The Climate in Emergency

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


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Recent Flooding

I spotted a Facebook meme this morning that listed a rather startling number of places having unusual floods over just the past two weeks:

  • France
  • Germany
  • Taiwan
  • Texas
  • Beijing
  • Russia
  • Mexico City
  • Romania
  • Pakistan
  • Australia
  • Ukraine
  • Belgium

The point, of course, was that to have so many floods in such a short period of time is a clear sign of global warming. On one level, that’s clearly true; part of what climate change means is that floods are worse now. But reality is more complex than any meme–for example, increased flooding can be caused by changes in land management as well as by changes in the weather. So, since I’d rather pass around detailed and verified facts than a meme that simply sounds plausible, let’s look into this, shall we?

Europe

As one might guess, all the floods in Europe are actually one flood; France, Germany, Belgium, Romania, and the Ukraine–plus Poland, the Netherlands, and Austria–have all been drenched by a series of slow-moving storms trapped above the continent by an omega block. An omega block is essentially a tight curve in atmospheric currents that keeps a weather system from moving for the duration. Exactly how, or even whether, the omega block might be connected to the greenhouse effect is not clear, but a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and therefore can drop more rain from any given storm.

And there could be a link with the omega block. There was one with the polar vortex, after all.

In any case, is whether this weather is unusual. If Paris flooded every other week, this latest flood would be no big deal, except for the people who happened to be in the middle of it. I have not been able to find a detailed analysis of how often this type of flooding has occurred historically. What I have found is consistent with this event being a real story, if perhaps not as bizarre as it seems, at least in France.

Since record-keeping began in 1873, there have four severe floods in Paris, of which this latest is the mildest. In 1910, the Seine River crested 8.62 above normal (28′ 3″) and set the record. In 1955, the river crested at 7.1 meters (23′ 3″) and at 6.18 meters (20′ 3″). This year’s flood crested at “only” 6.1 meters (20 feet even). But, and this is a critical but, this year’s storms did drop more rain on France than any recorded storm has before.

While this flood didn’t break the Paris record, we can compare the number of record-breaking rainfall events from 1980 to 2010 with the norm over the previous 80 years–and the number is up by 12% world-wide. In Europe, it’s up 31%.

Pakistan

I actually haven’t found any reports of flooding in Pakistan over the last few weeks–though it’s possible that all the attention on Paris have messed with the search engine’s algorithms, that happens sometimes. Either way, apparently Pakistan flooded in April, though, so the country need not feel left out.

Russia

I have seen various articles referring to recent floods in eastern Russia, but I have not found any further information–except that Russia apparently also flooded in April.

China

Again, I have not been able to find any information, aside from the fact that serious flooding around Beijing has occurred recently. I am guessing that flooding in Taiwan was connected, however.

Mexico City

I have not found confirmation of flooding in Mexico over the past few weeks.

Texas

Parts of Texas and Oklahoma have definitely flooded. Again. There doesn’t seem to be an exotic reason, just garden-variety rain in abundance. Texas has flooded several times in recent years.

A Lot of Water

Sometimes I spend several hours researching a subject and find some great material. This was not one of those times. Basically, to recap, sometimes it rains a lot, and it’s happening more often because of climate change. Also, Facebook memes are not entirely reliable, but we need to do something about climate change anyway.

Just another day living with the new normal.


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April First

Today is April Fools’ Day, so perhaps I should have written a joke-post full of climate-denial drivel painted on thick. Unfortunately, the danger of somebody not getting the joke is just too great. Instead, I’m simply going to ask a question; why do we believe some things and not others? What makes a statement sound plausible–to you, say?

Rather than making fun of “gullible fools” as is traditional today, I invite each of you to consider how you yourself might be fooled? Under what circumstances might you be taken in?

Actually, I’ve noticed that a desire to not be taken in may be itself a potential weakness; “this is information they don’t want you to have” and “wake up, sheeple!” are both really common ways to present outlandish ideas.

A stick-figure lectures on conspiracy theories

An excerpt from XKCD https://xkcd.com/258/

So, how sure are you that climate change isn’t a vast, liberal conspiracy? Or, more precisely, presented with two groups of people each asserting mutually contradictory sets of facts (this is critical–these are not differences of judgment or analysis, which might be fairly called differences of opinion, this is factual disagreement), how do you know which one is wrong? Or do you?

Answer that one and you’ll be better equipped to talk to people who just happen, quite innocently, to be wrong.

 

 


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Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

I’m still thinking about Easter, some way to make a post seasonal without being trite–I’m sure there’s some way in which climate change is bad for Cadbury Creme Eggs, but really? Is that where we want to go with this holiday?

The thing is, Easter (if we ignore, for the moment, its pagan fertility rite dimensions) is the commemoration of the death of a political prisoner at the hands of the State. I’ve always found the thought of Jesus-as-activist much more intriguing than the possibility of His resurrection–which might be because I’m not Christian, but I know dedicated Christians who seem to feel the same way. It’s a fact that being a good person can be dangerous. It’s also true that we keep having good people anyway.

I’ve decided to honor the incontrovertible miracle of bravery in the face of persecution by Googling “climate change martyrs” and seeing where it leads.

“Climate change martyrs” is not, in itself, a great search term. Nothing much relevant comes up, probably because the religious dimension of “martyr” is somewhat at odds with climate science. But climate scientists are being harassed, even threatened. Some may be murdered, if the problem persists. Bravery is required.

The harassment goes back to the mid-1990’s, but has been increasing in recent years. Examples taken from the various articles I read for this piece (and have linked to) include: threats to “see to it” that a scientist would be fired; vague threats on a scientist’s children’s safety; the deposit of a dead rat on a scientist’s doorstep; the display of a noose by an audience member during a public talk by a climate scientist; and multiple, spurious accusations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

That last may seem less frightening than the physical threats, but it’s actually much more sinister. After all, it is illegal to physically attack someone, so the chance of anyone actually making good on a death threat are very low–but it is not illegal to file so many Freedom of Information Act requests or legal challenges over the use of government money that the target cannot conduct research.

Some researchers are becoming afraid to speak out on climate change, sometimes asking that their names not be associated with their work. Others labor on behind locks that have been changed and phone numbers that have been de-listed. This is happening.

Curiously, the problem is largely American. Australian climate scientists have also been harassed, but not been on the scale of what their American counterparts have had to deal with. And while Canada has had a serious problem with high-level climate denial in the past, it never bubbled over into organized harassment of scientists. Britain and continental Europe and Japan have seen little of the problem, although scientists there are very concerned for their American and Australian colleagues. Climate-denial in general is specific to the English-speaking world, at least in part because organized climate denial is propagated largely by American organizations–that speak English. That the United States is at the center of the problem should, perhaps, not be much of a surprise. After all, the United States is key to global climate action–without American leadership, meaningful emissions reduction is unlikely to happen. With American leadership, we have a chance. And since the only way to accomplish meaningful emissions reduction is to stop burning fossil fuel, if I owned a boatload of stock in the fossil fuel industries and had no conscience whatsoever, I’d try to take out American interest in climate. Wouldn’t you? And, clearly, attacking American climate scientists is part of that effort.

The recent rise in harassment dates to almost ten years ago, when two events occurred in quick succession: the release of the 2007 IPCC Report, which seemed on the verge of triggering meaningful climate action in the United States; and the election of a black man as President of the United States. The latter made possible the rise of the Tea Party, a movement that is demonstrably fueled by racist resentment rather than ideological concerns about government and yet is funded by the Koch brothers (plus Rupert Murdock), oilmen who have been accused of personal racism (do an internet search on “are the Kochs racist?”), but quite clearly have a much bigger investment in preventing climate action–they also fund the Heartland Institute, which is a major driver of American climate denial.

That the American version of hostility to climate action is deeply enmeshed with suspicion of government over-reach at the same time that the government is headed by a black man may not be a complete coincidence.

I do not raise the specter of racism simply to discredit climate deniers, but rather to suggest a mechanism whereby American conservative populism may have been hijacked and made to serve an anti-environmentalist agenda.

Some attacks on climate scientists–and by “attacks” I mean everything from threats to legal action to deliberate bureaucratic nonsense–have been perpetrated by individuals, others by organized climate-denier groups. Some of the most frightening, to me, anyway, come from government officials, including Lamar Smith, the Chair of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, and (now former) Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

Scientists themselves are not passive before all of this, and are fighting back, both individually and collectively. The Union of Concerned Scientists particularly is taking action, but needs money, and possibly other support. They need money with which to fight spurious lawsuits and stave off equally spurious bureaucratic demands which, together, might otherwise stop American climate scientists from working. I’m posting a link to their request again, here. Please support them.

Silencing inconvenient people is not an American thing to do–and when it happens anyway, the American thing to do is to stand up and do something about it.

I chose as title, a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta. The bad-guy has the hero riddled with bullets, and yet the hero does not fall but ultimately triggers the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian government–because while the hero is not personally immortal, ideas cannot be murdered. I had occasion to remember the quote recently–a friend of mine, a political organizer and activist and a deeply religious man, wrote something on Facebook that, knowing him as I do, reminded me of the ultimate futility of trying to erase ideas by attacking inconvenient people.

I have just asked his permission to share his post with you:

A few minutes before Easter. I love this annual celebration of the underlying reality that empires can’t kill the Spirit, and that a spiritual wholeness is resurrected every time we take loving and wise action in the world around us. I see the life of Jesus as one of the most powerful patterns and examples of radical faithfulness. Miracles continue to happen. Blessed be.


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Um–YAY!

I was just scrolling through my email in-box and social media accounts, not expecting to see very much, when I clicked on something I thought was probably spam. It wasn’t.

You know that whole struggle I’ve been talking about for a year to get the Atlantic taken out of consideration for oil and gas exploration? The subject of this post and this one and this one and this one? Well, we just won.

To quote from the celebratory letter I just received from Oceana:

Today is not only an incredible day for the oceans, but also for democracy. It’s proof that good old fashioned grassroots organizing makes a difference.  Local leaders make a difference, no matter if you are a private citizen, business owner or elected official, without you this would never have happened.

When the administration was asked to consider input from East Coast stakeholders and local residents – they did. When the administration was asked to listen to fishing and tourism interests along the coast – they did. When the administration was asked to support local constituents instead of Big Oil – they did.

As of today, 110 East Coast municipalities, over 100 Members of Congress, more than 750 state and local elected officials, and  roughly 1,100 business interests have all publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic blasting, citing threats to marine life, coastal communities and local economies….All of your hard work and voices have been heard. Every single call, email, letter to the editor, press conference, rally, sign on letter WORKED. Every single community gathering mattered in this historic fight, from organized statehouse meetings and community rallies to strategic stakeholder meetings and strategy meetings in town halls or church basements.

The related issue of seismic testing continues–these tests, which pose a serious threat to marine life, have not yet been banned in the Atlantic, and the whole question may recur on the next five-year planning cycle, but as the email-writer pointed out, “this is a day for celebration.”

I know most of the issues in this fight, which has centered around pollution, might seem a little far afield of climate change, which is the sole focus of this blog. However, if fossil fuels can’t come out of the ground, they can’t be burned. This is an example of think globally/act locally. The threats to the entire planet are scary, but a little diffuse. Most of us do not have the power to act on a global scale anyway. But we can act on local or regional scales, and what the fight against climate change looks like on the ground is often a long serious of arguments about things like the possible impact of pollution on a single salt marsh or the type of street lights installed in a single neighborhood. Win enough of these, and we win the world.

The other reason I’m psyched right now is that this is evidence that getting involved matters. It’s easy to get discouraged and cynical, to believe that “they” are simply in charge, the game is rigged, and none of us have a chance to make a difference. But none of that is true. Sometimes the system does work. Other times it can be changed. And we do have friends and allies who can jump in this fight with us, including not only the many people who got involved in this particular fight at ground level but also many of the Congress-members we lobbied and President Obama himself. There are victories.

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t.


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Gone with the….

Wind has been in the news lately.

Cyclone Winston  became a named storm on February 10th and then spent 12 days blowing around the South Pacific–literally, the storm track curved back on itself and made a big loop, something I personally hadn’t known was possible. It crossed over Fiji as a Category 5 storm, killed 21 people, and literally leveled whole communities–a kind of destruction more typical of powerful tornadoes. At one point, the storm packed sustained winds of at least 186 mph. That’s the most powerful storm ever measured in the southern hemisphere.

Then, on February 23rd and 24th, a swarm of tornadoes swept through the United States, killing at least three and injuring many more. The storms (though not the tornadoes) actually passed over my area, giving us high, gusting winds and thunder. In February.

Of course, some kind of extreme weather probably occurs somewhere on the planet every day. It’s a big planet, after all. But these are both extreme extremes–Cyclone Winston was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever measured. And the tornado outbreak was in February. And they both relate to climate change–although, so do all other weather events, extreme or otherwise, since the climate changes on the just and unjust alike. Still, it’s interesting to look at the actual connections.

First, Winston. As I’ve written before, tropical cyclones with sustained winds of 75 mph or more are called different things in different ocean basins and different basins also have different storm seasons, and different storm behavior. In the North Atlantic, these storms are called Hurricanes. Winston was called a cyclone because it existed in the South Pacific where it is now late summer. So if it seems like we’ve heard about the “world’s most powerful storm” rather often recently, that’s in part due to the fact that we’ve had multiple basins turning up extraordinary storms, not multiple records being set and broken in just a few months. Still, we do seem to be seeing a lot of big storms lately.

As I’ve written before also, it is hard to tell for sure if tropical cyclones have been getting worse because we only have a few decades of quality data–and the way meteorologists study these storms vary from one ocean basin to another, too, which means that much of the data we do have cannot be pooled. We know that climate change should be making tropical cyclones stronger, more frequent, or possibly both, because the new climate involves warmer water and more humid air, both of which are what makes tropical cyclones happen–we just can’t actually see the changes yet because of the data problem.

But Winston was actually the result of multiple atmospheric cycles working together. Tom Yulsman write a clear and interesting article explaining these cycles. You can find his article here. To summarize, both global warming and El Niño were involved in the unusually warm water that fed the storm while an even shorter cycle, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, that changes over just weeks, made the atmosphere more stormy at just the right time. Day-to-day weather changes then steered the storm through its bizarre circular track and right over Fiji.

So the simple answer is that yes, while we don’t have the data to confirm it, we can be pretty sure that these record-breaking storms have some degree of extra edge due to climate change–and at the same time, other patterns also influence the situation.

Meanwhile, Cyclone Winston exemplifies another pattern–no matter how strong or weak a storm is, it’s going to be worse for impoverished people. Wealthy people can afford to rebuild and wealthy countries can afford to provide extensive aid. Many of those in Fiji can access neither wealth nor extensive aid–they are literally asking for help from the world. And because Fiji is very small and very far away from many of my readers’ countries, it’s all too easy to forget about them.  Please help if you can and spread the word.

As to tornadoes, again we have a serious problem with a lack of quality data. It’s hard to tell whether there are more tornadoes than there used to be when until recently there was no way to tell a tornado had happened unless somebody was there to see it. But recently some researchers have teased out a changing pattern. Apparently, the number of days per year that have tornadoes on average are stead or dropping, but the number of tornadoes per outbreak is going up. That is in keeping with the warmer, more humid air, which should make storms more powerful, and a simultaneous decrease in wind shear, also a result of global warming, which makes tornadoes less likely. So, fewer days when tornadoes can form, but on those few days, the storms are worse.

But February?

Tornado swarms in February are rare but hardly unheard of. But what some writers are saying–that the atmosphere is behaving “as though it were May“–is very striking. It’s an acknowledgement that this past week’s storm is part of a pattern that we usually don’t see and it is directly related to warmth. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico grew unusually warm and did indeed create a kind of weather more typical of a warmer month. Given that the world is warming, these storms are a bad sign of things to come.


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California Methane Leak

As you may already be aware, California is leaking.

More specifically, a giant natural gas storage facility just north of Los Angeles is leaking, and the amount of methane coming out of this thing is huge. It’s been going on since October and is likely to go right on until March. My Facebook feed has been filling up with dire warnings about Armageddon, but the nightly news has been strangely quiet.

So, what’s the story with this leak, how bad is it really, and is it really being nationally ignored?

It’s easy to find a detailed description of the problem online, so another detailed exposition seems superfluous. Here is just a quick summary to get us all on the same page.

The storage tank in question is actually the space in the rock where a huge pool of petroleum used to be. Industry pumped the petroleum out and sold it and then decided to use the empty space for temporary storage of natural gas. Basically, the owner, the Southern California Gas Company (or SoCal Gas) wanted to be able to keep a lot of inventory on hand so as to be able to respond quickly to changes in price and demand. This is a storage tank bigger than anything humans could actually build and it is accessible only by a well sunk deep in the rock.

SoCal Gas has a lot of these things, but the Aliso Canyon facility is the second-largest in the Western US. 86 billion cubic feet of capacity–that’s a cave that, if actually cube-shaped, would be almost half a mile on a side. It’s almost a mile and a half underground.

I’m not sure whether anyone knows when the leak started, but SoCal Gas found it on October 23rd. Since then, the rate of leakage has varied, and apparently it’s only measured occasionally, so no one knows exactly how much has leaked, but it’s probably around 50,000 kilograms per hour, or about 7% of the nation’s total natural gas emissions. Big.

Natural gas, remember, is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The term is used to specify methane from fossil sources, as opposed to biogas.

Methane is not toxic (though if you tried to breathe too much of the stuff you’d suffocate for lack of oxygen), so the main threat here is through the greenhouse effect. But the gas in the storage facility is mixed with mercaptan, the stuff used to give gas a recognizable odor. So the whole situation quite literally stinks, and while mercaptan is not considered dangerous, is it very mildly toxic and area residents (human and otherwise) are experiencing symptoms like headaches and nausea–and for some, more serious symptoms. Small amounts of other chemicals, present in the gas (including benzene, which is seriously dangerous) may also be contributing factors.

No one knows exactly why the well is leaking, but SoCal Gas might have been able to shut the thing off if they hadn’t decided to remove rather than replace a critical valve (and lie about it) back in 1979. For this and other reason, the company is now being sued within an inch of its life. Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency, but did so in such a way as to make sure that neither taxpayers nor ratepayers would pick up the costs. California is not playing around on this one.

SoCal has tried to pump mud down into the access well to plug the leak, but that has not worked. Now they are drilling a second well that is supposed to intersect the first–for reasons I do not understand, this is supposed to make the leak easier to plug. Drilling a well that deep will take a long time, which is why the leak might not be plugged until March.

The whole situation is bizarrely reminiscent of the Gulf oil spill, both in terms of its scale and in terms of of the technical detail of plugging the well. But there are some important differences, too–notably, methane is invisible and non-toxic, making this leak insidious. Once the well is plugged and the mercaptan disperses, it will be easy to pretend the whole thing is over. There will be no tar balls washing up on scenic beaches, no disturbing fish and dolphin kills from this one. But the methane will remain in the atmosphere, warming the planet further, for roughly a century.

So is this climate Armageddon?

Not really in any way it wasn’t before. This leak is huge, for a single leak, and it is enough to have a real impact on what strategies we use to bring our emissions down; to meet our goals, we’ll have to work even harder, now. But at the same time, the US alone is producing lots more methane–from other, smaller natural gas leaks, from landfills, and from the guts of our huge herds of cattle. And even adjusting for its greater power as a greenhouse gas, methane still only produces less than a 6th as much warming as carbon dioxide does because there is so much less of it. The real heavy-hitter is still carbon dioxide.

The bottom line is that this leak is not the end of the world all by itself, but plugging it up isn’t going to save the world by itself, either. It’s just another few straws on an already badly overloaded camel. And that could explain the relative lack of news coverage.

It’s true that the California leak rarely makes the major news outlets. I have not done an exhaustive study on the subject, but a search of online records and the memories of my social media contacts does suggest it’s not being treated like front-page news by anybody. If you don’t follow environmental news specifically, and are not connected by social media to anyone who does, you might well miss the story completely. But it’s not being blacked out, either–CNN and NPR have both covered the story on their websites, though I am not clear yet whether either did so on air, and there are plenty of articles in the online/print media, including some on mainstream sites.

Broadcast media simply cannot cover as many stories as print/online media can. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And this genuinely does not sound like the top-tier disaster that some people are making it out to be. I don’t think anybody’s trying to keep this quiet in any deliberate way. Instead, I think we’re witnessing the silence of a mainstream journalism that still doesn’t consider the environment generally, or climate change specifically, very important.

Maybe we need to call or write in again and ask them to cover this? Because while the California leak is bad, media undercoverage of a major issue is far worse.

The other thing that’s far worse is that this is not the only large methane storage facility there is–and while California at least is taking steps to improve safety, at the moment we don’t know when the next leak will come or how big it will be.


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Your Tuesday Update: Warm Holiday Wishes?

It’s beginning to look a lot like the warmest Christmas on record. In my area, at least, the weather-people are predicting 70 degrees on Christmas Day. Reportedly, the whole eastern half of the US is in a similar position. Naturally, some experts are scrambling to explain that this is El Nino, not climate change. As usual, that’s disingenuous.

It’s true that this is El Nino. But it’s also global warming. Pretending there’s a difference is like standing on one of those mountaintop fire towers and arguing about whether the great view is due to the tower or to the mountain. It’s true that the tower lifts you up higher than the mountain can alone. It’s true that the tower and the mountain are distinct from each other. But the tower is still standing on top of the mountain.

This El Nino is unusually intense, possibly because its heat is added to a warmer overall climate. And last I heard, the experts still aren’t sure what the relationship between El Nino and climate change is–so there could be some kind of interaction between the two patterns.

Today is just a Tuesday Update, not a full post, so I’m not going into a lot of detail on this point, but please, can we stop presenting this as an either/or issue, please? This is global warming, no matter what else it is, because that’s what “global” means. It’s everywhere and all the time, whether we’re having an El Nino or one of the so-called “polar vortex” or whatever else, climate change is still happening.