New Alarming Report on the State of the Arctic

This Tuesday, on December 11, 2018, at the same time that the 11iceCOP24 is about to conclude in Katowice, Poland, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) released its annual international Arctic report card (the “Report”) reflecting on a range of land, ice, and ocean observations made throughout the Arctic during the 2018 calendar year. The Report includes a series of 14 essays prepared by more than 80 scientists from 12 countries and it underlines the changes that are continuing to occur in the Arctic environmental system in relation with climate change.

As the Report shows and as reported by the media, “the Arctic is experiencing the most unprecedented transition in human history”.

It is underlined that, in 2018, surface air temperatures in the Arctic continued to warm at roughly twice the rate compared to the rest of the world. It is also noted that the year 2018 was the second warmest year on record in the Arctic since 1900 (after 2016) and that Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900.

The Report further indicates that such continued warming of the Arctic in 2018 is an indicator of both regional and global climate change and a driver of broad Arctic environmental change. Scientists explains that atmospheric warming continued to drive broad, long-term trends in declining terrestrial snow cover, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and lake ice, increasing summertime Arctic river discharge, and the expansion and greening of Arctic tundra vegetation. Despite the growth of vegetation available for grazing land animals, herd populations of caribou and wild reindeer across the Arctic tundra have declined by nearly 50% over the last two decades.

895ARC18_Landfast_mahoney_Fig3According to the Report, the Arctic is no longer returning to the extensively frozen region of recent past decades—in 2018 Arctic sea ice remained thinner and covered less area than in the past. Also, Warming Arctic Ocean conditions are coinciding with an expansion of harmful algae species responsible for toxic algal blooms (which have been found in the tissues of Arctic clams, seals, walrus, and whales and other marine organisms).952ARC18_HABs_anderson_Fig2

NOAA concludes that “new and rapidly emerging threats are taking form and highlighting the level of uncertainty in the breadth of environmental change that is to come”.


“We don’t have the luxury of feeling discouraged”-Former Vice-President Al Gore Warns of the Dangers of Climate Change at COP24

“The cheapest and most effective carbon sequestration technology is called a ‘Tree.’ When this technology is taken to scale, it is called a ‘Forest.’” The Former Vice President of the United States and Presidential hopeful paused to let the laughter subside. Holding up a hand, he became deadly serious once more. He had come to COP24 to continue fighting for the cause he had become synonymous with: Climate Change.

As the United States joined countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia in denying the dire IPCC 1.5 report and negotiations on the Paris Agreement Work Program slogged on, Al Gore reminded the world that this is a group effort. While the effects of climate change do not affect us all equally, they still affect us all.

Shahid Balouch, a gravedigger, poses for a photograph in a mass grave in the cemetary, as preparations are made in case of another heatwave in Karachi, Pakistan May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Shahid Balouch, a gravedigger, poses for a photograph in a mass grave in the cemetery, as preparations are made in case of another heatwave in Karachi, Pakistan May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

High temperatures continue to set records around the world. They melt roads and damage infrastructure; high nighttime temperatures impact agricultural viability; and in Pakistan, the government has dug preemptive mass graves, anticipating the costs to human life. Most concerning, however, are the effects of rising temperatures on global air currents.

When the jet stream is strong, it forms a boundary between lower latitudes and arctic winds known as the Polar Vortex. When high temperatures near the equator push an excess of warm air northward, the jet stream weakens and this boundary dissolves. This occurred at the end of 2017.

The weakened jet stream allowed the Polar Vortex to split in two, sending excessively cold systems into North America, Northern Asia, and Europe. Temperatures plummeted to below -10C, infrastructure collapsed under the weight of snow, and, in Brussels, homeless people who refused shelter were detained for their own safety. All major climate zones, except Antarctica were warmer than their 30 year averages; including the Arctic.

The area between the, now two, polar vortexes, was occupied by vagrant jet stream currents. The warm air washed over the North Pole during what is typically its coldest season; the season when annual sea ice forms and multiyear sea ice is strengthened. Instead the Arctic lost 95% of its multiyear sea ice.
His voice lowered and his tone conspiratorial, Gore looked over the crowd: “This is part of a larger annual weather pattern. However, we do not have the luxury of being discouraged.” We, as world leaders on climate change, have a moral responsibility to reverse these trends, and save our planet and its people.

His words were a call to action, aimed at breaking the political deadlocks that plagued various aspects of the negotiated text. As we move into the last two days of negotiations, we’ll see if his words have galvanized the Parties, or if the same issues plague consensus.


Oops! How Will a Mistake in a Major Scientific Report Affect the Future of Oceans at COP?

Earlier this week, scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography corrected their most recent study regarding the ocean’s heat absorption capacity. This study, published in the journal Nature, initially reported that the oceans absorbed about 60% more heat from the atmosphere than originally determined. The scientists working on the study used a new method—collecting gases (mainly oxygen and carbon dioxide) that escaped from the ocean to calculate their amounts in the atmosphere. However, the scientists had not considered some “inadvertent errors” in these calculations, which suggested a degree of scientific uncertainty lower than what it actually was. (A more detailed explanation on the corrected errors can be found here). Though their conclusions align with other studies on marine heat absorption, this error triggered a tsunami of doubt on the reliability of the scientific evidence used to develop Climate Change policy.

The ocean just recently got the attention it rightfully deserves. As a major carbon sink, we must pay attention to ocean health if we want to achieve the UNFCCC climate change goals. The Ocean Pathway, established at COP23, was a recent success to bring more awareness to the important role the ocean plays with climate change. The momentum from this looked promising for COP24, but can we expect a change in course?

Science acknowledges that there will always be some level of uncertainty in scientific conclusions. However, developing policy demands the exact opposite—the tolerable level of uncertainty is set as low as possible. These two principles conflict when science is needed to develop environmental policies. How can we reconcile using data with uncertainty to create policy that operates without uncertainty?

This issue is not new to international climate change regime. The ocean’s introduction into climate change negotiations resembles the path agriculture took only a decade ago. Several years ago, before agriculture made it onto a COP agenda, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) released a contradictory report shortly after AR5. The IPCC’s AR5 reported a “risk of food insecurity linked to warming, drought, and precipitation variability, particularly for poorer populations.” The NIPCC reported the exact opposite, suggesting that global warming is actually benefitting farmers in Africa and Asia. Though the NIPCC introduced contradictory information to suggest scientific uncertainty with agriculture and climate change, the NIPCC—a nonprofit organization founded by the famous climate change skeptic Dr. Fred Singer—frequently uses their own “scientific analysis” to negate IPCC studies on global warming. This fun fact may have influenced the amount of reliance on this data in subsequent negotiations. There was also some controversy with scientific data cited in AR4. Apparently, the studies on African agriculture were “gray” literature, meaning that have not been peer-reviewed to ensure scientific reliability. Critics making this assertion claimed the same advantages of global warming for African farmers (also using “gray” literature, but that can be for another blog post). Yet, Parties were able to plant agriculture into the COP24 agenda despite the doubt skeptics tried to cast.

The corrected Nature article on ocean heat absorption may have casted doubt on the importance of the ocean in the international climate change regime. But, if agriculture could survive the skeptics, the ocean can survive a miscalculation.


The Log-istics of Carbon Dioxide Removal

Trees are the coolest source of CO2 Removal on the planet.

http://www.climatechangenews.com/2012/10/26/conservation-or-carbon-sinks-can-the-un-see-the-forest-for-the-trees/

Trees and vegetation are known to help cool ambient air temperatures through evapotranspiration.  If left undisturbed, forests can also be a vital source of carbon storage.  Estimates from the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA 2015) show that the world’s forests and other wooded lands store more than 485 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon: 260 Gt in the biomass, 37 Gt in dead wood and litter, and 189 Gt in the soil.

In the most recent IPCC Special Report Summary for Policymakers (SPM), the world’s leading climate scientists assess the pathways the global community can pursue over the next few decades to prevent overshoot ofScreen Shot 2018-10-08 at 3.58.11 PM warming beyond 1.5°C.  The fact that all pathways to limit global warming to 1.5°C require mitigation via some form of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) is not to be overlooked. But these removal amounts vary across pathways, as do the relative contributions of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and removals in the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector.  BECCS sequestration is projected to range from 0-1, 0-8, and 0-16 GtCO2/yr, in 2030, 2050, and 2100 respectively; the AFOLU-related measures are projected to remove 0-5, 1-11, and 1-5 GtCO2/yr in these years.  These contributions appear meager, and they are… but every little bit counts in this climate.

A reasonable argument can be made for increased investment in and use of CCS to achieve emissions reductions.  The SPM makes it clear that forests alone won’t be able to make a significant numerical difference in reduction of CO2 from the atmosphere.  And as the New York Times aptly points out, “the world is currently much better at cutting down forests than planting new ones.”

On the surface, CCS seems like a logical outgrowth from the nature of GHG emissions production.  The IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Capture and Storage (SRCCS) describes CCS as a mitigation activity that Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 11.37.30 PMseparates CO2 from large industrial and energy-related point sources, which has the potential to capture 85-95% of the CO2 processed in a capture plant.  Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies like ClimeWorks remove CO2 from the air. Proponents argue that DAC is a much less land-intensive process than afforestation: Removal of 8 Gt/CO2 would require 6.4 million km² of forested land and 730 km³ of water, while DAC would directly require only 15,800 km² and no water.

However, as our blog has cautioned readers in the past, CCS requires significant financial investments from industry and government and are only regionally accessible.  Only places that have sufficient infrastructure and political support can pursue this path of technological sequestration, leaving underdeveloped countries at a major disadvantage.  A recent report published in Nature Research further emphasizes that BECCS will have significant negative implications for the Earth’s planetary boundaries, or thresholds that humanity should avoid crossing with respect to Earth and her sensitive biophysical subsystems and processes.  Transgressing these boundaries will increase the risk of irreversible climate change, such as the loss of major ice sheets, accelerated sea level rise, and abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural systems.  Above all else, CCS ultimately supports the continual burning of fossil fuels. CCS technology may capture carbon, but it also has the potential to push us over the edge.

Money tree

Mitigation has historically been the focus of the FCCC and other collaborative climate change efforts.  Global climate change policy experts are familiar with the binding language associated with activities related to mitigation in the multilateral environmental agreements: Article 4(1)(b) of the Convention calls for commitments to formulate, implement, publish and update national programs containing measures to mitigate climate change; and Article 3 of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) calls for Annex I Parties to account for their emissions reductions in order to promote accountability and activity guided by mindful emissions production.  In the waning hours of the KP, the Paris Agreement has become the new collective rallying document, whose ambitious emissions reduction target has inspired the likes of the IPCC to offer us pathways to get there.

If we are not currently on track towards limiting GHG emissions well-below 2°C in the grand scheme of the FCCC, why not insure some success, however small, buy securing CO2 in forests, not CCS?  Forests are a well-established CDR technology that do not have the associated risks with CCS.  While the most recent UN Forum on Forests report kindly reminds us that forests are also crucial for food, water, wood, health, energy, and biodiversity, the SPM upholds that mitigation contributions from carbon sequestration technology are numerically minuscule in the face of the large-scale change necessary to avoid CO2 overload.  A much more engaged energy overhaul is needed.

The ideal SPM pathScreen Shot 2018-11-15 at 11.10.17 PMway states that afforestation can be the only CDR option when social, business, and technological innovations result in lower energy demand and a decarbonized energy system.  A more middle-of-the-road scenario achieves necessary emissions reductions mainly by changing the way in which energy and products are produced, and to a lesser degree by reductions in demand.  This speaks to the need for a broad focus on sustainable development rather than continuing business as usual.  Regardless of the pathway, forests need to be preserved, whether it be for carbon sequestration, their cooling effects, or merely beauty.

Sometimes there is no turning back.


Local climate data at your finger tips

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The scientists at Climate Analytics – the ones that gave us the invaluable Climate Action Tracker (CAT) – have done it again.

They have taken the global research and stats featured in the IPCC’s reports and scaled them down to more locally understandable and useful info. Thus far they have developed four online tools that allow you to learn how:

  1. the warming climate will affect staple crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa,
  2. the projections of local sea level rise for different warming levels,
  3. climate projections will affect extreme weather conditions at the African national and provincial levels, and
  4. to attribute global warming increases.

Bookmark this site, for Climate Analytics is due to publish more tools in the next few months.


IPCC special report leaves the world in dire straits

In response to an invitation from the Parties of the Paris Agreement (PA), and pursuant to the Article 2 efforts to limit temperature increases well below 2°C, the IPCC prepared a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15), released Monday, 8 October, 2018.

Climate scientists sounded the alarm yet again, painting a dire picture of the future without immediate and drastic mitigation and adaptation measures worldwide.  High confidence statements made by the panel include:

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 3.58.11 PM

  • Human activities have caused approximately 1°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels
  • Current global warming trends reach at least 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052
  • Staying below the 1.5°C threshold will require a 45% reduction in GHG emissions from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net-zero by 2050
  • Pathways to 1.5°C with limited or no overshoot will require removal of an additional 100-1000 GtCO2

Pathways of current nationally stated mitigation ambitions submitted under the PA will not limit global warming to 1.5°C.  Current pathways put us on target for 3°C by 2100, with continued warming afterwards.

The ENB Report summarizing SR15 was able to shine a light on the good that can come from responses to this special report (not to mention upholding the ambition intended with the PA).  SR15 shows that most of the 1.5°C pathways to avoid overshoot also help to achieve Sustainable Development Goals in critical areas like human health or energy access. Ambitious emission reductions can also prevent meeting critical ecosystem thresholds, such as the projected loss of 70-90% of warmer water coral reefs associated with 2°C.

Groups like the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are intensifying their adaptive scientific support through a “fully-integrated, ‘seamless’ Earth-system approach to weather, climate, and water domains,” says Professor Pavel Kabat, Chief Scientist of the WMO.  This “seamless” approach allows leading climate scientists to use their advanced data assimilation and observation capabilities to deliver knowledge in support of human adaptations to regional environmental changes.  By addressing extreme climate and weather events through a holistic Earth-system approach, predictive tools will help enhance early warning systems and promote well being by giving the global community a greater chance to adapt to the inevitable hazardous events related to climate change.

WRI Graph

Success ultimately depends on international cooperation, which will hopefully be encouraged by the IPCC’s grim report and the looming PA Global Stocktake (GST) in 2023.  In the wake of devastating hurricanes, typhoons, and the SR15, it’s hard to ignore both the climate and leading climate scientists urging us to take deliberate, collective action to help create a more equitable and livable future for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

In Decision 1/CP.21, paragraph 20 decides to convene a “facilitative dialogue” among the Parties in 2018, to take stock in relation to progress towards the long-term goal referred to in Article 4 of the PA.  Later renamed the Talanoa Dialogue, these talks have set preparations into motion and are helping Parties gear up for the formal GST, with the aim of answering three key questions: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How will we get there?

Discussion about the implications of SR15 will be held at COP24, where round table discussions in the political phase of the dialogue will address the question, “how do we get there?”

It won’t be by continuing business as usual.

 


Science and Adaptation: Prevention is the Key

Cyclone_NargisCOP23 is significantly emphasizing the impact of extreme weather on climate change adaptation. This issue is even more prevalent with the major weather events that have occurred in the past several months: intense hurricanes in the Caribbean and the southern United States, flooding in South East Asia, and severe drought on the West Coast of the U.S. and northern China. In the opening plenary of the COP23, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) laid out our past and our future projections: the outlook was grim. This past year was one of three hottest years on record, with these past five years being the warmest average since the WMO began monitoring in the 1850’s. And unfortunately, these severe weather events tend to impact the most vulnerable communities in the world.

The majority of hungry people live in the most disaster-prone areas of the world, creating an ever-continuous cycle of lack of food and further destruction. But these disasters are usually predictable: we can predict floods, typhoons, and droughts. Science has created a system of which we have a better understanding of how these systems work, when they will come, the effect they will have, and potential steps we can take to avoid their impact.

global-temp-and-co2-1880-2009Article 7.7(c) of the Paris Agreement emphasizes adaptation to climate change, specifically with respect to increased technology and science to prevent the impacts of climate change. But the first step to prevention is warning. The Global Climate Observing System has determined seven global climate indicators to assist in the determination of the status of climate change. These indicators include surface temperature, ocean warming, atmospheric CO2, ocean acidification, sea level rise, glacier mass balance, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice level. These indicators give scientists better understanding and mechanisms of the impacts of climate change. Policymakers and scientists can then turn around and implement these impacts into cohesive plans to adapt to the ever-increasing harm from climate change, using these indicators to better predict where future harms will likely occur.

thailands-rice-farmersThe UN and NGO’s have recognized the importance of science and planning in the implementation of adaptation plans to create better systems for individuals that live in the most prone areas. One particular group, the World Food programme, began implementing investment opportunities in local crops, reducing the focus to small community projects. These investment plans allowed farmers more security in their crops and gave them the ability to invest in better equipment and increased opportunities for advancement of their farming practices. Overall, by ensuring the farmer’s crops, especially in areas that are of greatest concern to climate change, the economy of the entire area was boosted.

Science plays an important role in understanding climate change. But science should also play an important role in the solution. By using the science that is already in place, communities and NGOs can establish better mechanisms for adapting to climate change and the harms that inevitably come with them. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, warned that these severe weather events we have been observing are only the beginning. If there is no mitigation of climate impacts then the events will only get worse. But before mitigation can make any significant impact, countries must adapt. They must adapt to the impacts of climate change and science can be there, guiding them on their way to more sustainable development and security.


Climate Change “Refugees” in Hot Water

Direct effeBlog Photo 3cts of climate change such as droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and hazardous weather events have immediate and lasting impacts upon displacement of communities. For example, five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have already been deemed uninhabitable due to sea level rise and erosion. Since 2008, approximately 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate or weather-related events. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University, predicted a worst case scenario of up to 2 billion climate change migrants by 2100.

Traditionally, a sovereign state is responsible for the protection of its people, which includes relief from natural disasters. In situations where domestic states do not have the ability to provide adequate protection, relief, or relocation, international law offers possible avenues for addressing this issue. Unfortunately, there is no current international legal framework in place to respond to the impending climate change migrant crisis. There are a number of possible protective instruments available, but they all present different barriers to practical application.

First, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UNGPID) recognize internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been forced or obligated to flee “to avoid the effect of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters.” However, this only applies to people displaced within their own state, effectively requiring state legislation to enforce IDP rights. Thus, the UNPGID lacks the ability to effectively protect cross-border climate migration. 

Second, the UN RefugBlog Photo 2ee Agency (UNHCR) requires an individual be persecuted against to qualify as a refugee under the Refugee Convention. As a result the “[e]nvironmental factors that cause movements across international borders are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status.” Climate migrants might be recognized as refugees if the respective state government “persecuted” them by intentionally failing to give protection or aid. This claim would be extremely difficult to prove, however, as international law recognizes that “no individual government is primarily at fault” for the consequences of climate change.

Third, a climate change migrant could qualify as a “stateless” person under the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (CSSP). This status is also limited as it would only be available to migrants whose home state no longer exists. In addition, the CSSP offers only limited rights to stateless individuals and has only been signed by 66 of 165 states.

migration-1

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre depiction of human movement in 2015.

While the UNHCR is unable to provide legal relief and refugee status for climate migrants, it is supporting the Platform on Disaster Displacement (a continuation of the Nansen Initiative on cross-border displacement). UNHCR has also developed planned relocation guidance that identifies vulnerable areas and gives instructions for disaster response migration mechanisms.

The UNFCCC establishes and recognizes the need for adaptation and mitigation, but fails to address migration strategies under adaptation. On May 19, 2016 the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn confirmed a clear link between environmental and climate changes, migration and vulnerability.  As a result, the UN is taking steps to assess this connection and shape adaptation policy that protects the most vulnerable populations. While climate migrants do not have an identified legal status as climate change refugees, there is international movement towards addressing this issue under the UNFCCC.


Trump’s proposed budget would cut US international climate change work significantly

trump budgetAccording to Inside Climate News, the Trump Administration’s recently unveiled budget proposal would cut $10.1 billion from the United States’ current international climate work, which represents a 28% reduction from the status quo.

It would eliminate the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI), which funds all climate-related bilateral efforts, like collaborations with China and India, and contributes to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The GCCI also assists developing countries manage their emissions and increase their renewable energy capacity.

The proposed budget also eliminates the U.S. contribution to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which helps developing countries prepare for climate impacts. The U.S. under the Obama Administration has pledged $3 billion to the GCF, and thus far,$1 billion has been paid.

In a recent press conference on the budget, Michael Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, represented the administration’s views on climate change: “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.”


Is Time Running Out?

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COP 22 hourglass display representing the limited time left to avoid irreversible climate change before the year 2100.

Referencing the response to climate change at today’s COP 22, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented the issue in terms of time.   He stated, “The question is not whether we will transition to a clean energy economy. The question is whether we will have the will power to make the transition in time.  Time is not on our side.”  He was speaking to a group in Marrakech, but his question was really to the world.

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Secretary of State John Kerry in Marrakech, Morocco for the COP 22 Climate negotiations.

 

 

 

 

Sec. Kerry confirmed that the global community is more united than ever and taking real action this year, as evidenced in such historic global agreements as the Paris Agreement, the ICAO Agreement and the Kigali Agreement. Sec. Kerry reassured his listeners that despite the uncertainty that is coming from recent election results, climate change is not a partisan issue.  The majority of Americans, scientists, military leaders, intelligence community, state and city leaders, business leaders, advocacy groups and community organizers are committed to fighting against the problems that contribute to climate change. The Secretary emphasized that although he would not speculate on the incoming administration’s policies regarding the Paris Agreement, he took heart because “issues look very different on the campaign trail than when you are actually in office.”  In fact, the U.S. is on its way to meet its Paris Agreement goals based on market forces and state regulations already in place. Investing in clean energy makes good market sense because as the Secretary said, “you can do good and do well at the same time.”


From INDC to NDC: Diversity in ambitions and fairness

APA1-2 Co-chairs: Sarah Baashan (Saudi Arabia) and Jo Tyndall (New Zealand)

APA1-2 Co-Chairs: Sarah Baashan (Saudi Arabia) and Jo Tyndall (New Zealand)

The Paris Agreement requires Parties to communicate their first NDC along with their instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession to the Paris Agreement. However, this requirement is typically accomplished when a Party has communicated an INDC prior to joining the Paris Agreement, unless it decides otherwise. So far, 163 INDCs have been submitted, while the Paris Agreement has been ratified by 100 Parties out of the 197 Parties to the Convention.

Although the Parties have the choice to submit new and more ambitious NDCs with their instrument of ratification, few choose to do so. One reason for this is the lack of guidance on what an ambitious NDC should look like and what it should contain. The importance of guidelines is currently being discussed under the APA1-2 meetings, including features of NDCs, information to facilitate NDC clarity, transparency and understanding, and accounting for Parties’ NDCs. More ambitious NDCs are needed as the submitted INDCs are not consistent with the goal of having a reasonable chance of avoiding a rise in global average temperature of more than 2°C above its pre-industrial level. However, it is important to note that even if a country is on track to meet its targets it does not necessarily mean that it takes on more stringent action than a country that is not on track, as it depends on the level of ambition and fairness of the INDCs.

Before achieving the level of ambition needed, the Parties also need to sort out through the divide created by the role of CBDR-RC and national circumstances in the adoption of the guidelines, thus reaching on the issue of fairness. The developing world is asking for support from the developed countries in the form of capacity building, financing and technical assistance in order to adopt and implement ambitious NDCs. For example, 85% of the developing countries ask for financing for their INDCs.

But, how can you measure the level of ambition and fairness? In their INDC, the parties have adopted a subjective rationale approach on the basis of what they think is fair and ambitious, ranging from development status, share of global emissions, per capita emissions, improvements against past developments and current trends, past action or mitigation potential, vulnerability to climate change impacts. Also, how do we know what approach is better?

What is clear today is that the ambitions reflected in the NDCs are not sufficient. A decision is needed on how to asses fair and ambitious NDCs while taking into consideration the national circumstance of each country and the global climate goal of remaining under 2°C. While the APA1-2 is going to touch upon the implementation and guidance for the NDCs and the ambition and fairness mechanism, there are also some other global avenues through which support for NDCs ambition can be enhanced such as: broadening the field for new entrants with different professional expertise, establishing and linking partnerships between the research community and institutions, international organizations and national governments.

Guidelines on how to asses ambitious and fair NDCs will constitute a barrier for Parties wanting to invoke status quo and inaction for their climate procrastination.

 

 


Land Use and Methane

As the COP negotiations increasingly look to agriculture, forestry, and other land uses as tools to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, methanogenesis – the biological production of methane by single-celled organisms – must be taken into account. This methane production is very similar to fermentation, the process used to produce alcohol. In fermentation, when yeast is denied access to oxygen, the yeast produces alcohol as a waste product. Humans do this too when exercising, producing lactic acid (this is why your muscles burn when you are out of breath). In methanogenesis, when a certain type of bacteria is denied access to oxygen, the bacteria will produce methane as a waste product.

 

This is a serious concern to land use managers. Rice production is one of the largest human sources of methane because of the low-oxygen content of the water in submerged rice paddies. To make matters worse, as the climate warms the bacteria in rice paddies produce higher levels of methane.

Another land use concern is the construction of hydroelectric dams. Hydroelectric dams are often viewed as a viable renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels, but because of the low-oxygen content of the water of the reservoir, organic material that gets caught at the dam decomposes to produce methane. Some even argue that hydroelectric dams are a net cause, not a solution to, climate change.

Deputy Head of The University of Queensland's Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Professor Gene Tyson

Deputy Head of The University of Queensland’s Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Professor Gene Tyson

On top of all this, a recent study discovered a new methane-producing group of organisms that live in wetlands, lake and river estuary sediments, mud volcanoes, and deep-sea vents. This discovery revealed that humans still have much to learn about the carbon cycle. And this is not to mention all of the other sources of methane, both human (e.g. energy and waste production, livestock) and natural (e.g. wetlands, oceans, termites).

 

Fortunately, there are ways to manage these concerns. Rice paddies can be drained mid-season to kill off the methane-producers, and alternative fertilizers have been shown to reduce methane emissions. Hydroelectric dams can be managed to reduce organic matter in reservoirs, both by harvesting trees and other plant matter before the reservoir is flooded and by capturing organic matter farther upstream before it reaches the reservoir. Finally, researchers have also discovered methane-consuming bacteria that could play an important role in the reduction of methane emissions. Land use managers must consider these methane-control techniques as we move to address climate change.

 


Ecological Migration and Migrating Towards Ambitious Climate Change Commitments at COP22

In 2011, the UN projected that the world will have 50 million environmental refugees by 2020. These are people who need to resettle due to climate change impacts such as drought, food shortage, disease, flooding, desertification, soil erosion, deforestation, and other environmental problems. This past week the New York Times released two stories about the plight of “ecological migrants” in the deserts of northern China. The first is a visual narrative about people living in the expanding Tengger Desert. The second article highlights the world’s largest environmental migrant resettlement project, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

“Ecological migrants” are the millions of people whom the Chinese government had to relocate from lands distressed by climate change, industrialization, and human activity to 161 hastily built villages. China has already resettled 1.14 million residents of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where the average temperature has risen 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years (more than half of that increase occurring from 2001 to 2010) and annual precipitation has dropped about 5.7 millimeters every decade since the 1960s.

China is only one example of a region where people have had to relocate due to climate change. Where will everyone go? This is a problem that all countries need to figure out quickly because, if the UN’s prediction is accurate, the current system of asylum, refugee resettlement, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) may prove inadequate.

The Marshall Islands need to figure out where their people will go as their island nation is quickly disappearing underwater. Predictions of dangerous tropical storms and rising salt levels in their drinking water may force citizens to flee even before the entire island is lost. In Bangladesh, about 17% of the land could be inundated by 2050, displacing an additional 18 million people.

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Road leading to Isle de Jean Charles often floods, cutting off the community.Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times.

Climate change relocations are not limited to small, developing nations. The United States has begun preparing for its own. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants up to $1 billion in 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change, including the first allocation of federal money to move an entire community due to the impacts of climate change: a $48 million grant for Isle de Jean Charles.

Other than the overcrowding of cities and uprooting and destruction of rural lifestyles, the global refugee crisis presents a larger concern: national security. Last year at COP21 in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tied the conflict in Syria and the resulting global refugee crisis to climate change. Secretary Kerry linked Syria’s drought and resulting urban migration—first domestic, then international—as a key factor to the civil war. This was a relevant example of how climate change can exacerbate existing political turmoil within a country.

Thus, all countries must stay committed to climate change goals, not only for maintaining millions of people’s lives and homes, but for national safety throughout the world. Whether they consider it a focus or not, many countries are currently facing the problem of creating new domestic policies on immigration. While it may be too late for some vulnerable areas to completely avoid the need to relocate its people, every climate change action helps mitigate the problem. Hopefully the issue of relocation and climate change refugees or “ecological migrants” will push countries to be more ambitious about their climate change actions at the upcoming COP22.


375 NAS scientists speak out

Human-caused climate change is not a belief, a hoax, or a conspiracy. It is a physical reality.”

NAS letterSo begins an open letter published yesterday by 375 National Academy of Science members. It unequivocally states that burning fossil fuels have left human “fingerprints” all over the climate system, notably observed in sea level rise, declining Arctic sea ice, and ocean acidification. Moreover it challenges the climate denial rhetoric in the current US presidential election as “inconsistent with reality.”  It compares the tipping points of global warming’s physical reality with those of politics, and concludes that Republican candidate Donald Trumps’ position to keep the US out of the Paris Agreement would have consequences that are “severe and long-lasting – for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States.” You may read a list of the letter’s signers here.  For more on the letter’s reach, read here.


Climate Change influences extreme weather events, but by how much?

 

08extremeweather.adapt_.1190.1 We know that our climate system is changing as global temperatures rise. It is also now possible, in many cases, for science to credibly speak to the influence of climate change on the likelihood and/or the extent/severity of a certain type of event. However, according to a pre-publication version of a new National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report, there is still a long way to go to make credible claims about how much and in what ways a particular extreme weather event was affected by climate change.

PrintThe NAS report, Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change (free pdf download available), is the work of the Committee on Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Attribution. To create it, the Committee drew on more than 300 published papers, and conducted a 3-month process of multiple webinar meetings and a community workshop with leading scientists and other researchers working in the arena of event attribution.

The report provides the most up to date assessment of current capabilities in event attribution, guidance on presenting and interpreting studies, and priorities for both future research and its application (operationalization). While the report notes significant gains in the science of extreme event attribution, especially over the past decade, it cautions that this science is still emerging, and substantially more study is required.

On methodology, the report identifies two classes of approaches to event attribution – observational-based and model-based – noting that most studies use both to varying degrees. The model-based approach must, of course, account for multiple uncertainties, and the report looks at how those have been quantified. The suite of “individual classes of extreme events” examined includes extreme heat and cold events, droughts, wildfires, extreme rainfall, cyclones, and more.

The authors assign a confidence level (high, medium, low) to the attribution science for each of these event classes by evaluating three different measures:

  • “the capabilities of climate models to simulate an event class,
  • the quality and length of the observational record from a climate perspective, and
  • understanding of the physical mechanisms that lead to changes in extremes as a result of climate change.”Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 1.59.21 PM

The attribution analyses of extreme heat and cold events garner the highest level of confidence. There is medium confidence in those of hydrological drought and heavy precipitation, and little or no confidence in those of severe convective storms and extratropical cyclones. (See Fig. S.4) (Severe convective storms are severe thunderstorms, often characterized by hail, lightning, and/or high wind gusts. Extratropical cyclones are low pressure, generally mid-latitude systems associated with cold or warm fronts, e.g., blizzards, Nor-easters.)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

In particular, the authors caution that, “there is no single best method or set of assumptions for event attribution.” How the question is framed and the time constraints imposed on a study play a significant role in the choices made for such parameters as: defining event duration, setting geographical area affected, identifying the physical variables to study, and choosing methodology. Natural variability is also always a player in an extreme event. Instead of “Did climate change cause this event?”, the authors suggest reasonable questions might be: “Are events of this severity becoming more or less likely because of climate change?” and “To what extent was the storm intensified or weakened, or its precipitation increased or decreased, because of climate change?”

The report recommends more study of 9 specific areas of weather and climate extremes, suggests the creation of standards based on event classes, and proposes ways to improve systemic evaluation.

While policymakers and the public need the science in order to better manage the risks around these events and enhance our adaptive capacity, those most vulnerable to climate change are looking toward the day that blame for these events can be apportioned and thus restitution sought. That day is getting closer, but it is definitely not here yet.