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.”


An Iceberg in Paris

Zarin-Artist-Bringing-Icebergs-to-Paris-1200After a morning meeting with the Chair of the California Air Resources Board, VLS delegates happened upon a circle of icebergs in the shadows of the Panthéon. The “Ice Watch” installation has had its home in the center of Paris since the start of COP21.

In October, artist Olafur Eliasson set out from the Nuuk, Greenland harbor in pursuit of 88 tons of the ice that covers 90 percent of his country. The captain of Eliasson’s tugboat said, “[ice] is a great part of our national identity. We follow the international discussion, of course, but to every Greenlander, just by looking out the window at home, it is obvious that something dramatic is happening.” The Greenland ice sheet loses thousands of comparably sized icebergs every second due to global warming.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Davidson

Twelve icebergs are arranged in a wide circle to resemble the face of a clock. This is meant to represent the passing of time. Spectators are able to witness the shivering, shining ice melt under the winter sun. When passersby hold their ears to the ice, they can hear the heart of the glacier cracking. Touch it, and it melts even faster—another symbol of mankind’s role in the current climate crisis. Eliasson confronts onlookers with a scientific reality.

Eliasson illuminates:

A circle is like a compass. It leaves navigation to the people who are inside it. It is a mistake to think that the work of art is the circle of ice—it is the space it invents. And it is on a street in Paris—and a street in Paris can’t be more important than it is right now. We all feel that strongly.

“Ice Watch” is humbling and fear-provoking, and yet also hopeful as COP21 negotiations continue nearby.

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Are State INDC Mitigation Pledges Strong Enough?

 

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Today at COP21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) hosted a joint presentation on the 2015 UNEP Emissions Gap Report. This sixth Emissions Gap Report was published in November 2015. The report assesses country mitigation commitments based off their submitted INDCs. Then it compares the resulting emission levels for 2030 with what scientific studies require in order for the world to be on track to stay within the maximum global temperature increase goal of 2°C. Many of the report’s authors attended the presentation and the official presenters of the report included:

Mr. Steiner explained that based on current INDCs, GHG emissions would decrease 25% by 2030. While this reduction shows progress, it is still not sufficient to achieve the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 2°C by 2100. As the INDCs stand today, accounting for both conditional and unconditional mitigation pledges, the COP is 50% of the way to achieving a GHG reduction of 42 GtCO2e, the amount needed to stay within 2°C. The fact that current INDCs are halfway to their reduction goals indicates that significant further mitigation efforts are required. Mr. Steiner stressed that the Parties have not run out of time to reach their goal, but the longer they wait the less cost-effective and more difficult it becomes to successfully achieve these mitigation goals. Mitigation action over the next four years, or during the pre-2020 timeframe, is material to staying within the 2°C threshold. With each passing year, the risk of inequity grows exponentially between developed countries and countries most vulnerable to climate change; this inequity is unacceptable because many vulnerable State Parties are already paying a higher price as they suffer more and more extreme weather events caused by climate change.

The UNFCCC Director of Strategy, Mr. Thorgeirsson, furthered the discussion on INDCs with three interesting, and mostly optimistic, reflections. First, he explained that the 2°C and 1.5°C temperature goals, which are often called long-term goals, are not necessarily at odds with one another. According to Mr. Thorgeirsson, the 2°C limit would serve as “a guardrail or defense line,” meaning that at bare minimum Parties’ mitigation efforts would limit the global temperature increase to 2°C, but this guardrail would be supplemented with the aspirational goal of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5°C. Ultimately, Mr. Thorgersson believes the two temperature goals should converge to create a joint narrative.

In his second reflective thought, Mr. Thorgeirsson encouraged the audience to not be disheartened by the submitted INDCs because the mitigation commitments in these documents reflect current realities based on current technologies and political situations. Therefore as technologies and political situations evolve so will mitigation pledges.

Lastly, Mr. Thorgersoon declared that answering the question of whether the Parties are on the right track in their mitigation efforts is an impossible question to address. States across the globe are in the process of transitioning from a fossil-fuel economy to economies based on different assumptions. These new types of economies contain many unknown factors that make it difficult to definitively know the effect of the Party’s mitigation pledges.

Ms. Jacqueline McGlade, Chief Scientist for UNEP, was the final presenter of the 2015 UNEP Emissions Gap Report. In her presentation, Ms. McGlade explained that the UNEP report has been released in various stages in order to capture and present more accurate carbon emissions data as more Parties submit their INDCs to the UNFCCC. This drafting difficulty is an on-going dilemma. Ms. McGlade explained that over 40 INDCs have been submitted since the latest stage of the UNEP report was released. She then assured the crowd that after COP21 concluded she and her team would resume updating their study to reflect the new mitigation pledges.

Ms. McGlade concluded the presentation with a final call to action, explaining that under the current INDC mitigation pledges there is a 66% chance of the global temperature increasing 3-4°C by 2100. A temperature increase of 3-4°C would result in catastrophic effects, but with focus and action the 1.5-2°C goals can still be reached. The COP21 process has revealed an unprecedented level of engagement in addressing climate change as an international issue. This engagement is a promising indicator that the Parties’ are committed to successfully fulfilling their long-term mitigation goal of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5-2°C.


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.

 


2C or not 2C

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A recent article in Nature has questioned whether 2°C of global warming (beyond pre-industrial levels) is the right limit for achieving the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) objective of “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” With its publication, authors David G. Victor and Charles F. Kennel have returned the scientific and policy questions behind the 2°C limit to the climate change debate table with gusto.

First adopted within the EU in 1996 (EU Council, 1996, item no. 6), and formalized globally in COP15’s “Copenhagen Accord,” the 2°C limit, while not legally binding, has been the mantra for governmental and institutional climate change efforts since. According to Victor and Kennel, however, this limit is “wrongheaded” because it fails on both political and scientific terms. First, it is sufficiently divorced from emissions and energy use so that it is ineffective in driving serious mitigation. Second, it doesn’t adequately characterize the stress with which the climate system is contending due to human activities. Thus, the 2°C mantra provides governments and institutions with little policy guidance, while at the same time failing to ensure accountability. polar-532_1527216a

Even before comparison of the IPCC’s 3rd (2001) and 4th (2009) Assessment Reports on climate change impacts alarmed the world, scientists were questioning the 2°C limit. Well-known former NASA scientist, James Hansen, began sounding the alarm in 2008, warning that the consequences of 2°C warming would be “disastrous.” Last December, Hansen offered (with a host of collaborators) his latest treatise on the topic, indicating that the cumulative 1,000 GtC in the atmosphere implied by a 2°C limit (based on multiple models, including those reported in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report) would actually generate “eventual warming of 3-4°C,” due to feedback loops. Even with 0.8°C warming, our planet is already experiencing climate extremes and other negative impacts.

Victor and Kennel acknowledge the attractiveness of the simplicity of the 2°C figure, but believe the global community is capable of conceptualizing and using a set of more accessible “vital signs” that can readily be translated into effective parameters for policy and action. In particular, they suggest atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other GHGs as the best indicator of climate system health. They call for agreement on a global average GHG concentration goal on which “specific emissions and policy efforts” can be based. They also recommend tracking indices like ocean heat content and high-latitude temperature, both of which are currently measured. They base their recommendations on the success of the Millennium Development Goals and the Montreal Protocol, which they believe is due to the specific linking of goals to indicators that actually respond (within a few years) to human decision-making.

Many have criticized the Nature essay. Adam Vaughan, writing in the Guardian, reports a host of negative responses from scientists and international climate policy veterans, albeit not all totally damning. The climate activist community (ThinkProgress, Grist, and others) isn’t too happy, either. The timing of the article — less than 18 months before the deadline for the next international climate agreement, due to be inked in Paris — and it appearing in such a prominent journal have prompted the most anger. Many of these critics fear that doing away with the 2°C limit will let governments off the hook — exactly the result Victor and Kennel feel having the 2°C limit has done. (Victor’s rebuttal, available here, interestingly notes that many authors have articulated the need for multiple indicators.)

But do politicians feel that they’re “on the hook?” Current national energy policies have allowed a 34% increase in global GHG radiative forcing between 1990 and 2013, with atmospheric concentration of CO2 in 2013 exceeding the pre-industrial level (1750) by 142%. The World Meteorological Association’s September report of this data (see our September 9 blog posting on it) included the disturbing news that CO2 increase between 2012 and 2013 exceeded that of any single year since 1984.

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With nearly universal agreement on the policy end (reduce anthropogenic emissions ASAP), but much disagreement over the policy driver (the line(s) in the sand beyond which there is no return), perhaps this catastrophe-based framing is poorly suited to policy-making. Victor and Kennel don’t suggest abandoning the 2°C limit today. Instead, they call for the UNFCCC to “chart a path” to designing a new set of indicators at that upcoming momentous Paris 2015 COP21 meeting.

2C or not 2C? We shall see.