The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.

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For All the Beans in Lima

The results are in; after running more than a day past when negotiations were supposed to finish, the Lima conference has produced an agreement. The world is still on track to make a commitment to meaningful greenhouse gas reduction in Paris, next year. This is unquestionably good news.

And yet it is good news only in context, the context being that many countries–including, embarrassingly, mine–continue to refuse to threaten to do nothing at all. Had the agreement been legally binding, as both Europe and common sense wanted, the United States would not have signed on; Congress remains hostile to any climate progress and so American participation required a deal that could be enacted by the executive branch alone. Had the agreement included any kind of outside review of each country’s emissions-reduction plans, India would have bowed out. It is a welcome miracle that any kind of agreement could pass at all.

The text of the agreement itself is here.

The agreement itself notes “with grave concern” that the pledges being made so far are not enough to keep us under 2° C. of warming by century’s end. What we have here is a foundation for further development only–which is more than we had before, and might well be the best we can expect at the moment.

I have addressed such points before, and I still believe this agreement should be hailed as an important start. But where do these disagreements come from? Why and how did we get the imperfect document we have?

The agreement essentially consists of two parts. The first is that all nations of the world will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that each will do so by methods and in amounts of its choice. The second part is that the wealthy nations of the world will together create a fund to help pay for poorer countries to adjust to climate change–each contributor will again choose its own level of involvement.

These two parts together really sound ideal, and could fix the problem if all the relevant countries really put their backs into it, but of course everybody is dragging their feet. No one really wants to give up the perks that using fossil fuel yields. Interestingly, so-called developing countries, such as China, get more sympathy in their foot-dragging. For example, in the deal between the US and China, the latter gets to keep increasing its fossil fuel use by an additional decade in order to catch up economically. In this way, current climate negotiations echo the original Kyoto Protocol, which exempted poor countries entirely.

For the US and Europe to bear more of the cost of climate change is quite fair, for obvious reasons. But for the principle of fairness to become a roadblock to a real solution is intriguingly counterproductive.

From Yahoo News:

The Lima agreement also encourages countries to come up with ways to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of global warming, like sea-level rise or droughts. But this, too, is vague. The US and Europe have long opposed any deals that would require wealthier nations to compensate poorer countries for “loss and damages” caused by global warming (say, low-lying islands that vanish under the rising seas). So this will continue to be a point of contention.

In the meantime, wealthier nations have pledged to provide (voluntary) climate aid. Under a separate deal, nations agreed to raise $100 billion per year from public and private sources to help poorer countries adapt and adjust to a hotter planet. It’s still unclear where this money will come from, however.

That the US and Europe are so far content to leave low-lying nations to their fate (a fate that we unquestionably created) is reprehensible. That the wealthy countries of the world are willing to contribute to the fund is at least a step in the right direction–it indicates some glimmerings of a sense of responsibility.

But the longer we, as a species, go before actually getting off fossil fuel, the bigger the price tag for damages will get and the faster those damages will accrue. China, for one, stands to loose much of its fresh water supply as glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau melt and disintegrate. If China hopes to lift its entire population out of poverty by using fossil fuel for a few more years, it will fail. If the United States hopes to assuage our guilt to the world’s poor by allowing China to keep polluting, then we will fail.

If humanity does agree to forgo fossil fuel entirely by 2050, as we must in order to have a prayer of staying under 2° C. of warming, it is right and proper for the countries that have had such fuels longer to make the deeper and earlier cuts. That is fair. But that isn’t what we’re doing, yet. Collectively, we’re still limiting our emissions reductions to what we can manage without having to make radical economic changes at home. Getting as much energy as we want is still the priority. And China, understandably, wants more energy–it wants what we have, and the world accepts that, in fairness, China should get it.

All of this shows that, collectively, we still don’t believe that global warming is real.

China can’t get what the United States has, because there isn’t enough wealth on the planet to go around. The US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, the wealthy countries of the world took more than our fair share of a limited supply of matter and energy and that supply is mostly used up now; the atmosphere where we send the exhalations of our industry is full now. Pretending that the entire planet can and should come up to our standard of living before our species gives up fossil fuel–in defiance of the laws of physics–will help no one.

That the US is simultaneously clinging to its fossil fuel economy and paying into the climate fund suggests a related disconnect. These payments should be framed as damages–the US has become very wealthy and powerful by reaping the benefits of a rapacious economic system while forcing other countries, its own poor, and the people of the future to shoulder the costs. We should pay damages. But, so far, the US government refuses to admit it. In so refusing, of course, our representatives fail to acknowledge either guilt or debt and so retain the option to make only those payments we can afford–prioritizing our own wealth yet again. Our payments to the climate fund thereby appear as a kind of charity, one paid off the dividends of rendering certain people in need of charity to begin with.

I have a vague memory of a wonderful Henry David Thoreau quote–something about how when people ask him why he does not give money to the poor, he answers “how do you know you didn’t take that money from the poor to begin with?” I can’t find that quote, however, so I can’t see if I’m remembering it correctly. I don’t have a copy of the relevant book. An online collection of Thoreau quotes does supply a passage with a similar sentiment, however:

It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Thus, by not committing to getting off fossil fuel, the would has not only delayed a true solution to the problem but also, subtly but definitely, transformed the principle of fairness into one more excuse for the powerful (including China’s leaders) to take advantage of the powerless.
This does not mean we should collectively reject the results of Lima; on the contrary, we could be looking at the beginnings of a real solution, and the political leaders responsible should be rewarded in their home countries and rewarded lavishly. They just shouldn’t be allowed to rest on their laurels.
We, each of us, need to demand of our leaders even greater cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and even greater pledges to the climate fund. The United States, and other countries in a similar position, must accept responsibility for paying reparations–thereby shouldering the true cost of our own actions.
Take to the ballot boxes. Take to the streets.

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For All the Tea in China

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just made an historic agreement to dramatically cut carbon emissions for both countries!

Except that the agreement isn’t legally binding, would not reduce emissions enough to meet the IPCC’s recommendations, Mr. Obama has virtually no support from Congress, and the Chinese office of President is ceremonial. It’s complicated.

Basically, the agreement is excellent news and could represent a starting point for some truly critical work in the years ahead. But it is important to put the agreement in context, to understand how this starting point might be used as a foundation of progress. I also want to explore China’s climate politics a bit, since I have already explored America’s. Eventually, I want to do profiles of all the major climate players.

First, to be clear, while the Chinese Presidency is an almost purely ceremonial position, President Xi is not a mere figurehead. In China, it is possible for one person to hold several political offices simultaneously and Mr. Xi does. It’s the equivalent of a single American simultaneously serving as President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I don’t mean that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are each headed by the same person, because China’s government branches according to different principles than the American one does. I mean that China’s initial attempt to divide power so as to prevent to rise of another such as Mao Zedong has been effectively undone some time ago.

To someone used to the U.S. system, the Chinese government looks chaotic, despite the actual fact of its tight internal control. Part of the reason is that in Chinese politics personal relationships are primary and official title is secondary; it’s who you know that’s important. I have not been able to find information on whether President Xi faces substantial opposition at home or whether he has the political ties necessary to make the new policy stick. So far, it is a non-legally-binding promise only. But given Mr. Xi’s status as China’s ultimate authority and the fact that the Chinese government still controls much of that country’s economic development, he does have advantages that Mr. Obama does not.

Not that I wish the U.S. had a dictatorship–I wish our democratically elected Congress cared about climate. But that is another topic.

The deal was essentially President Obama’s idea. He and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated and pursued months of negotiations that concluded successfully almost literally at the last moment. But the Chinese government has been facing political pressure over the thick, dangerous smog blanketing much of the country because of its reliance on coal for energy. Many wealthy Chinese people even leave the country because the air is so bad. In recent years, China has invested heavily in clean, renewable energy, and regards such investment as a sound business strategy. Its government has everything to gain politically by literally clearing the air.

In brief, China has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 (or sooner) and to shift to at least 20% non-fossil fuel energy sources, also by 2030. The U.S. has agreed to cut its emissions 26-28% below what they were in 2005 by 2025, extending existing goals by almost half again. Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. At least as important, the United States is a developed country while China is a developing country, meaning that the old deadlock of which type of economy should cut emissions first may be easing. Finally, both the U.S. and China have been intransigent on climate for a long time, now. Once we stop blocking the flow, further work on the subject is possible.

By the end of the current century, these agreements would result in about 20 billion tons less carbon dioxide going into the air every year, over a projected “business-as-usual” scenario. That’s about 10 billion tons better than existing U.S. and EU pledges. If other countries follow China’s lead by making similar pledges, global greenhouse gas emissions could start to slowly edge down in the next decade or two, bringing us to just under 40 billion tones per year by the end of the century.

Which is, of course, still way too much. We need to phase out fossil fuel use entirely well before the end of this century in order to avoid climate catastrophe. The IPCC emphasizes this point and they are hardly the only ones calling for a complete phase-out. But this is a beginning. If these deals can stick politically, they may pave the way for more aggressive reductions in the future. They’ll help get the ball rolling in terms of developing green energy infrastructures as well. These small but historic deals are a foot in the door of the future.

Predictably, the American Congressional leadership is on the attack. They charge that this deal will hurt the U.S. economy and that China will not have to change as much as the U.S. will. Neither charge is true. The U.S. could actually see an economic boost out of this, since new regulations will indirectly spur growth. Green energy tends to be better for the economy than fossil fuel, since it tends to require more employees per unit of energy–an equation that suggests why industry leaders are so dead-set against it–more jobs mean narrower profit margins. Unfortunately, truth is seldom important to those resisting climate sanity.

If this deal sticks, we have a chance for more and better deals in the future. If it does not, we might not. Mr. Xi more or less has China covered, for better or worse, but Mr. Obama needs the support of his people and he desperately needs a successor and a Congressional majority serious about climate change.

Support the new EPA rules. They are the primary instrument by which President Obama can hope to reduce American emissions and the political opposition to them is fierce. You can make an official comment in support of the rules through this link until the end of November. Continue to attend any climate demonstrations that come up–large marches do have real political impact, the bigger the better.

And please stay politically involved. Vote, next time you can.