The Climate in Emergency

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

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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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Looking Back

It’s time for our New Year retrospective again–here is a summary of the climate-related stories that caught my attention in 2015. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive or representative list. It’s in no particular order.

Looking over this list, I feel no particular optimism, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I have a cold at the moment, which might make it difficult to remain up-beat.

Extreme Weather

The American Northeast became ridiculously snowy (although not unusually cold). California’s drought continued, as did drought in places like Texas and, for part of the summer, the Eastern states of the US. All of those places except California have also seen catastrophic flooding. Wildfires swept the Northwest of the US, from Oregon to Alaska and in to Western Canada. Several firefighters died. The planet as a whole set another heat record, and many new local heat records were set as well—few if any cold records. We saw some insanely powerful hurricanes and typhoons as well, all in the Pacific. Some of this wild weather is clearly due to our being in an El Nino, but climate change may play a role as well. It’s not either/or.

Fossil Fuels

The public process by which new offshore areas, including parts of the East Coast, could be opened to oil exploration has begun.

After years of largely symbolic political maneuvering, President Obama finally said No to the Keystone Pipeline.

A number of oil trains crashed. Same as last year. I hate that those two statements go together.

Shell Oil pulled out of its attempt to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska—which looks like a victory, but it is likely to ramp up pressure to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge instead.

Electoral Politics

The US Presidential campaign is now well underway. And while the Democratic candidates at least are all climate-sane, the media has not been treating that aspect of their campaigns as important. I’ve been covering this issue because we have to win this next election, “we” being the climate sane, and the Democrats look like the vehicle to do it. This blog is neutral on all other issues.


We have learned that the energy giant knew about global warming decades ago, despite its more recent denialist rhetoric. Given that I knew about global warming decades ago, too, and I was a child whose father simply read a lot, I don’t see how this is a surprise. Still, there have been called to prosecute the company for fraud and I support those calls.

Paris Accord

The world’s leaders got together and decided that destroying the world would be a bad idea. Ahead of the summit, we in the US organized a series of demonstrations in support of a strong climate agreement and nobody noticed. I sound cynical and facetious. Actually, I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris climate accord. I am only cynical, at present, about the American political process necessary for meaningful action on the subject.

The Pope’s Letter

Pope Francis released an official open letter to his Church (called an encyclical) quite correctly describing climate change as a serious problem with a moral dimension.

Jellyfish Blooms

For the second year in a row, large numbers of jellies were seen in Maine waters, suggesting a deep ecological imbalance that is possibly climate-related—except nobody knows for sure, because we have no baseline data on jellyfish populations.

Syrian Refugees

Syria has blown up in all sorts of horrible, awful ways, from a massive refugee crisis to the formation of a really scary international terrorist organization that likes to behead men and sell girls as sex slaves in the name of God. And yes, climate could have played a role. These stories go back before this year, but it was in 2015 that they became dominant in American news (finally).


Your Tuesday Update: Typhoons

Earlier this month, there were two typhoons in the Pacific at the same time, one of them a super-typhoon, the other just shy of that mark. Typhoons are simply hurricanes that happen in the northern Pacific–for some reason, the same storm is called different things in different oceans. A super-typhoon is one with maximum sustained wind speeds of 150 mph.

Two typhoons at once is not actually all that unusual–the Pacific produces more storms (and more powerful storms) than the Atlantic does–although two super-typhoons would have been startling. The real news here is that Typhoon Goni was the second storm to hit Saipan in two weeks and its sister-storm, Super-typhoon Atsani was the 5th super-typhoon this year, which is five times as many as in a typical year.

I don’t know that this is specifically a climate change story–I mean, we’re living in a changed climate, so of course it impacts these storms somehow, I just don’t know if this year’s typhoon season is making climate change obvious at the moment. I don’t know how unusual it really is. But here in the United States, where I write, we seldom get much news from other countries unless we go looking for it. And those who keep an eye on extreme weather in order to get a feel for climate change should hear about what’s going on in the Pacific these days.

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Cyclone Pam

Last week was a strange week for weather in the South Pacific. Not only were four tropical cyclones active all at the same, but one of those four was Cyclone Pam, a monster storm equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane that more or less flattened the island nation of Vanuatu. Of course, climate change is involved.

To be clear, Pam was the same kind of storm that is called a hurricane or a typhoon in other parts of the world. By a rather confusing accepted convention, the words for these storms vary depending on both how strong they are and where they are on the planet. “Tropical cyclone” is the collective term.

Vanuatu is among those several archipelagos that curve around Australia between Southeast Asia and New Zealand. In material terms it is very poor, and its average life expectancy, adult literacy rate, and availability of doctors are all lower than what people in the “developed” world are used to. That being said, it is a democracy, its life expectancy is quite good compared to economically similar nations, and the people did extremely well in terms of both environmental sustainability and quality of life–at least until last Saturday.

Only 20 people are confirmed dead so far, but some of the more remote islands have not been contacted yet. The nation had good disaster planning and successfully evacuated a lot of people. More dramatically, tens of thousands of people are homeless, their crops completely destroyed. Those people will be dependent on food aid for months. Many currently have no access to fresh water and some people are drinking salt water instead–a practice that will kill them if fresh water supplies don’t arrive soon. The aftermath of the storm could kill more people than the storm did, and the disaster could change the political and economic outlook of the country for a long time, depending on how the reconstruction process goes.

Vanuatu also threatened New Zealand (remember, in the Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclones track south), triggering storm warnings and possible evacuations, but the storm seems to have been a complete non-issue in New Zealand. There’s little to no information available online and my Kiwi friend is happily posting pictures of her dogs on Facebook, just like normal.

The other three storms in the same basin are, individually, unremarkable–the only thing is there are so many of them.

How Unusual Is This?

Most of my readers are American, and we do not get news about the South Pacific very often. Most of us probably didn’t know Vanuatu existed until this week. So, to put this newsworthy weather in context:

Cyclone Pam was probably not a record-breaking storm, but it was among the most powerful known to history, with estimated top sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts up to 200 mph. Its central pressure could have been as low as 879 millibars, which would put it behind just two Atlantic hurricanes. Unfortunately, no one flies aerial reconnaissance into Pacific storms, so there is no way to know for sure exactly what Pam’s numbers were.  Vanuatu itself rarely gets hit by cyclones because it is a very small place (total land area is just larger than the state of Connecticut, divided among many islands) in a very large ocean.

But we also don’t have very good historical records for the area’s weather. In fact, there’s really only about thirty years of tropical cyclone data for Vanuatu–how Pam relates to historical trends is therefore very hard to say.

Four active storms in the same basin is unusual, though hardly unprecedented. It has happened at least twice before in the Atlantic, and is probably more common than our records suggest because storms that never made landfall were easy to miss until modern times. Two storms at once in the same basin is actually quite common. Essentially, how “friendly” a given ocean basin is to tropical cyclone formation varies and a very storm-friendly ocean forms a lot of storms. Interestingly, the same large atmospheric pattern that caused the four storms last week is also causing cooler temperatures in the United States this week. Whether this particular pattern is anything other than chance seems unclear.

What Does Cyclone Pam Have to Do with Climate Change?

In general, climate change is a trend and part of that trend is probably more powerful tropical cyclones. Whether storm behavior is actually changing is hard to say, because we have too little historical information. At least some studies have shown definite increases. We do know that storm surges are getting worse because of rising sea level, and that storm surges are usually the deadliest part of the storm.

Specifically, the ocean surface around Vanuatu was a few degrees warmer than normal at the time Pam moved through it, thus feeding more energy and moisture into the storm. That warmth was partially due to global warming and partially due to a weak El Niño–and nobody knows what the relationship between global warming and El Niño is. It is possible they interact. Very large storms often have sea surface temperature anomalies underneath them, which is ominous in a world of rising temperatures.

But sea surface temperature alone does not dictate the power of a tropical cyclone. Instead, the upper limit of potential storm power in any one place and time is based on the difference between sea surface temperature and the troposphere as a whole. The troposphere is the part of the atmosphere where weather happens. Above it is the stratosphere an there is a distinct boundary, called the tropopause, between the two. The thing is that while the sea is definitely warming, the troposphere is warming, too. If both warm at the same rate, the upward boundary on storm power will not change (although other aspects of storm behavior could).

As it happens, the difference between sea and sky is increasing in the South Pacific, enough to have raised the potential storm intensity for that region by about 5 mph per decade. That is a lot–it adds up to an increase of almost 20 mph since I was born. Presumably, not all storms reach their potential, but increasing potential suggests increased storm intensity over time. Climate models so far predict only a much smaller rise in storm severity potential for the future, which could mean that something other than the greenhouse effect is causing much of the shift–or it could mean the models are overly optimistic.

Basically, what we’re looking at is a real possibility that tropical cyclones in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean have gotten more severe in recent decades, though it’s hard to say how much more severe because we don’t have enough data–and the probability that such storms are going to get more severe going forward. The only real question is how much worse are they going to get?

The Take-away

I have written before about tropical cyclones as a human rights issue, since the poor and otherwise disenfranchised bear a disproportionate burden from disaster. I have also written before about how wind speed per se is not a good indicator of what climate change is doing to these storms, since global warming is unquestionably increasing storm-related flooding whether wind speed changes or not–and flooding causes much more death and damage than wind.

But there is another point I had not encountered until recently, and it is a very good point.

Tropical cyclones are rare. While a few dozen might form in any given storm basin per year, the oceans are big places. It’s rare for a big storm to make a direct strike on the same place twice in a generation–Vanuatu, for example, has not been hit this bad before. That means that development patterns, building codes, public willingness to take evacuation orders seriously–cultural storm preparedness generally–is based largely on legend and rumor.

My area illustrates the point nicely; I live on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We were hit by both Irene and Sandy, but neither did significant damage here. We’ve also weathered some severe nor’easters, but those are not hurricanes–the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 was hurricane-like in its destructiveness, but even that was 53 years ago. A lot of people (me included) have been born since then. I just asked my husband when the last disastrous hurricane hit us and he wasn’t sure. He guessed the 1950’s or 60’s. If a monster storm hits here next year, a lot of people could well ignore evacuation orders (because we survived Irene and Sandy, after all) and a lot of new waterfront housing will wash away–as will a lot of older buildings and farmlands made newly vulnerable by sea level rise and by the loss of coastal wetlands to development. Disasters are things that happen to other people, we will think, not to us.

And what cultural memory we do have of hurricanes is almost sixty years out of date.

Storm rarity means that society takes a long time to adapt to the new normal, needing perhaps two or three big storms to really get the message–and that could take 75 years. By that time, of course, there will be a new new normal, unless we as a society stop warping the atmosphere. That’s really what we’re looking at. If we do not stop pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, climate will change faster than we can adapt to it and it will keep changing faster than we can adapt until anthropogenic climate change stops–or until we stop.


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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.


Two Degrees of Separation

Last week, as sometimes happens, I got curious.

While writing–once again–about how the world must stay under 2° C. of warming, I suddenly realized I didn’t know where this number came from. Climate writers frequently assert that if the Earth warms more than that, we will cross a tipping point beyond which climate catastrophe will likely occur. That’s plausible, since tipping points like that do exist. But I had never encountered any explanation of why the tipping point is there or how we discovered it. So, I went hunting and found a 2010 paper cleverly titled Three Views of Two Degrees.

It turns out that 2° C isn’t a scientific limit at all, because current science gives us not just one number but rather a whole cloud of numbers. 2° C is instead, a convenient shorthand for that cloud and it is a rallying cry. And it probably isn’t enough.

Who Said Two Degrees

The 2° C limit was originally a rough estimate made by an economist in the 1970’s. W.D. Nordhous was interested in climate policy, which he approached from a perspective of cost-benefit analysis. He assumed that getting off fossil fuel would cost something and that climate change would also cost something, therefore we should craft climate policy so as to use fossil fuel right up until the point where continuing to do so costs more money than it saves. At that point, we should stop. Nordhous needed some estimate of where that that point might be, so he took a look at the fairly basic information available at the time and concluded that over the past several hundred thousand years the climate has never been more than 2° C warmer than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. He reasoned that exceeding the normal variation would be bad.

2° C itself was, of course, secondary, simply a plausible example of the kind of target Nordhaus wanted. The main point was the principle of the cost/benefit analysis. The thing is, Nordhous wasn’t the only one who needed a definite number for the sake of discussion. It’s simply easier to talk about policy, and easier to run climate models, if you have a single number to work with instead of what the research itself often presents, which is a whole group of interrelated ranges. And so, the 2° C figure has become popular far beyond Nordhous’s original discussion of costs and benefits.

That 2° C was used during a UNFCCC (United Nations Framing Convention on Climate Change) conference in Germany in 1995 probably has a lot to do with its popularity. Angela Merkel, who was Germany’s Environment Minister at the time, chaired that conference and was apparently very impressed. She was instrumental in writing the 2° C goal into the preliminary agreement signed in Copenhagen in 2010. Also, “2” is a nice, whole number, easy to remember. Note that even in America, no one refers to the limit as 3.6° F.

Is 2° C a Real Limit?

Yes and no.

More recent research has confirmed that a 2° C rise would, indeed, take us into temperature ranges the world hasn’t seen in hundreds of thousands of years. In that, Nordhaus was quite correct. However, the climate system has not one tipping point but several; some kick in above 2° C, others kick in below–and there are some, doubtless, that we don’t know about yet.

More importantly, the premise of the limit is flawed.

First, the average temperature of the planet is not the real problem–the real problem is the speed at which the climate changes. As climate deniers are fond of pointing out, Earth’s climate is always changing and has in the past been radically different than it is today. There have been forests in the Antarctic and there have been glaciers in New England; in either case, Earth had rich, vibrant ecosystems. Human society has also weathered climate changes and can obviously do so again. But adaptation, both human and otherwise, takes time. And right now, we’re not getting it.

Second, even if climate catastrophe itself begins only after 2° C of warming (which is questionable), there is a lot that can go very seriously wrong–and some of it has already happened–short of catastrophe. Sea level rise provides the most clear-cut example, since it is unambiguously caused by global warming and higher seas unambiguously cause more severe coastal flooding. Whole nations are at risk of going out of existence. We are also losing glaciers that provide drinking water to huge human populations, seeing increases in dangerously extreme weather events…arguably, global warming may already be contributing to food insecurity, and hence to social and political tension, in the Middle East. A mass extinction is underway. All this is pretty catastrophic, if you happen to be in the middle of it. Nordhous’s original proposal, that we allow the climate to warm up until the 2° C limit so as to make more money off of fossil fuels until then, is heartless in the face of people who are dying of climate change already.

Is 2° C a Useful Goal?

Of course, 2° C is no longer being considered as the amount of warming to allow before getting off fossil fuel. Instead, it represents the course of immediate, aggressive emissions reductions–the closest thing to stopping greenhouse gas emissions today that anybody considers plausible.

Some are calling even this goal unrealistic, arguing that 2° C be abandoned as pointless an unattainable.

It’s not that cutting emissions is not technically feasible. If humanity collectively turned off the machines today, the post-petroleum age would begin tomorrow (greenhouse gas emissions would not stop quite so fast–natural gas wells would still leak, for example–but these would have minimal effect). We just don’t want to do that.

There are good reasons for not simply turning the machines off–I expect that such a sudden shift would cause widespread panic and economic collapse, for one–but not all the reasons out there are good. The fact of the matter is that some people want power and money and luxury and are willing to delay climate sanity and climate justice to get it.

But the thing is, the atmosphere doesn’t care what is politically or technical feasible–if the planet warms by more than 2° C, then whatever happens will happen, be it climate catastrophe or not. We have the option to let go of a goal, but we do not have the option to decline the consequences of our actions.

The fact we are faced with is that we must, as a planet, get off fossil fuel and address other causes of anthropogenic climate change (cement production, deforestation, etc.) as soon as possible because people are dying and ecosystems are collapsing and will continue to do so as long as we keep warping the sky as we are. If 2° C  works as a rallying point towards that end, a finite shorthand to use instead of the more amorphous “immediately,” then well and good. If some other goal works better, then let’s use that instead.

Because while 2° C is not itself a scientifically based deadline, the urgency that now informs its use does have a basis in science.

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Please Notice

Normally, I might write about the typhoon.

The Philippines have just been hit by another typhoon, known internationally as Hagupit and in the Philippines as Ruby. Normally, I’d devote an entire article to the storm, since keeping track of natural disasters with a climate dimension is one of the things we do here. Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby hit Tacloban, among other places, the same city that was devastated by Supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda  just last year. Because Hagupit was never quite so powerful and thanks to massive preparation efforts this year’s storm was not a catastrophe, but it is still certainly news. It has been downgraded to a tropical storm and is en route to Vietnam, where it could crash straight in to Ho Chi Minh City.

But the United States is also reeling from a series of non-indictments in the highly suspicious deaths of black people. Simultaneously, the climate conference in Lima continues, an obvious must for this blog to cover.

These two seemingly very different topics find common ground in ostensibly representative bodies ignoring and exacerbating social justice.

I will not go over the current racial justice protests, and the reasons for them, in detail here. Readers who do not know what’s happening should consult writers with more expertise in that issue. I will point out that the problem is at least two-fold: one folding is the specific issue of black people being shot, strangled, or otherwise done-in and no one even getting arrested for it; the other folding is that the first one is hardly news, yet major swaths of the American populace (like, for example, me) have only just now started to notice. Even now, many seem to define the problem as the inconvenient and occasionally frightening protests, not the fact that it really looks like black lives still don’t matter in this country. The invisibility of the problem to those who do not experience it directly is absolutely entrenched.

That failure to notice is not exclusive to the issue of American racial violence. Right now in Peru, the world’s leaders meet to discuss the most important issue of our times and they make space to converse with oil company leaders but not the indigenous people of Peru–who are also, not incidentally, fighting for their lives against illegal loggers whom the government does not seem able to adequately control. That these people are being threatened and killed for attempting to protect their rainforest has an odd resonance with the conference in Lima, which intends to offset its rather large carbon footprint by protecting rainforest. Empowering the people who live in the rainforest to protect their homes would seem to be a good way to meet that pledge, but Peru has a poor record of doing that.

In essence, the conference in Lima aims to address climate change using the same political and economic mechanisms that created the problem in the first place–a global structure that prioritizes the needs and interests of the powerful over those of the powerless. That’s not an inherently bad idea, of course; the global structure is unlikely to change any time soon, so it makes sense to work within the systems as much as possible.

But operating from the perspective of the powerful makes it look as though fossil fuel use is a legitimately controversial thing, a good and necessary practice that unfortunately has some bad side effects. The issue looks very different from other perspectives, for example those of many American communities of color. Coal-fired power plants are disproportionately sited in communities of color, which may be why the incidence of asthma in black children is almost double that of American children as a whole. Dense urban cores, where the concrete and asphalt collect and re-radiate heat and few people can afford air conditioning, are also disproportionately black–so a Los Angeles resident’s chance of dying in a heat wave doubles if he or she is black. The seriousness of climate change is just one more thing that the privileged are free to ignore if they want to. Solving the problem depends, in part, on such people giving up that ignorance.

This week is also the occasion of the People’s Summit, an alternative climate conference in Peru that brings together all the people that the delegates in Lima might well forget–indigenous groups, feminist groups, and labor organizations from many different countries. Solving the problem also depends on as many people as possible making so much noise that there is no way their perspective can be ignored.