The Day After Tomorrow was released in 2004 American it was a climate science fiction disaster film based on the 1999 book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, the film starred Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum, and Sela Ward. It was criticized at the time as too far fetch, maybe so, but ever since then, the main premise of the movie has been playing out.
Atlantic Ocean circulation at weakest in a millennium, say scientists! The decline in system underpinning Gulf Stream could lead to more extreme weather in Europe and higher sea levels on the US east coast
The Atlantic Ocean circulation that underpins the Gulf Stream, the weather system that brings warm and mild weather to Europe, is at its weakest in more than a millennium, and climate breakdown is the probable cause, according to new data.
Further weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) could result in more storms battering the UK, more intense winters and an increase in damaging heatwaves and droughts across Europe.
Scientists predict that the AMOC will weaken further if global heating continues, and could reduce by about 34% to 45% by the end of this century, which could bring us close to a “tipping point” at which the system could become irrevocably unstable. A weakened Gulf Stream would also raise sea levels on the Atlantic coast of the US, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who co-authored the study published on Thursday in Nature Geoscience, told the Guardian that a weakening AMOC would increase the number and severity of storms hitting Britain, and bring more heatwaves to Europe.
He said the circulation had already slowed by about 15%, and the impacts were being seen. “In 20 to 30 years it is likely to weaken further, and that will inevitably influence our weather, so we would see an increase in storms and heatwaves in Europe, and sea level rises on the east coast of the US,” he said.
Rahmstorf and scientists from Maynooth University in Ireland and University College London in the UK concluded that the current weakening had not been seen over at least the last 1,000 years, after studying sediments, Greenland ice cores and other proxy data that revealed past weather patterns over that time. The AMOC has only been measured directly since 2004.
The AMOC is one of the world’s biggest ocean circulation systems, carrying warm surface water from the Gulf of Mexico towards the north Atlantic, where it cools and becomes saltier until it sinks north of Iceland, which in turn pulls more warm water from the Caribbean. This circulation is accompanied by winds that also help to bring mild and wet weather to Ireland, the UK and other parts of western Europe.
Scientists have long predicted a weakening of the AMOC as a result of global heating, and have raised concerns that it could collapse altogether. The new study found that any such point was likely to be decades away, but that continued high greenhouse gas emissions would bring it closer.
Rahmstorf said: “We risk triggering [a tipping point] in this century, and the circulation would spin down within the next century. It is extremely unlikely that we have already triggered it, but if we do not stop global warming, it is increasingly likely that we will trigger it.
“The consequences of this are so massive that even a 10% chance of triggering a breakdown would be an unacceptable risk.”
Research in 2018 also showed a weakening of the AMOC, but the paper in Nature Geoscience says this was unprecedented over the last millennium, a clear indication that human actions are to blame. Scientists have previously said a weakening of the Gulf Stream could cause freezing winters in western Europe and unprecedented changes across the Atlantic.
The AMOC is a large part of the Gulf Stream, often described as the “conveyor belt” that brings warm water from the equator. But the bigger weather system would not break down entirely if the ocean circulation became unstable, because winds also play a key role. The circulation has broken down before, in different circumstances, for instance at the end of the last ice age.
The Gulf Stream is separate from the jet stream that has helped to bring extreme weather to the northern hemisphere in recent weeks, though like the jet stream it is also affected by the rising temperatures in the Arctic. Normally, the very cold temperatures over the Arctic create a polar vortex that keeps a steady jet stream of air currents keeping that cold air in place. But higher temperatures over the Arctic have resulted in a weak and wandering jet stream, which has helped cold weather to spread much further south in some cases, while bringing warmer weather further north in others, contributing to the extremes in weather seen in the UK, Europe and the US in recent weeks.
Similarly, the Gulf Stream is affected by the melting of Arctic ice, which dumps large quantities of cold water to the south of Greenland, disrupting the flow of the AMOC. The impacts of variations in the Gulf Stream are seen over much longer periods than variations in the jet stream, but will also bring more extreme weather as the climate warms.
As well as causing more extreme weather across Europe and the east coast of the US, the weakening of the AMOC could have severe consequences for Atlantic marine ecosystems, disrupting fish populations and other marine life.
Andrew Meijers, the deputy science leader of polar oceans at British Antarctic Survey, who was not involved in the study, said: “The AMOC has a profound influence on global climate, particularly in North America and Europe, so this evidence of an ongoing weakening of the circulation is critical new evidence for the interpretation of future projections of regional and global climate.
“The AMOC is frequently modelled as having a tipping point below some circulation strength, a point at which the relatively stable overturning circulation becomes unstable or even collapses. The ongoing weakening of the overturning means we risk finding that point, which would have profound and likely irreversible impacts on the climate.”
Karsten Haustein, of the Climate Services Center in Germany, also independent of the study, said the US could be at risk of stronger hurricanes as a result of the Gulf Stream’s weakening.
“While the AMOC won’t collapse any time soon, the authors warn that the current could become unstable by the end of this century if warming continues unabated,” he said. “It has already been increasing the risk for stronger hurricanes at the US east coast due to warmer ocean waters, as well as potentially altering circulation patterns over western Europe.”
Dr Levke Caesar, of Maynooth University in Ireland, and the lead author of the paper, said sea level rises on the east coast of the US were another potential consequence. “The northward surface flow of the AMOC leads to a deflection of water masses to the right, away from the US east coast. This is due to Earth’s rotation that diverts moving objects such as currents to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere,” she said. “As the current slows down, this effect weakens and more water can pile up at the US east coast, leading to an enhanced sea level rise.”
The Guardian – Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
Despicable Trump just opened up all 16.7 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development, according to a notice posted 10-28-2020, stripping protections that had safeguarded one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests for nearly two decades.
As of Thursday, it will be legal for logging companies to build roads and cut and remove timber throughout more than 9.3 million acres of forest — featuring old-growth stands of red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock. The relatively-pristine expanse is also home to plentiful salmon runs and imposing fjords. The decision, which will be published in the Federal Register, reverses protections President Bill Clinton put in place in 2001 and is one of the most sweeping public lands rollbacks Trump has enacted.
For years, federal and academic scientists have identified Tongass as an ecological oasis that serves as a massive carbon sink while providing key habitat for wild Pacific salmon and trout, Sitka black-tailed deer and myriad other species. It boasts the highest density of brown bears in North America, and its trees — some of which are between 300 and 1,000 years old — absorb at least 8 percent of all the carbon stored in the entire Lower 48′s forests combined.
While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, said in an interview. “It’s America’s last climate sanctuary.”
While Trump has repeatedly touted his commitment to planting trees through the One Trillion Tree initiative, invoking it as recently as last week, his administration has sought to expand logging in Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest throughout his presidency. Federal judges have blocked several of these plans as illegal: Last week, the administration abandoned its appeal of a ruling that struck down a 1.8 million-acre timber sale on the Tongass’s Prince of Wales Island.
Alaska Republicans — including Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Sen. Dan Sullivan, who is locked in a tight reelection race — lobbied Trump to exempt the state from the roadless rule on the grounds that it could help the economy in Alaska’s southeast. Fishing and tourism account for 26 percent of regional employment, according to the Southeast Conference, a regional business group, compared with timber’s 1 percent.
When Sullivan briefed Trump on the Tongass earlier this year, according to an individual familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, Trump asked him, “How the [expletive] do you have an economy without roads?”
Asked about the exchange, the White House declined to comment.
Southeast Alaska’s economy has taken an enormous hit during the pandemic. Robert Venables, the executive director of the Southeast Conference, said in an interview that though 1.4 million cruise passengers typically visit the region each summer, that number dropped to just 48 this summer. The area’s fisheries also have suffered because of climate change, and the global economic crisis hurt seafood prices.
“The economy is collapsing,” he said, adding that the Trump administration’s action might allow loggers to extract timber from some relatively accessible old-growth stands. “There’s some common-sense, near-term relief.”
But even Venables criticized the administration as going too far and predicted that the decision probably would be reversed next year if Democrats won the White House.
“It seems like the ball’s being punted from one end to the other,” he said. “The real disappointment here is a compromise could not be found that could create a more lasting peace.”
Logging in Alaska costs U.S. taxpayers millions each year, because of a long-standing federal mandate that companies profit from any timber sale. This means the Forest Service often covers harvesters’ costs, including road building. According to a Taxpayer for Common Sense analysis of the Forest Service’s accounts, the Tongass timber program has lost roughly $1.7 billion over the last 40 years.
After Taxpayers for Common Sense commented during the federal environmental review that it would be more economically efficient to hold timber sales in parts of the forest that already have roads, the Forest Service acknowledged that that was true.
The agency said its plan “reflects a different policy perspective on the roadless management issue rather than a change in the underlying facts and circumstances,” adding that the Trump administration believes “that overall reduction in federal regulations is good for the American public due to reduced burden to the taxpayer and reduced burden to business.”
Ninety-six percent of the comments during the U.S. Forest Service’s environmental review opposed lifting the existing safeguards, while 1 percent supported it. In a sign of how unpopular the administration’s push to lift roadless restrictions has become, all five Alaska Native tribal nations withdrew as cooperating agencies in the process two weeks ago, after the Forest Service published its blueprint for opening up the entire Tongass to development.
“We refuse to allow legitimacy upon a process that has disregarded our input at every turn,” the tribal leaders wrote.
Some of these tribes had conducted clear cuts decades ago, when they gained legal control over their ancestral lands. Marina Anderson, the tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island, recalled in a phone interview that her late father was a logger and said that the entire village had suffered the consequences of felling so many trees. A landslide occurred Monday morning; while Anderson was speaking on the phone, a second landslide occurred.
“These landslides happen on clear-cut lands. This morning I said, ‘It’s landslide day,” she said, noting there had been heavy rain. “I’ve grown up seeing these mudslides my whole life. As a culture committed to balance, it’s my responsibility to bring back that balance from what [my father] had done.”
The roughly 60 residents in the village, which does not have a grocery store, rely heavily on salmon, berries and other staples they can harvest from the forest. “Climate change is hitting us pretty hard,” Anderson said, adding that tribal officials oppose extensive logging because old-growth trees help lower stream temperatures and provide key wildlife habitat.
Referring to the new plan, she said, “It will only devastate even more what is already in progress.”
Environmentalists, who have successfully blocked a slew of timber sales on the Tongass since the early 1970s, said they will challenge the repeal of protections in court.
“We’ve been protecting the Tongass for many years. We’ve done it through Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt, we’ve done it through Republican administrations and we’ve done it through hostile Supreme Courts,” Sam Sankar, vice president for programs at Earthjustice, said in an interview. “There’s never been a strong economic argument for logging, and neither has there been a strong biological or cultural argument. And we’re confident we’ll continue to prevail in the courts.”
Still some experts said they worried the decision could greenlight timber sales that would release more carbon into the atmosphere. DellaSala, who estimated that clear cutting 160,000 acres of old growth would be equivalent to putting 10 million cars on Alaska’s roads, noted that last month he had to evacuate from his home near Talent, Ore., because of a massive blaze nearby.
“It’s personal for me,” he said, adding that his home survived but that many others nearby did not. “We don’t have a lot of time to get this right, and we are heading in the wrong direction.”
edited from Washington Post
6 Ways Idiot Trump’s Denial of Science Has screwed up the Response to COVID-19 (and The Climate Crisis)
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for rigorous science, demonstrating—in realtime—what the consequences can be when world leaders pay inadequate attention to what that science says. In his response to COVID-19, Donald Trump has made statements that ignore, question or distort mainstream science. But long before the virus arrived—even before he became ruler—he was using similar techniques to deny climate change. Here are some examples:
Feb. 28, 2020
Trump: “[Coronavirus is] going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview on CNN that the virus was likely here to stay, possibly for months.
Trump: “I’m not a believer in global warming, I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. It could be warming and it’s gonna start to cool at some point.”
The scientific consensus is clear that global warming is happening and is a threat to the planet!
Feb. 10, 2020
“Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do—you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat—as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April. We’re in great shape though.”
Some coronaviruses are seasonal. But scientists still don’t know whether the virus that causes COVID-19 will be. Findings of a recent study suggest that the virus is spreading most readily in cooler temperature zones, The Washington Post reports; however, the study does not conclude from that evidence that the virus will be significantly reduced in the summer.
Nov. 11, 2019
“You know, I actually heard the other day, some pretty good politician. I’ve seen him around for a long time. Nice white hair. Everything is like central casting. You could put the guy in a movie. He was talking. I don’t know if he believes this—but he was a Democrat—he said, ‘We have 11 years.’ It’s the first time I’ve heard it; I heard 12. But now, see, it’s been a year, so now they think we have 11 years to live. I don’t know, folks. I think these people have gone totally loco.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in 2018 that said global carbon emissions would need to be cut by 45 percent by 2030 to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This does not mean we have 11 years to live, as Trump asserted, but rather 11 years to shift energy production away from fossil fuels to keep warming within the goals of the Paris accord.
March 6, 2020
“Anybody that needs a test can have a test. They are all set. They have them out there. In addition to that they are making millions more as we speak but as of right now and yesterday anybody that needs a test that is the important thing…”
Contrary to Trump’s assertion, patients and health care workers were complaining that they could not get access to coronavirus tests. A few days later, testifying to a House committee, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged tests were not yet widely available. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it—we’re not set up for that,” he said.
Sept. 4, 2019
Donald Trump during an Oval Office briefing on the status of Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 4, 2019. Credit: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post
In September 2019, Trump showed the press an image of Dorian’s projected trajectory that had apparently been altered using a Sharpie to include Alabama in the path of the storm.
Earlier, Trump had tweeted that Alabama would probably be hit by Hurricane Dorian. The National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama, then contradicted dear leader Trump with a tweet saying Alabama was not at risk. Trump used the altered image a few days later.
March 18, 2020, on Twitter
“I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China—against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”
Trump has been urged to stop calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” a term he has used repeatedly and that some have called racist and dangerous. And many public health experts have criticized the administration’s lack of preparation and failure to act quickly when the virus was first recognized.
Nov. 6, 2012, on Twitter
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
There is a widespread scientific consensus about the reality of human-driven global warming.
Feb. 28, 2020
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it … And this is their new hoax.”
By this time, the U.S. had confirmed 60 cases of coronavirus. The CDC had already warned the public to prepare for the virus to spread, assuring them that this was not a hoax.
Sept. 11, 2019
“Over 100 Democrats have signed up to support the $100 trillion Green New Deal. That’s a beauty. No more cows. No more planes. I guess, no more people, right?”
A Washington Post fact check shows that the Green New Deal resolution supported by most Democrats did not include mention of halting air travel or doing away with cows. (even if it should have)
Nov. 26, 2018, Commenting to reporters on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report saying climate change would hurt the economy.
Trump: “I’ve seen it, I’ve read some of it, it’s fine. Yeah, I don’t believe it.”
The report, produced by climate experts and Trump’s own administration, said climate change would damage the economy.
March 13, 2020
Mr. Bad Example! Despite common sense and CDC warnings that shaking hands can spread the virus, dipshit Trump shakes everyone’s hand!
Edited from Inside climate news –
6 Ways Trump’s Denial of Science Has Delayed the Response to COVID-19 (and Climate Change)
by Katelyn Weisbrod
American companies are ignoring the risks of climate change at their own peril, extreme weather caused by the climate crisis could result in a devastating economic recession.
Financial markets are failing to account for the risks that increasingly frequent and worsening floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events pose to the economy, according to an article published in the journal Nature Energy this week.”
If the market doesn’t do a better job of accounting for climate, we could have a recession—the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” said study author Paul Griffin, an accounting professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. Griffin said in the article that his years of research concluded that “unpriced risk” was the “main cause” of the 2007-08 Great Recession and companies are once again failing to assess the damage extreme weather events can wreak on their business.
“Right now, energy companies shoulder much of that risk. The market needs to better assess risk, and factor a risk of extreme weather into securities prices,” he said. “Without better knowledge of this risk, the average energy investor can only hope that the next extreme event will not trigger a sudden correction to the market values of energy firms.”
Soaring temperatures, like those now seen annually in Europe and parts of the United States, aren’t just dangerous to human life, he argued. They also hurt the farming and agriculture industry all over the world and slow economic growth. They also sometimes cause massive power outages that affect a huge variety of industries, like when PG&E shut down energy delivery across much of California last year in an attempt to reduce fire risk. The company also filed for bankruptcy after it was blamed for causing the wildfires in 2018. Extreme weather also disrupts transportation and water delivery, hurting not just those industries but countless others that rely on workers being able to get to work and drink clean water.
“Despite these obvious risks, investors and asset managers have been conspicuously slow to connect physical climate risk to company market valuations,” Griffin wrote. “Loss of property is what grabs all the headlines, but how are businesses coping? Threats to businesses could disrupt the entire economic system.”
Griffin also warned that energy companies are particularly vulnerable in areas where their operations are threatened by rising sea levels. Oil refineries in California and the Gulf Coast are especially at risk of being inundated by severe floods, storms, and wildfires.
The insurance industry would also grow overwhelmed by the cost of claims from extreme weather events and may not cover such risks, the article said, not to mention “litigation, sanctions and even loss of business from the property destroyed.”
“Extreme heat events can create uncertain and longer duration power outages, threaten critical infrastructure, exacerbate energy supply and demand imbalances, and trigger significant legal liability for energy firms,” he wrote. “Despite these obvious risks, investors and asset managers have been conspicuously slow to connect physical climate risk from extreme weather events to company market valuations.”
“While proprietary climate risk models my help some firms and organizations better understand future conditions attributable to climate change, extreme weather risk is still highly problematic from a risk estimation standpoint,” he wrote. “This is because with climate change, the patterns of the past are no guide to the future, whether it be one year, five years or 20 years out. Investors may also normalize extreme weather impacts over time, discounting their future importance.”
Financial institutions are increasingly worried about this trend as well. A report issued by an organization of the world’s central banks earlier this year similarly warned that financial institutions lack the tools to deal with what could be a devastating economic challenge.
“Think the subprime crisis in 2008 was bad? Imagine a real estate crisis caused by rising sea levels and coastal flooding that renders thousands of square miles of land uninhabitable or useless for farming,” wrote The New York Times’ Jack Ewing in his summary of the report. “By some estimates, global gross domestic product could plunge by nearly a quarter by the end of the century because of the effects of climate change. Central banks have enough trouble dealing with mild recessions, and would not be powerful enough to combat an economic downturn of that scale.”
“In the worst-case scenario, central banks may have to intervene as climate rescuers of last resort or as some sort of collective insurer for climate damages,” the report warned.
An earlier study published in Science in 2017 attempted to quantify the economic impact posed by the effects of climate change. That study warned that the US economy may shrink by up to 3 percent, and certain regions may be hit even harder without significant intervention. Many regions could see gross domestic product (GDP) decline by more than 10 percent, and Florida’s worst-hit areas could see GDP losses up to 28 percent, according to the study.
That research relied on the United States meeting its goals in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but that seems unlikely now that Donald Trump withdrew from the pact and repeatedly gutted Obama-era policies intended to combat climate change.
“Is there climate change? Yeah. Will it go back like this, I mean will it change back? Probably,” Trump told Axios in 2018, despite extensive research from his own administration arguing that certainly will not be the case. The last decade was the hottest on record, according to NASA and NOAA, and it is only getting worse.
Trump said that his decision to pull out of the Paris Accord would improve the economy and vowed to negotiate a deal with terms that are “fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers,” though he has made no efforts to do so since.
Despite Trump’s claims, the country’s largest companies quickly sounded the alarm that the move would hurt, not help, the economy.
“By strengthening global action over time,” said a letter from leading US companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe, Morgan Stanley, Gap, Intel, and Hewlett Packard, “the agreement will reduce future climate impacts, including damage to business facilities and operations, declining agricultural productivity and water supplies, and disruption of global supply chains.”
In 2019, millions of Californians experienced a wildfire safety blackout, some for nearly a week at a time, as the troubled utility company Pacific Gas & Electric and other investor-owned utilities grappled with replacing one devastating disaster with another, comparatively manageable one.
2019 was not an anomaly, but the beginning of a new way of life for many California residents. While “de-energization” for fire safety has been state policy for more than a decade, it had never before been used on such a mass scale. According to utility experts, politicians and PG&E, customers can expect many more years of blackouts to come, as fire risk in California’s hills only increases.
“Wildfire blackouts could be California’s new normal for the next 10 to 30 years, or even longer,” senate energy committee chair Lisa Murkowski told a hearing on utility and fire safety in December.
In stark contrast to recent years past, California’s 2019 wildfire season was relatively mild: just 732 structures destroyed, compared to the tens of thousands and dozens killed in 2017 and 2018.
The crisis of 2019’s fire season was less the fires themselves, and more the actions taken that were meant to prevent fires from igniting in the first place. Intended as a measure of last resort, California power utilities conducted nine public safety power shutoffs in the fall of 2019 in an effort to reduce wildfire risk in hot, windy weather conditions – and to reduce liability costs to utilities.
Those costs following deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018 fires linked to equipment belonging to PG&E, drove the company to file for bankruptcy in 2019, and to reconsider how to manage the grid during future fire weather events.
Bill Johnson, PG&E’s CEO, has at different times claimed his utility – the largest in the state – would resort to blackouts for the next three, five or ten years.
Southern California investor-owned utility San Diego Gas and Electric “is the poster child for safety,” said Michael Wara, the Director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. SDG&E has been de-energizing its lines during fire weather events for more than a decade.
“Why is it that PG&E thinks it’s going to be able to replicate what San Diego’s done and do even better over a larger area in less time? It’s not impossible, but it’s an enormously challenging task,” said Wara.
PG&E’s post-de-energization reports to the state utilities commission showed a number of hazards after each event, from damaged lines and conductors to fallen trees. After its largest shutoff at the end of October, the utility noted more than 100 individual hazards.
“Would every piece of system damage that they noted have caused a fire? Probably not. But some of them probably would have,” said Wara. “[Public safety power shutoff policy] is so unpopular, and it impacts so many people, I worry we will be pushed to be overly optimistic about other potential avenues for creating safety.”
Despite the widespread shutoffs, PG&E equipment was still tied to igniting several fires in the fall of 2019, including the Kincade fire in Sonoma County, which destroyed 352 structures and burned more than 77,000 acres.
“It’s not clear to me that the system is that much safer than 2017,” Wara said. “The safety that we had this season and the absence of fires during these dangerous wind events was due to the fact that the wires weren’t hot.”
Fire risk in the California hills will rise precipitously through the middle of the century, according to a 2018 report for California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, with big new hazards in areas where high voltage transmission lines run through the mountains and connect California to clean energy out of state.
In the face of that rising danger, the public safety power shutoff is a utility’s fastest and cheapest means of reducing fire risk.
“I want to assure you that we do not expect an annual repeat of what we went through this fall. We are working hard now to narrow the scope and duration of future safety shutoffs and minimize their customer impact as much as possible,” Johnson told the senate hearing.
But he also took credit for the less destructive 2019 fire season: “PG&E’s [public safety power shutoff] program achieved its singular goal: there was no loss of life during wildfires in 2019.”
Not everyone in California is convinced that success is PG&E’s to claim.
Will Abrams and his family lost their home in the 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed more than 5,600 structures and killed 22 people. They were forced to evacuate again from the 2019 Kincade fire.
“The fact that our firefighters went in and did an amazing job, learned from prior fires and got these more under control shouldn’t be a PG&E victory lap,” said Abrams. “I would argue that the shutoffs provide a disincentive for other mitigation. Because if you can just pull the power, you don’t have to do the vegetation management and the microgrids and all the other stuff you need to do.”
All of that “other stuff” is enormously expensive and labor-intensive and will take years to complete.
And the costs of installing stronger poles and trimming trees will not just be borne by the company’s profits. CEO Johnson has said ratepayers will not be on the hook for the costs associated with the company’s bankruptcy, but they will have to foot some of the bill for grid upgrades and maintenance. Customers saw their rates increase again on 1 January, though not as much as the utility would have liked. PG&E customers already pay some of the highest prices in the country for power, and those prices will only increase.
PG&E expects to reinforce 7,100 miles of line in fire risky areas in the next 12 to 14 years. To date, the utility has completed just 129 miles.
PG&E a ‘convicted felon’ to hold accountable
To some, PG&E’s bankruptcy initially seemed like an opportunity to restructure the troubled utility in favor of creating a more reliable and resilient grid to weather future climate change – one that wouldn’t necessitate extensive annual blackouts.
“This bankruptcy represents a closing window of opportunity to change course so that not only is PG&E a proven safe and reliable provider of energy but so the state has a way forward to address wildfires and climate change,” said Abrams, who has filed motions in the case advocating for more significant restructuring and transparency in the process.
But the California governor Gavin Newsom rejected PG&E’s plan to leave bankruptcy, calling it “woefully short” of reorganizing the company “to provide safe, reliable, and affordable service to its customers”.
In 2018, the state legislature passed a bill aimed at heading off that bankruptcy but providing new funding sources for fire-burdened utilities and requiring new wildfire safety plans – which ultimately included de-energization. In 2019, at Newsom’s urging, the legislature passed new legislation that created a wildfire liabilities fund, and placed a June deadline for PG&E to leave bankruptcy.
Critics argued that both bills were essentially bailouts for investor-owned utilities. “I voted no on both of them – I thought that they shifted financial responsibility on to Californians and neglected to raise public safety to the paramount priority,” said assembly member Marc Levine. “Deenergization was a massive failure.”
While California’s fires have been orders of magnitude more destructive than the blackouts, they touch just a fraction of the millions who had their lights turned off in 2019 – making de-energization a hotter problem for politicians and PG&E to solve. They have just a few months before the next fire season begins.
Three new pieces of legislation introduced in the state legislature’s first week back in 2020 aimed at addressing a troubled PG&E, regardless of the bankruptcy’s resolution.
A new proposal from Levine would install a public administrator from the state regulatory commission for a period of six months to oversee all the functions of a floundering investor-owned utility.
“We need to stop treating PG&E like a business to keep solvent and more like a convicted felon that needs to be held accountable,” said Levine.
Assemblymember Kansen Chu authored two bills directly aimed at de-energization which would authorize state regulators to determine if utilities should compensate customers after each power shutoff, and require utilities to support customers who rely on power for medical needs.
“There’s so much aging infrastructure, but that’s not going to be fixed very soon,” Chu said. “In the meantime I want them to be more responsible and more careful with their shutoffs because the first shut off was a disaster.” But leaving the power on in the meantime, said Chu, “is probably more devastating”.
Australia’s Burning Forests, A sign We’ve Passed a Global Warming Tipping Point
‘Nobody saw it coming this soon,’ one scientist said. ‘It’s likely the forests won’t be coming back as we know them.’
As extreme wildfires burn across large swaths of Australia, scientists say we’re witnessing how global warming can push forest ecosystems past a point of no return.
Some of those forests won’t recover in today’s warmer climate, scientists say. They expect the same in other regions scarred by flames in recent years; in semi-arid areas like parts of the American West, the Mediterranean Basin and Australia, some post-fire forest landscapes will shift to brush or grassland.
More than 17 million acres have burned in Australia over the last three months amid record heat that has dried vegetation and pulled moisture from the land. Hundreds of millions of animals, including a large number of koalas, are believed to have perished in the infernos. The survivors will face drastically changed habitats. Water flows and vegetation will change, and carbon emissions will rise as burning trees release carbon and fewer living trees are left to pull CO2 out of the air and store it.
In many ways, it’s the definition of a tipping point, as ecosystems transform from one type into another.
The surge of large, destructive forest fires from the Arctic to the tropics just in the last few years has shocked even researchers who focus on forests and fires and who have warned of such tipping points for years.
The projections were seen as remote, “something that would happen much farther in the future,” said University of Arizona climate scientist David Breashers. “But it’s happening now. Nobody saw it coming this soon, even though it was like a freight train.
“It’s likely the forests won’t be coming back as we know them.”
The link between global warming, forests and wildfires is multifaceted but very clear, said Nerilie Abram, a climate researcher at Australian National University.
“Increasing temperatures dry out fuel and lead to more days of extreme fire weather,” she said. “The poleward shift of the Southern Hemisphere westerly winds is drawing winter rainfall away from southern Australia, causing a long-term drying trend that makes the landscape more vulnerable to burning.”
The cycle feeds itself, she explained: Drought and loss of forests cause higher temperatures over the land and a lower humidity, which, in turn, worsens wildfire conditions. And there’s no reason to think that a gradual temperature rise will cause a similar gradual increase in fire risk, she said, citing a recent study showing that incremental warming increases fire damage exponentially by drying out fuels.
“Each degree of warming has a bigger effect on forest fire than did the previous degree of warming,” that study’s lead author, Park Williams of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, wrote on Twitter when the study was released.
In a recent Australian television interview, Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said the heartbreaking loss of irreplaceable forests in Australia is a clear sign of a climate tipping point playing out before our eyes. Similar scenarios are apparent in forests around the world, he said.
Some of the forests lost to the ongoing fires in Australia aren’t likely to come back anytime soon, said Australian National University climate scientist Christopher Brack.
“These fires burning through the Southern Alps (in Australia) at the moment are re-burning alpine and mountain ash trees that were regenerating from fires less than 20 years ago,” Brack said. In the warming climate, the current forests are likely to be replaced by brush and other shorter-lived and more flammable species that will intensify the fire cycle, he said.
On the world’s current emissions path, with warming of about 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3°F) by the end of the century, fire frequency is expected to increase on more than 60 percent of global land area, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a 2018 report that identified Southern Australia, along with Central and South America, South Africa and the U.S. West as at risk.
Human activity has also contributed to increased fire risk in other ways. Logging can dry up forests and make the remaining trees more susceptible to fire, and the building of more roads and residential areas in the forests means there is more chance of fires igniting from power lines or cars, as well as more property damage and people at risk when fires break out.
Mountain Forests and Even Rainforests Are Drying
Australian Cam Walker, a forest conservation advocate and volunteer firefighter, has been battling to keep the flames away from a resort village near the Mt. Hotham Ski Area.
“This is subalpine country dominated by snow gums, a type of eucalyptus. This area has been burnt three times in about 12 years, and snow gums have a limited ability to cope with repeated fire,” he said.
The fires are also threatening some of the most ancient forests on Earth, relics from 180 million years ago, when all the planet’s continents were joined in the super-continent of Gondwana. The moist Gondwana rainforests, with damp microclimates under a dense canopy, have little history of fires, but global warming is drying them out.
“We are seeing ever more of these areas burning because conditions are so dry. This has been happening also in relic sub-alpine vegetation in Tasmania, where we are witnessing more regular dry lightning strikes,” Walker said.
“The costs to Australia of not acting on climate change will be catastrophic. Already scientists are warning that many ecosystems will collapse under high-emissions scenarios,” he said.
Australia heat, temperature and wildfires. Credit: Nerilie Abrams
Research in recent years reinforces that view, said David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.
“Global climate change is stressing vegetation much more than we realized. Stressed vegetation recovers more slowly and rapid changes from forest to non-forest are possible,” he said. “Increased fire frequency reduces the capacity of forests to bounce back after recurrent fires.”
Warming Also Drives Forest Die-Offs and Fire Risk in Other Ways
Even without fire, trees are dying around the world at increasing rates because of global warming.
During extreme heat events and droughts, air bubbles can form in their moisture transport systems, essentially choking them to death. Warming also increases outbreaks of tree-killing insects. And logging, as well as land-clearing fires in the Amazon are threatening to push that critical forest ecosystem past a tipping point with global implications for carbon cycling.
“Why are these trees in all these different regions dying at the same time when they’ve been around for such a long time? It’s heartbreaking,” said Breshears. “Ten years ago, I didn’t think we’d be in this situation. I’m still kind of shocked myself at how much is occurring.”
A series of studies in the past 10 years help explain the global tree die-off, said U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Craig D. Allen.
There’s evidence that most tree species around the world already routinely operate near damaging thresholds of water stress, and that they are unable to cope with the rising frequency and intensity of heat extremes, Allen said.
Another recent study showed how a declining snowpack and rising summer temperatures combine to limit regrowth, which is clear evidence of the negative impact of human-caused climate warming on subalpine forests. Pine seedlings need cool and moist summers to thrive, but those conditions occur less frequently with global warming. As a result, some Rocky Mountain forests will pass a tipping point with “shifts from forest to non-forest vegetation types across a broad range of elevations in Front Range forests,” the study concluded.
Some tipping points may be less sudden than we think and already underway, said University of Montana forest entomologist Diana Six, who studies how global warming affects destructive insects that have been killing trees in the U.S. West in the past few decades.
“Older forests are established and may look fine. But what happens when they die? What comes back?” she said. On a warming planet, there’s no guarantee that those older carbon-sequestering forests will regenerate—in fact, there is plenty of research suggesting that many will not.
Even limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F) as targeted by the Paris climate agreement may not be enough to save some forests. “With the changes and extinction we are seeing now, I would say no. But less bad than if we let things go further,” she said.
The multiple studies and reports on increases in fire season length, fire size, magnitude, and intensity, as well as forest die-back events and pest outbreaks, show that forest ecosystems at the very core of our life support on the planet are under severe stress, said Alistair Jump, head of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling (UK).
“The changing climate is massively exacerbating the risk of catastrophic fire, and we are seeing the consequences of that globally,” he said. “Even where fire isn’t taking forests out, we are seeing drought-driven mortality risk escalate. Add to that changing pest and pathogen distributions and rampant deforestation, and trees are really in trouble just at the time that we need them most. The big risk of all of this being that carbon already locked away gets released in the blink of an eye.
“We take forests for granted—but we can see just how fast we can change the way forests work and how seriously it can impact us in return.”
Meanwhile, Trump is going to make our children’s lives miserable and much shorter
Trump on Thursday proposed sharply limiting environmental reviews of pipelines and other major federally permitted infrastructure projects, a move that would sweep away a hurdle slowing his agenda for unfettered fossil fuel development.
The new guidance would curb federal agencies from considering climate impacts by specifying that agencies are only required to analyze impacts that are immediate, local and direct. The administration’s proposed rule, which will be open for public comment before being finalized, also would relieve agencies of any duty to consider cumulative environmental impacts.
“Many of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously burdensome federal approval process,” Trump said in an address from the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “From day one, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority. For the first time in 40 years, we’re going to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.”
The move to overhaul implementation rules for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which marked its 50th anniversary on Jan. 1, was portrayed by Trump as a modernization.
But critics argue that the president is proposing changes that would undermine the bedrock environmental protection law, which establishes the duty of the federal government to act “as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.” They vowed to fight the effort.
“While our world is burning, Climate denier Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm,” said Gina McCarthy, the new president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). McCarthy, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, added: “We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop this dangerous move and safeguard our children’s future.”
Flanked by men in hard hats and orange construction vests, industry officials and members of his economic team, Trump stressed his aim to speed the building of highways, roads and bridges. But the NEPA impact that has proved most nettlesome to the administration has been stalling the oil and gas pipelines and coal leasing Trump’s administration has sought to push.
Trump’s move follows a series of federal court rulings that have stymied his efforts to spur fossil fuel projects—most notably the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline to expand U.S. imports of carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands oil. Trump had signed an executive order within days of taking office to reverse President Barack Obama’s decision to halt the project over climate concerns. But Keystone XL has been tied up in litigation since then, with a federal judge ruling last August that federal agencies “cannot escape their responsibility” to evaluate alternatives under NEPA.
Amid the corrupt Trump administration’s all-out effort to ease the regulatory burden on the fossil energy industry, federal courts have repeatedly ruled that agencies were failing to live up to their duties under NEPA. Courts slowed construction of a major natural gas pipeline in the Southeast, and expansion of coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming and on Navajo land in Arizona. The federal Bureau of Land Management’s Utah office in September voluntarily suspended 130 oil and gas leases under the threat of NEPA lawsuits.
Trump’s Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist now in charge of agencies that oversee oil, gas and coal leasing on federal lands and coastlines, called the NEPA plan “a really, really big proposal” that “affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment.”
Turning from the podium to Trump, Bernhardt said, “I believe it will be the most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement.”
Refusing the Consideration of Climate Change
The fossil fuel industry and its allies have long railed against NEPA, especially over the past decade, when courts began ruling that NEPA required that both direct and indirect climate impacts be assessed. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) led an effort to amend NEPA to bar consideration of global warming impacts, but it never garnered sufficient support to advance in Congress.
From the start, Trump took up the cause of NEPA reform with all the enthusiasm of a real estate developer who saw his own projects derailed over environmental concerns.
His administration has issued and proposed five other pieces of guidance to circumscribe NEPA reviews, including a plan, floated last summer to limit consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in planning for federal projects. But in the new proposal, the White House said it determined it was “not appropriate” to address a single category of impacts in regulations. Instead, the proposal seeks to limit the scope of all NEPA reviews in a way that appears to rule out consideration of climate change.
The only environmental effects that federal agencies would be required to consider are those that are “reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action or alternatives.”
“Effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain,” the proposal says. It also specifies that environmental reviews are not required under NEPA for non-discretionary decisions or for those with minimal federal funding or involvement—giving many developers an opportunity to elude the environmental review process altogether. The proposal sets a time limit of two years for detailed environmental reviews.
Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the proposal would “punch loopholes into long-standing protections under the National Environmental Policy Act and would put communities at risk and worsen climate change.”
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called it “one of the most egregious actions the Trump administration has taken to limit the federal government’s response to climate change yet.”
Trump’s Red Tape Claims vs. White House Data
The proposal, in essence, would fulfill a wish list delivered to the White House last fall by 33 industry groups, led by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who complained of “unreasonable costs and long project delays” caused by NEPA.
API President and CEO Mike Sommers praised the proposal in a prepared statement: “Reforming the NEPA process is a critical step toward meeting the growing demand for cleaner energy and unlocking job-creating infrastructure projects currently stuck in a maze of red tape.”
Trump’s description of the NEPA process—”It takes 20 years, 30 years, it takes numbers nobody would even believe”—is at odds with reality for the vast majority of projects. The White House Council on Environmental Quality’s own statistics show that 95 percent of the more than 50,000 actions subject to NEPA each year are already exempt from detailed environmental review.
Environmental groups argue that the subset of actions that require a detailed review—like the Keystone XL Pipeline—warrant the scrutiny, pointing to the spill of thousands of gallons of oil from the Keystone system in North Dakota this past October.
Responsibilities as ‘Trustee of the Environment’
NEPA, among the first environmental laws passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon, requires comprehensive studies into the potential environmental impacts of “major” federal actions or projects—with an analysis of alternatives. The sweeping language of the statute asserts the federal government’s duty to “use all practical means. … To fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.”
“As a global multigenerational problem that affects all of humanity and natural resources, climate change would seem to fit precisely within what the statute has in mind,” said Michael Gerrard, founder and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Gerrard, who spent many years as a litigator, said that if he were representing a project applicant he would want consideration of climate change included in the environmental impact analysis even if Trump succeeds in his NEPA overhaul.
“There’s a good chance the courts will … say it needs to be considered and an [environmental impact statement] could well be struck down for failure to consider it regardless of what this guidance says,” Gerrard said. “Rational planning involves looking at foreseeable conditions, and arguably it’s malpractice for an architect or engineer to ignore foreseeable considerations when designing a project.”
The overhaul of NEPA guidance is just the latest of dozens of actions by the Trump administration to throw open the doors to unfettered fossil energy development and abandon even recognition of the threat of climate change. Just this week, the Trump administration released the federal government’s latest annual National Preparedness Report, which for the first time in the eight-year history of the accounting of threats and hazards failed to mention climate change, drought or sea-level rise.
There will be a 60-day public comment period on the NEPA proposal, with public hearings scheduled in Denver and in Washington, D.C., in February.
from InsideClimate News
Northern California, known for its rugged coastline and ancient redwood forests, boasts an abundance of natural gifts that make this part of the country unique, both on land and in the ocean, where a plethora of sea life attracts divers from around the world.
One of the Pacific’s most renowned features in this part of the country are the lush kelp beds brimming with marine life.
But since 2014, thanks in large part to climate chaos, the bull kelp forests have been decimated, around 90 percent devoured and eaten clean by an invasion of purple sea urchins mowing their way through the kelp and leaving behind what is known as an “urchin barren.”
The purple sea urchin is native to the region, but a perfect storm of warming waters and a disease that killed off starfish, its predator, led to an explosion in its population. The urchins’ seemingly insatiable appetite has prevented the kelp beds from fully re-growing.
The effect has been devastating to local divers as they’ve watched their livelihoods and the environment they love, wither away.
On a sunny Saturday morning, a group of divers gathered and geared up to descend into the waters in an ongoing effort to tackle the ever-burgeoning purple urchin population.
Joshua Russo has been spearheading the volunteer effort to remove purple urchins, working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Noyo Center for Marine Science and Reef Check California, to try to mitigate their numbers.
He organizes periodic events for recreational divers, who go into the urchin barrens and remove as many purple sea urchins as they can.
“People have been wanting to do something about this since it first started,” Russo said. “We can finally get in the water and do something as divers, people who care so much about the ocean and what’s in it.”
The divers must have a California fishing license and can remove only up to 40 gallons of urchins a day.
Unlike red urchins, whose insides are consumed as uni in sushi restaurants, the purple variety are in a state of starvation and produce very little edible parts. Instead, they are composted or used as bait to attract fish for photography and fishing, though some people still search through numerous purple urchin shells for small amounts of edible uni.
Progress comes slowly. The ultimate hope is to remove enough purple urchins that the kelp can grow back in small patches and proliferate once again along the coast. The underwater plant is the foundation of the near-shore ecosystem, providing a home and food for many species of fish, crustaceans and other marine life.
“With a loss of kelp, you’re going to have a very, very profound impact on an ecosystem,” said Tristin McHugh, Reef Check California’s north coast regional manager. “It’s like losing your redwoods. What would happen if you saw 90 percent of your redwoods drop dead right now?”
For McHugh and many others, the biggest problem is awareness. Most people don’t even realize what sort of a catastrophe is happening below the sea surface.
“This is the fight of our generation,” she said. “If we can’t set ourselves up right now, there’s going to be nothing for our kids further down the line.”
from NBC news
Around the world last year, coal power started to decline:
More plants were closed than were built and the globe’s coal power capacity went down by 2.8 gigawatts.
But that’s about to change!
In a break with the global trend, China added 25.5 gigawatts to its coal capacity last year. And it’s due to ramp that up, as the world’s biggest energy consumer ignores global pressure to rein in carbon emissions in its bid to boost a slowing economy caused in part as a reaction to Trump’s trade war.
That’s according to a report from Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit group that monitors coal stations. The current capacity of the entire European Union coal fleet is 149 gigawatts. While the rest of the world has been largely reducing coal-powered capacity over the past two years, China is building so much coal power that it more than offsets the decline elsewhere.
Ted Nace, head of Global Energy Monitor, says the new coal plants will have a significant impact on China’s already-increasing carbon emissions.
“What is being built in China is single-handedly turning what would be the beginning of the decline of coal into the continued growth of coal,” he says, adding that China was “swamping” global progress in bringing down emissions.
Concerns over air pollution and overinvestment in coal prompted China to suspend the construction of hundreds of coal stations in 2016. But many have since been restarted, as Beijing seeks to stimulate an economy growing at its slowest pace since the early 1990s.
Pressure has been increasing on China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to reduce emissions, which have been creeping up since 2016, and hit a record high last year.
China has pledged to peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 as part of the Paris climate agreement. However, a number of countries including the EU, have been urging China to move that date forward.
The report shows the pace of new construction starts of Chinese coal stations rose 5 percent in the first half of 2019, against the same period last year. About 121 gigawatts of coal power is actively under construction in China, slightly lower than the same point a year ago.
The renewed push into coal has been driven by Chinese energy companies desperate to gain market share and by local governments that view coal plants as a source of jobs and investment. While electricity demand in China rose 8.5 percent last year, the current grid is already oversupplied and coal stations are used only about half the time.
“The utilization of coal-fired power plants will reach a record low this year, so there is no justification to build these coal plants,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a think tank. “But that is not the logic that investment follows in China.… There is little regard for the long-term economics of the investments that are being made.”
Leslie Hook of OZY & U.K.’s Financial Times
Day 16. In the middle of the ocean, I’m struck by the news that the EU Parliament has declared a climate emergency.
We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as one. Let’s hope they now take drastic sufficient action.
Join the #climatestrike to put pressure on them!
Climate Tipping Points Are Closer Than We Think, Scientists Warn
Credit: Ian Joughin/University of Washington APL Polar Science Center
From melting ice caps to dying forests and thawing permafrost, the risk of ‘abrupt and irreversible changes’ is much higher than thought just a few years ago.
“What we’re talking about is a point of no return, when we might actually lose control of this system,” said Will Steffen, a coauthor of a paper released ahead of the annual UN climate summit. Credit: Ian Joughin/University of Washington APL Polar Science Center
Humans are playing Russian roulette with Earth’s climate by ignoring the growing risk of tipping points that, if passed, could jolt the climate system into “a new, less habitable ‘hothouse’ climate state,” scientists are warning ahead of the annual UN climate summit.
Research now shows that there is a higher risk that “abrupt and irreversible changes” to the climate system could be triggered at smaller global temperature increases than thought just a few years ago. There are also indictations that exceeding tipping points in one system, such as the loss of Arctic sea ice or thawing of permafrost, can increase the risk of crossing tipping points in others, a group of top scientists wrote Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.
“What we’re talking about is a point of no return, when we might actually lose control of this system, and there is a significant risk that we’re going to do this,” said Will Steffen, a climate researcher with the Australian National University and co-author of the commentary. “It’s not going to be the same conditions with just a bit more heat or a bit more rainfall. It’s a cascading process that gets out of control.”
The scientists focused on nine parts of the climate system susceptible to tipping points, some of them interconnected:
- Arctic sea ice, which is critical for reflecting the sun’s energy back into space but is disappearing as the planet warms.
- The Greenland Ice Sheet, which could raise sea level 20 feet if it melts.
- Boreal forests, which would release more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they absorb if they die and decay or burn.
- Permafrost, which releases methane and other greenhouse gases as it thaws.
- The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a key ocean current, which would shift global weather patterns if it slowed down or stopped.
- The Amazon rainforest, which could flip from a net absorber of greenhouse gases to a major emitter.
- Warm-water corals, which will die on a large scale as the ocean warms, affecting commercial and subsistence fisheries.
- The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would raise sea level by at least 10 feet if it melted entirely and is already threatened by warming from above and below.
- Parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that would also raise sea level significantly if they melted.
Just looking at Arctic changes shows how the links between parts of the climate system susceptible to tipping can amplify global warming and its effects, said Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at Exeter University and an author of the commentary.
Shrinking sea ice increases ocean heat because it no longer reflects as much of the sun’s energy back to space and it enables the darker water to absorb more warmth. The ocean heat extends over land and, combined with other heating effects, thaws permafrost, which releases more heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, Lenton said.
Research shows that melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet may also be slowing the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a key Atlantic Ocean current that transports heat between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and directs rainfall around the planet. That could disrupt monsoon rains critical to agriculture in developing countries.
“If you transfer less heat from south to north, it warms up the Southern Hemisphere, which affects the Antarctic ice sheets. When you start thinking about this, heading to a new climate state becomes very plausible indeed,” he said.
The ocean circulation slowdown was documented in a 2015 study by researchers including Michael Mann and Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author of the new commentary. Cold water from the melting Greenland Ice Sheet is likely slowing the current, showing “how these tipping point responses are actually interrelated, not independent,” Mann said. “If one goes early then so too may the others, like dominoes.”
Lack of Policy Urgency as Permafrost Thaws
Despite increasingly urgent warnings about the effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions, two new reports published this week by the United Nations show that international efforts to slow global warming are falling far short of what scientists recommend.
The Emissions Gap Report—an annual assessment of global pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions—shows that countries’ current pledges under the Paris climate agreement will still raise global temperatures 3.2°C (5.8°F) by the end of the century, well beyond the Paris goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C (3.6°F). The Production Gap Report shows that the amount of oil, gas and coal that countries already plan to produce will lead to 50 percent more fossil fuels produced by 2030 than would be allowable to stay under 2°C warming.
The Earth is now warming faster and CO2 levels “are increasing at rates that are an order of magnitude higher than at the end of the last ice age,” when rapid climate change destabilized the climate quickly, the scientists wrote in the Nature commentary.
“To err on the side of danger is not a responsible option,” they wrote.
Chart: What’s Driving Climate Change?
Scientific observations of melting ice sheets and glaciers, thawing permafrost, and changes to oceans and forests also show ominous signs that the risk of rapid and extreme sea level rise and runaway greenhouse gas emissions are higher than identified in major climate reports, including the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment.
“Permafrost is already thawing quite rapidly in response to ongoing warming,” said Merrit Turetsky, who studies the Arctic’s frozen soil at the University of Guelph in Canada. She recently published research on abrupt permafrost thaw that suggests a tipping point may be closer than scientists thought.
“Meters of permafrost can warm and thaw in a matter of months to years,” she said. Such sudden thawing releases more methane than a more gradual process, suggesting that scientists are likely underestimating how the feedback from the melting Arctic will amplify global warming, she said. Her research suggests abrupt permafrost thaw could double the warming from greenhouse gases released from tundra.
Underestimating Risks of ‘Irreversible Changes’
“We must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a co-author of the commentary. “This is what we now start seeing, already at 1 degree Celsius global warming.”
Those risks are a key reason climate scientists have urged policymakers to try to keep global temperatures from warming more than 1.5°C or 2°C compared to pre-industrial times, said University of Michigan climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck.
“The risks of triggering tipping points go up fast if we warm the planet more, meaning it might not be possible to limit warming to just 3 or 4 degrees Celsius if tipping point thresholds are crossed,” he said. “If we push the climate system beyond hard-to-predict thresholds, or tipping points, climate change and its impacts get much bigger, faster.”
The Western U.S. may already be seeing a forest dieback tipping point, Overpeck said.
“Much of our western forest cover is either dying or burning, leading to irreversible changes in vegetation that, in turn, impact water supplies and natural carbon storage,” he said.
Some Tipping Points Are Already Close
One of the biggest concerns is that some tipping points, like the meltdown of alpine glaciers and near-total loss of coral reefs, will be reached even if the world meets the goals of the Paris climate agreement, said Katherine Richardson, a climate researcher at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the commentary.
If multiple tipping points are reached, it’s questionable whether emissions reductions will be enough to stabilize the climate system, she said.
“Another problem we have is that we have taken a cost-benefit approach,” she said. “Economists assume high-impact tipping points are low probability events, but we may already have passed some of them—which completely changes the way we should be doing our cost-benefit analyses.
“In 2001, IPCC said not to worry (about tipping points) until there is 5 degrees Celsius warming, now they’re saying 1 to 2 degrees. Economists have to stay on top of the science.”
Richardson said she had just explained that morning to the Danish Parliament that some of the common tools for cutting emissions weren’t proving to be effective enough, including the European Union’s carbon trading market at its current prices.
“There are so many emissions credits floating around that using them won’t have any effect on total emissions or atmospheric concentrations on a meaningful time scale. We can’t wait 30 to 40 years,” she said. The UN Emissions Gap Report released this week “basically says we’ve done nothing so far.”
The new Nature article reinforces other recent similar warnings, said climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center. That includes a chapter in the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment on “potential surprises” in the climate system, “The scariest thing that you’ll ever read that’s not by Stephen King,” Hayhoe said.
It explores climate impacts and feedback systems that we don’t fully understand, she said, and “that may be far more worrisome than what we do know.”
BY BOB BERWYN, INSIDECLIMATE NEWS
NOV 27, 2019