Canada’s other high-profile, multibillion-dollar oil-transport project, which has been awaiting U.S. approval for years — but it could give Republican critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration fresh fodder ahead of the midterm elections. Republicans have long argued that the White House’s refusal to sign off on the Keystone project would cost the United States tens of thousands of jobs. The Obama administration has finished reviewing the environmental merits of Keystone, but pushed back any decision until later this year or early 2015.
If the new Canadian route gets approved in 2016 by Canada’s National Energy Board, as TransCanada expects, it would give the eastern provinces a source of domestic oil — removing the need for some 700,000 barrels a day of oil imports — and would give producers in Alberta and Saskatchewan a direct route to big refineries that could turn the sludgy tar sands into valuable products such as diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel.
On any given day, Johannes van Bergen, director of the municipal utility Stadtwerke Schwäbisch Hall in southwestern Germany, conducts his team’s array of gas, heat, and electricity sources to meet the energy needs of at least several hundred thousand Swabians in the region, as well as about more than 90,000 customers elsewhere in Germany. And every day — in fact, every hour — that energy mix is constantly in flux.
Technicians at the town’s smart-grid center monitor and manage the utility’s roughly 3,000 regional energy suppliers: several thousand solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, two wind parks, one gas-and-steam power station, six small hydro-electric works, three biomass (wood pellet), sixbiogas plants, and 48 combined heat and power plants, as well as other conventional and renewable energy suppliers outside the municipality.
The population that this ballet of coordinated energy sources serves is admittedly modest, but it’s here that the future of Germany’s energy industry is being tested in full — and proven.
Which of course is a model that we could use here but for whatever reason, the province and the country isn’t willing to experiment.
Their output, and increasingly that of the conventional, too, is distributed through a tightly knit, cross-border smart grid. The composition of supply changes from minute to minute depending on weather, demand, and other factors from one corner of the country to the other. Increasingly electricity is generated in and traded from locality to locality, and even across the country (or countries) via intelligent networks much like that in Schwäbisch Hall and other places in Germany.
No one predicted this scale of locally driven, citizen-led energy boom when the Energiewende began. Even just four years ago, just about everybody involved in the Energiewende thought that big-ticket projects like enormous offshore wind farms planned for Germany’s northern seas and Desertec, the mega-project to import solar energy across the Mediterranean from sprawling concentrated solar power arrays in the Middle East and Northern Africa, would be integral to Germany going renewable.
These projects, however, have flopped spectacularly.
Offshore wind has proven extremely pricey and technologically much trickier than originally assumed, which has led to billons in cost overruns and years-long delays. Germany’s seven operational offshore parks constitute a tiny fraction — just 0.6 percent — of the country’s renewably generated electricity, compared to onshore wind’s 34 percent. The offshore industry claims there’s smooth sailing for offshore wind just around the corner, but it’s been saying that for years.
The president of the Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati, which averages only about 2 meters above sea level, has already spent millions of dollars to buy land in Fiji as a potential new home for his 100,000 people. As sea levels rise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests, large ocean waves will increasingly taint the country’s groundwater and threaten its agriculture; Kiribati can expect to become at least partly uninhabitable long before seas rise enough to submerge it. Other island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu face the same plight.
So far, the world’s attention has rightly focused on how much these places have to lose: their homes, their communities, their cultures, their vistas. But these countries have another, less visible set of assets at stake as they consider their survival—assets that won’t necessarily be lost, but which raise substantial questions. These are their large and valuable maritime zones.
Kiribati, like other island nations, controls hundreds of thousands of square miles of the ocean that surrounds it. Kiribati’s land area is about that of Kansas City, while the ocean territory it controls is larger than India. Within these “exclusive economic zones,” to use the UN term, island nations possess the power to regulate, tax, or disallow any economic activity, including mining or drilling for oil. The tuna fishing alone in the domain of Pacific island nations is worth an estimated $4 billion a year.
There are several potential explanations for what’s going on here. The most likely is that some combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, wind-blown dust, microbial activity, and forest fire soot led to this year’s exceptionally dark ice. A more ominous possibility is that what we’re seeing is the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming.
Box mentions this summer’s mysterious Siberian holes and offshore methane bubbles as evidence that the Arctic can quickly change in unpredictable ways.
This year, Greenland’s ice sheet was the darkest Box (or anyone else) has ever measured. Box gives the stunning stats: “In 2014 the ice sheet is precisely 5.6 percent darker, producing an additional absorption of energy equivalent with roughly twice the US annual electricity consumption.”
Perhaps coincidentally, 2014 will also be the year with the highest number of forest fires ever measured in Arctic.
Box ran these numbers exclusively for Slate, and what he found shocked him. Since comprehensive satellite measurements began in 2000, never before have Arctic wildfires been as powerful as this year. In fact, over the last two or three years, Box calculated that Arctic fires have been burning at a rate that’s double that of just a decade ago. Box felt this finding was so important that he didn’t want to wait for peer review, and instead decided to publish first on Slate. He’s planning on submitting these and other recent findings to a formal scientific journal later this year.
From the CBC
Meet the tiny, translucent “sea butterfly,” whose home is currently being transformed into an acid bath. Off the US’s west coast, there are anywhere between 100 and 15,000 of these free-swimming sea snails per square meter. And the oceans are beginning to dissolve the tiny shells right off their backs.
A new study, among the first to examine how the process called ocean acidification impacts marine life, has confirmed that about half of all the pteropods off the west coast are fighting off the acid burn. It builds on previous work that has shown pteropods dissolving in other waters; it’s a disturbing trend, considering they’re a key link in the oceanic food chain.
The world’s oceans have absorbed a third of humans’ carbon emissions, a process that increases their acidity. Scientists have long noted the changing chemistry of the waters, and voiced concern that this leaves calcium-based creatures, like coral and pteropods, extremely vulnerable. Now, it appears, they have proof.
“These are some of the first insights into how marine creatures are affected by acidification,” Dr. Nina Bednarsek told me in a phone interview. She’s the lead author of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration study, which was just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The research determined that “large portions of the shelf waters are corrosive to pteropods in the natural environment.”
“Fifty percent of those pteropods are affected by acidification,” Bednarsek said. “It’s a lot—more than we expected.” And sooner. She tells me that acidification is happening sooner and on a larger scale than scientists predicted. “This is just an indication of how much we are changing the natural environment,” she said.
The “If global warming is real, then why is it cold out?” line of argument has been around since the early days of the climate change debate, but the positively Hoth-esque temperatures have increased the volume of those hoping to undercut the “inconvenient truth” of anthropogenic global warming. So, does the recent spate of cold snaps prove Al Gore a filthy, PowerPoint-loving, Oscar-winning liar? No. Sorry, Donald.
Most obviously, climate is different than weather—that’s why the Midwest and Northeast have faced three snowstorms in the past two weeks while the drought in California has been so severe that water deliveries from reservoirs to the Central Valley have been cut to zero. Climate trends are exactly that: trends. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one blisteringly cold month doesn’t prove 97 percent of climate scientists wrong.
Another key component of “global warming” is right there in the name: “global.” In December 2013, North America was colder than average, but Russia and most of Europe were far hotter. Despite what Ted Cruz thinks (or wants), the world extends beyond the continental United States, and most of it has been crazy hot. For every cold snap in the U.S., there’s a wildfire in Australia so intense that it creates its own weather.
It’s also important to note that although, baby, it’s cold outside, it’s not nearly as cold as it was generations ago. The East River froze at least a dozen times between 1780 and 1888. In fact, after a particularly hard winter in 1866-1867, frustration with halted ferry service eventually led to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. As webcomic xkcd noted, St. Louis, once the frozen home to a handful of sub-zero temperatures every year, hasn’t had a day that cold since the 1990s. That’s the thing about extreme weather: It’s extreme. The colds get colder, the hots get hotter, and the hurricanes get more destructive.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama formally proposing “joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector,” if that is what’s needed to gain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline through America’s heartland, CBC News has learned.
Sources told CBC News the prime minister is willing to accept targets proposed by the United States for reducing the climate-changing emissions and is prepared to work in concert with Obama to provide whatever political cover he needs to approve the project.
The letter, sent in late August, is a clear signal Canada is prepared to make concessions to get the presidential permit for TransCanada Corp.’s controversial $7-billion pipeline, which will connect the Alberta oilsands to refineries in Texas.
Guatemala’s president declared a national emergency Friday over the spread of coffee rust, saying the fungus that has hit other Central American countries is affecting 70 percent of this nation’s crop.
President Otto Molina Perez ordered the release of more than $14 million to aid coffee growers. He said the funds would help 60,000 small farmers buy pesticides and also finance instruction to teach them how to prevent the disease and stop it from spreading.
“If we don’t take the needed measures, in 2013-2014 our production could drop by 40 percent,” Molina said in making his country the third in the region to decree emergencies in recent weeks.
Coffee rust, which can kill plants by withering their leaves, also is affecting plantations in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica. Mexico’s agriculture authorities said the fungus has been detected there but so far has not damaged plants.
Molina said the pesticides will start being applied to coffee plants in April and two more applications will be needed during the year.
Nils Leporowsky, president of the National Coffee Association of Guatemala, or Anacafe, said coffee is grown in 206 of the country’s 333 municipalities.
“We have planted 667,000 acres (270,000 hectares) of coffee and of that 477,000 acres (193,000 hectares) have rust, affecting 70 percent of the total,” he added.
Leporowsky said coffee growing generates 500,000 direct jobs as well as 700,000 additional jobs in related businesses each year.”We have lost 100,000 direct jobs already and that will affect millions of people,” he said.
Experts say the fungus has been present in Central American since the 1970s but production hadn’t previously been affected so severely as what is feared this year.
Otto Cabrera, an adviser with Anacafe, said coffee rust arrived in Guatemala in the 1980s.
“The fungus directly affects coffee leaves, initially with yellow spots that later turn orange and reaches around the foliage of coffee, then makes the leaves fall,” he said. “The plant loses its foliage. It’s not able to breathe, so it ceases producing and it eventually dies.”
Cabrera said climate change has brought a rise in average temperatures of about 2 degrees Celsius in Central American areas where the fungus was present, encouraging its growth and increasing the threat of severe damage.
In the postwar era, suburbanites ruled by the power of the ballot, and governments were forced to react to their concerns.
It’s also significant that the events in Saskatoon coincided with a report from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado, which said that by mid-September the polar ice cap had retreated to historic levels, shattering the record retreat from 2007 and threatening to leave an ice-free Arctic decades sooner than expected.
The old way of building cities for automobiles is no longer on, Mr. Greenberg said. Except, as Saskatoon grows, that is exactly what is happening. Its suburbs still spread out in all directions, with large homes, two-vehicle-garages and car dependent citizens.
This isn’t only happening within city limits, where planners and city councillors are trying to adjust development patterns to favour denser development, but it’s happening past Saskatoon’s fringes where rural politicians argue that the city has no right to rain on their parade of sprawl.
The true test of Mr. Greenberg’s theory of a paradigm shift won’t just be the willingness of young citizens to sacrifice a Thursday evening to hear him. The test will be if they inform civic politicians on the hustings of their visions, if they turn out on Oct. 24 to mark their ballots, and if they spread the message those provincial and federal politicians and business leaders who are claiming that there is no difference between urban or rural interests.
Svalbard is an archipelago high within the Arctic Circle. The largest of its islands is called Spitsbergen, meaning “pointed mountains.” In 1920 a treaty known as the Svalbard Act was signed by several nations recognizing Norwegian sovereignty over the islands, and declaring the whole region a demilitarized zone. This is a short film about how Svalbard, over the course of recent history, became increasingly linked to developments in climate science, and climate change.