2015 is now the hottest year on record

Overheated ThermometerIt’s official.  “Scientists reported Wednesday that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history by far, breaking a record set only the year before — a burst of heat that has continued into the new year and is roiling weather patterns all over the world.”

“The whole system is warming up, relentlessly,” said Gerald A. Meehl, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Researchers believe that the consecutive heat records set in 2014 and 2015 may have put the world back onto a trajectory of rapid global warming after period of relatively slow warming since 1998, when the last powerful El Niño affected weather patterns.  For more, read today’s NYT article here.

 


No Red Lines, But a Green Light for Adaptation and Loss and Damage

At this morning’s Comité de Paris meeting, COP President Laurent Fabius channeled Nelson Mandela, saying: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” At tonight’s COP meeting, Parties adopted the Paris Agreement in a historical and long-awaited moment. While past Agreement drafts have been full of brackets, options, and red line changes, these notations are notably absent from the final Paris Agreement.

Source: Takepart

Source: Takepart

With a green light (and ceremonial strike of a green gavel) for the Paris Agreement, it is worth taking a moment to pause and look at the final Agreement language in light of what came before it. Article 7 on Adaptation starts with a paragraph on the global goal on Adaptation. In the beginning of this week, it was unclear whether this goal for Adaptation would ensure Adaptation in the context of the global temperature goal. The final Agreement established the Adaptation response in the context of the temperature limit increase. This ensures that the global goal on Adaptation is grounded in a quantitative, and not only a qualitative, target. In the final Paris Agreement, this language was strengthened by adding that an Adaptation response must be “adequate.”

Paragraph 4 focuses on Adaptation needs and Adaptation in conjunction with Mitigation. The paragraph describes how greater levels of Mitigation can reduce the need for Adaptation effort. In the December 9th and 10th versions of the Agreement, this paragraph closed by referencing “that greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits.” This phrase referenced L&D from the permanent and irreversible impacts of climate change. It also acknowledged that Adaptation, Mitigation, and L&D are closely interlinked, and that attending to all of them is important. However, this phrase on L&D did not make it into the final Agreement text. This change is part of the larger uncertainty that has surrounded the issue of L&D.

In the beginning of this week, the fate of L&D in the Agreement was very uncertain. One text option briefly recognized the issue of L&D, with a footnote that the text could end up elsewhere in the Agreement — likely in the article on Adaptation and not as its own article. Adaptation and L&D are separate issues that require different approaches, and therefore the final Agreement’s inclusion of a distinct Article on L&D is an accomplishment for the Paris Agreement. The December 10th draft Agreement separated the intention on L&D from the implementation mechanism, the Warsaw International Mechanism on L&D (WIM). Importantly, the final Paris Agreement bridged this disconnect and integrated these issues, saying that “Parties should enhance understanding, action and support, including through the [WIM].” The duration of this mechanism will play an important role in ensuring the resilience of countries who face climate change impacts in the future.

After the adoption of the Paris Agreement, South Africa channeled Nelson Mandela again, in a statement that reflects today’s achievements and the many challenges that lie ahead in addressing climate change:

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.


Fracking: COP21 as “the scoreboard, not the game”

Panel for Side Event on Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground: the International Movement to Ban Fracking

Panel for Today’s Side Event on Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground: the International Movement to Ban Fracking

“If you’re looking for good way to heat up the earth fast, poke holes in the earth and let methane pour out.” This is how Bill McKibben of 350.org described hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at today’s side event on the international movement to ban fracking. Sandra Steingraber of EcoWatch pointed out how both methane and CO2 have to be considered in the fight against climate change. The side event’s moderator asked McKibben how to use what is going on at COP21 to put pressure on the United States and other countries to get a better outcome on fracking. McKibben said that COP21 is “the scoreboard, not the game. The main thing to do is come out of here ready to take on the next set of fights and next set of activism.”

In September, the Center for Biological Diversity released a report on fracking in the United States entitled “Grounded: The President’s Power to Fight Climate Change, Protect Public Lands by Keeping Publicly Owned Fossil Fuels in the Ground.” The report addresses the president’s authority to stop new leasing of federally managed and publicly owned fossil fuels from extraction, start withdrawing lands and oceans from availability, and keep carbon reserves in the ground. Panelists focused on fracking in California, mentioning the Los Angeles Times article on California farmers using water recycled from oil fields to irrigate crops. The article highlights concerns about toxins in the recycled water contaminating crops. At the conclusion of the side event, panelists urged participants to reach out to elected officials regarding the impact of fracking on climate, water, air, food, and public health.


A Call for Deforestation-Free Agriculture

What do cattle, soy, and palm oil have in common? These are all products associated with commodity-linked deforestation. Between 2000 and 2012, expansion of commercial agriculture and timber plantations caused the destruction of more than 50 million hectares of tropical forests. The UNFCCC website states: “Roughly a third of recent tropical deforestation and associated carbon emissions (3.9 Mha and 1.7 GtCO2) can be attributed to the production of beef, soy, palm oil and timber alone.”

Forests play an important role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, agricultural expansion is a major driver of deforestation and forest degradation. In today’s side event on deforestation-free agriculture, panelists discussed the importance of halting deforestation and reducing emissions in commodity supply chains. A panelist from the Rainforest Alliance pointed out the lack of attention to sustainable, deforestation-free sourcing: “Currently, there is no existing large-scale framework to verify that products, processes, or producers do not contribute to the loss of natural forest.” Today’s panel highlighted several important considerations in developing and implementing such a system.

One of the main themes from today’s event focused on traceability. A 2015 report co-authored by a panelist from SNV points to the importance of traceability in halting supply chains that cause deforestation. Voluntary certifications are one way to communicate to consumers how sustainable products are. Currently, many existing certification schemes currently lack traceability systems to identify deforestation-free supply chains. A transparent traceability system is essential to make it clear where end-products originate from.

Source: NWF

Source: NWF

A second theme focused on engaging producers. The Rainforest Alliance’s 2015 position paper on this issue discusses the important of engaging producers as allies. Speakers highlighted the importance of working with front-runner companies to eliminate deforestation from commodity trade. Nathalie Walker from the National Wildlife Federation described a successful example of engaging producers and converting sustainable pledges into action. A National Wildlife Federation study published in Science explained how Brazil’s soy moratorium, a voluntary pledge from large soy companies not to clear Amazon forest for soy, halted deforestation more effectively than government policy alone. The lead author explained: “Prior to the Soy Moratorium, about 30% of soy planted in the Amazon was directly replacing forests, but under the current protections, it has fallen to less than 1%.”

A third theme centered on increasing public and private sector collaboration. Speakers highlighted the critical importance of governments having a vision for green growth and supporting sustainable production through policies and plans, and through establishing or expanding incentives. Similarly, companies should encourage deforestation-free initiatives, voluntary standards, and certification. The issues of traceability, engaging producers, and increasing public-private sector collaboration are all important components of supporting the transition to deforestation-free agriculture. Companies and national governments are increasingly taking a step in the right direction and making public commitments to deforestation-free products.


Decarbonization or Climate Neutrality? Which is the Better Path to 2°C? Is There Even a Difference?

https://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/energy/events/ucl-energy-seminar-ddppIn order to keep global temperatures under 2°C, the threshold generally accepted as the best way to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, there must be a limit on cumulative CO2 emissions. For those of you not tracking mitigation negotiations closely at COP21, there is some hot debating surrounding long-term signals maintaining this threshold. Delegates are looking at two potential options, decarbonization and climate neutrality. But what’s the difference?

While the two options may seem rather similar, they carry with them significantly different implications. Climate neutrality would require that countries achieve annual zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by a specified date. What this means is that for every ton of anthropogenic GHG emitted, an equivalent amount must be removed from the atmosphere. This sounds great in theory. However some parties are concerned, and for good reason, that climate neutrality equates to more of a political move around than effective action.

Here’s why. Climate neutrality allows for those emitted GHG emissions to be compensated with removals via carbon offsets such as sequestration, carbon capture and storage. To actually keep global temperatures under 2°C with carbon offsets, large-scale uptake of negative emission technology will have to be implemented. According to Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, there are problems with relying on negative emission technologies to achieve an under 2°C global temperature target. Anderson noted that these technologies have never worked at scale, have huge technical and economic unknowns, and have major efficiency penalties. These technologies are often not worth the hype.
http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-01-25/using-a-traffic-app-cuts-commutes-manages-angerIn essence, climate neutrality means that CO2 may still be produced, but not all parties think this is a bad thing. It may leave room for developing countries to continue emitting GHG and thus enable them to continue essential sustainable development projects. However, a concern is that developed countries may purchase carbon offsets for their emissions from developing countries with natural carbon sinks. This allows for developed countries to continue with a “business as usual” approach to emission mitigation efforts rather than encouraging them to radically change their consumption patterns.It allows for the possibility that wealthy developed countries may pay for their emissions by buying carbon offsets from developing countries with lower emissions and natural carbon sinks.

Alternatively, decarbonization tends to be understood as a process that results in a decarbonized global economy with no anthropomorphic CO2 emissions. Amongst the scientific community, it is widely accepted that to successfully achieve climate stabilization, full decarbonization of our energy systems is likely our only option. While this idea seems rather straight forward, there is confusion about how decarbonization may be interpreted and implemented. While full decarbonization tends to mean zero unabated CO2 emissions, it is possible that decarbonization within the Paris Agreement would allow for emissions to be balanced with adequate reductions and carbon sinks. There are also concerns that a decarbonization option would not account for non-CO2 GHG emissions.

http://www.climatechangenews.com/2012/10/26/conservation-or-carbon-sinks-can-the-un-see-the-forest-for-the-trees/What is clear is that whichever option ends up in the Paris Agreement, further clarification and definition of terms should be made first. For either option to be effectively implemented, they should be accompanied by specific timeframes, definitions, rates, and standardized accounting measures.

 


Realities of Hope: 1.5-2C Global Temperature Rise is within Striking Distance—But INDC Pledges are not Enough

CAT_thermometer_151001_300dpiSince the COP21 Opening Ceremony, various Parties have expressed a priority of curbing global temperature rise to below 2C. Many Parties, particularly LDCs and notably French President Hollande, advocate for a more ambitious 1.5C temperature increase. While the Opening Ceremony was full of hopeful statements—UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, for example, described COP21 as a “beacon of hope for the world, lighting the way toward the betterment of humanity”—it is unclear whether the Parties will actually agree to maintaining the 2C increase, and even then what the cost will be for a less ambitious mitigation effort.

Leading up to COP21, 184 countries submitted 154 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These pledges account for around 94% of global greenhouse gas emissions from 2010. Yet, some sources say these pledges would be insufficient to limit warning to 2C or below. Instead, the INDCs might allow a 2.7—3.5C increase above pre-industrial levels.

The consequences of these varying temperature ranges appear to be quite devastating. Even the 2C benchmark typically considered a “safe” increase may be on the cusp of “dangerous” and “extremely” dangerous. The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative reports, “Reacting with ‘too little, too late’ may lock in the gradual but unavoidable transformation of our Earth…in a terrible legacy that may last a thousand years or more.”

Most world leaders promote a temperature limit of 1.5C. Manuel Augusto, current speaker for the LDC negotiation group and the Secretary of State for External Relations of Angola, advocates limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C.

FullSizeRender 5In Monday’s Global Environment Fund side event, former Irish president Mary Robinson discussed how various Parties up to that point had discussed climate injustice and the importance of a “people centered” approach to the Paris Package. Robinson explained that a global 2C increase actually means 4C in parts of Africa, and that 1.5C is an important part of a “people centered” agreement.

Also on Monday, 30 nations consisting of middle income, least developed and small island developing states issued a declaration expressing their desire for “full decarbonization of the world economy, 100% renewable energy by 2050, and zero emissions by mid-century in order to keep the world on track for below 1.5C warming.”

Scientists confirm that “limiting temperature rise by 1.5C is feasible;” however, “an increase of international efforts to curb greenhouse gases is imperative to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target achievable.” Thus, with science and political backing, it would not be impossible for Parties to agree to a 1.5C temperature increase target.

 

 


Saying Goodbye to Cultural Landmarks

Sea-level rise is an unavoidable threat facing our planet in the coming century. Even avoiding increasing global temperatures above 2°C likely wont save us from a twenty-foot rise in sea-level by 2020. This kind of devastating sea-level rise will have disastrous effects on worldwide economies, agricultural, and livelihoods. It will also irreparably change the face of some of the world’s most treasured landmarks.

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Historical treasures the world over may be threatened, even if we stay within the 2°C target limit agreed on in Cancun. Further, a recently released study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if we don’t hit this target limit, a global temperature warming of 4°C could cause anywhere from 22.6 to 35.4 feet of global sea-level rise.

So what does this mean for coastal communities, and the many global icons located there?

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists last year outlined thirty national landmarks across the United States that could be lost or severely damaged from the effects of climate change. Among those monuments was Faneuil Hall in Boston, where the Sons of Liberty Planned the Boston Tea Party. Also included were the U.S. Naval Academy, the Kennedy Space Center, Jamestown, NASA’s Langley Research Center, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. Around the country 118 national parks are considered to be at risk. Additionally, the U.S Interior Department released a report in June that revealed sea-level rise from climate change will damage the national park infrastructure and historic and cultural resources totaling in over $40 billion. And that’s just in the United States.

Climate change has the potential to cause rises in sea-level that may submerge areas currently home to between 470 and 760 million people on six different continents. Climate Central recently compiled a series of photographs that depict what sea-level rise will look like in cities such as Mumbai, Sydney, Shanghai, Rio, New York, Durban, London, and D.C. These cities are all major cultural and economic hubs for their respective countries, and any damage to them will likely also damage their countries as a whole.

In the battle against climate change, sea-level rise represents more than just economic losses. It means significant losses to culture, history, and livelihoods- not to mention lives. A study published in Environmental Research Letters found that 136 UNESCO World Heritage Sites will disappear with a warming of 5.4°C, warming that falls within projected ranges from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea-level rise may force us to say goodbye to cultural treasures such as Japan’s Itsukushima Shrine, the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, Venice, Chile’s Rapa Nui National Park, and countless others. Further,
for cities such as Miami and New Orleans, its not a question of if they will be underwater, but when.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 1.17.10 PM

For those cultural icons that are still salvageable, it is imperative that we reach an ambitious binding goal for limiting global temperature increases. After all, we can certainly survive without some of these historical landmarks, but why would we want to?

Images Courtesy of Climate Central. 


Animal Adaptation to Climate Change: Looking Through the Lens of the Quino Checkerspot Butterfly

Climate change affects animals. This is not a new revelation. The first IPCC Assessment Report, released in 1990, discusses how climate change negatively impacts polar bears. But the conversation on animals and climate change often neglects the stories of how animals survive by adapting to climate changed conditions.

Many species adapt by broadening their diets and changing other behaviors, such as migrating patterns, mating habits, and hibernation lengths. For example, the National Wildlife Federation reports that the Quino checkerspot butterfly was disappearing in the late 1990’s. The butterfly was dying because hot weather in California was causing its host plant to dry out before any caterpillars could enter adulthood.

This endangered subspecies was considered a “goner,” but then the Quino did something surprising. Surrounded by desert, the butterfly could not migrate butterflynorth to wetter terrain. Instead, it moved to higher ground. The Quino population resettled at a higher elevation and most importantly, adapted to using a new host plant. This adaptation is exciting because it indicates what one scientist calls “a genetic revolution.”

Moving to a new host plant isn’t as easy as it sounds. The butterfly genes governing its search image and its natural instinct to lay eggs on a particular plant have to change. This one genetic change can create a domino effect on the genetic make-up of the Quino. For instance, the butterfly might have to alter the number of eggs it lays because of the new host plant’s capacity to nourish young caterpillars. In turn, the young caterpillars might need to develop new enzymes in order to eat the new host plant.

If the decision to move to a higher elevation is able to change what type of enzymes the next generation of Quino produces, the capacity for animal adaptation to climate change is immense. This past summer, researchers discovered polar bears have started eating dolphins. As northern seas become ice free, dolphins are migrating farther north, which in turn provides starving polar bears a new source of food.

Animal adaptation to climate change will not stop global warming, but it does illustrate why the UNFCCC is making an effort to enable the human animal to adjust to a climate-changed world. In order to mitigate climate change, humans must be able to adapt to the changes already occurring. The new agreement draft text shows that Parties are trying to balance mitigation and adaptation efforts in their commitments to address climate change concerns.

 


“Well, I’m not a scientist either, but . . .”

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama picked up climate change deniers’ well-used “I’m not a scientist, but” phrase, and turned it on its head.

obama 2015 SoU“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

The President’s nod to U.S. scientific bodies like NASA and NOAA is well timed.  In addition to their recent announcements about 2014’s record setting heat, a trove of academic studies have appeared in Nature and Science in just the last two weeks.  For example:

  • This paper in Nature reconciles gaps between models and observations of ocean levels since the 1990s and concludes that sea level rise is happening even more rapidly than thought. 
  • This paper in Science chronicles how global warming, ocean acidification, aquaculture, and miningNAS “pose extreme threats to ocean life,” and proposes creating ocean reserves and managing unprotected spaces akin to land conservation.
  • This paper in Science reports that climate change and species extinctions indicate the the planet is entering a “danger zone,” with human activity degrading the environment “at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years.”
  • This briefing in the Proceedings of the Institute for Civil Engineering (ICE) warns that the West Antarctica ice sheet collapse will cause over 11 feet of sea level rise that will disproportionately affect North America.
  • The U.S. Global Change Research Program reports in this National Climate Assessment on the direct human health impacts of climate change, including increased disease and food insecurity.

In the non-academic realm,the World Economic Forum’s 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report ranks extreme weather, water crises, natural catastrophes, the failure to adapt to climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse among the Top 10 risks to human security.

With this data in hand, our non-scientist-in-chief stated last night:

“That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and us-climate-change-300x225waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

UPDATE: On Wednesday, January 21, 2015, the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 on a Keystone XL bill amendment declaring that climate change is real and not a hoax.  That’s the good news on congressional understanding of the climate change science.  The bad news?  The failure of a second amendment acknowledging the human causes of it – specifically, that “climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change” – because the causation language of “significantly” troubled many Republicans.  Despite the good work of “a lot of really good scientists” at NOAA, NASA, and the inhofeIPCC (and despite the five Republicans, Lindsay Graham,Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Mark Kirk, and Lamar Alexander, who voted for it).  Oh, and one more tally in the two-steps-backward column: Sen. James Inhofe signed on as a co-sponsor to that first amendment, saying for the record that “climate has always changed” and that it’s “arrogant” to think humankind can change climate. Sigh. Nonetheless Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders called the climate change votes “a step forward” for Republicans: “I think what is exciting is that today we saw for the first time – a number, a minority – but some Republicans going onboard and saying that climate change is real and it’s caused by human activity.” For more, read here.

 


For the climate change record book

According to a variety of news sources, several important records were broken in 2014.

2014 hottest year graphHottest year on record.  The Japan Meteorological Association (JMA) reports that 2014 was 0.27°C warmer than the average from 1981 to 2010, and 0.63°C warmer than the 20th century average. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US, and the UK Met Office, also keep track of these climate stats and confirm the JMA’s conclusion.  NOAA just reported that 2014 was 0.5°F above normal, making it the 34th-warmest year for the continental U.S.  As Climate Central titled this news, “the U.S. hot streak is now officially old enough to vote for president as 2014 makes it 18 years of temperatures above the 20th century average.”

As the NYT described it: “Last year was the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880, scientists reported on Friday, underscoring warnings about the risks of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and undermining claims by climate change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped. Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States last year. Records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent. And the ocean surface was unusually warm virtually everywhere except near Antarctica, the scientists said, providing the energy that fueled damaging Pacific storms.In the annals of climatology, 2014 surpassed 2010 as the warmest year.”

Wind energy increases. Britain’s wind turbines generated enough electricity to power more than 25% of its homes, up 15% from 2013 (comprising 9.3% of the total grid). Germany’s wind power generated more in December than in any previous month.

solar recordsNew solar energy too.  Globally, utility-scale solar installations increased for a fifth, consecutive year. Solar markets in South America and Africa had notable growth, but the largest shares remained in Asia and North America.

Coal demand in China declines.  Chinese coal consumption dropped by around 2.3% in the first eleven months of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013 (and 9% average annual growth between 2000 and 2010). Notably, electricity growth in China has slowed to around half the pace of its economic growth, indicating success at energy efficiency and a transition to less electricity-intensive industrial sectors.