Climate Change - Blog 2

By Carl Howard posted 08-30-2017 01:12 PM


Climate Change - Blog 2

July 2017 was the second warmest month on record, just behind July 2016. And it marked the 391st consecutive month with warmer-than-average temperatures, according to NOAA’s most recent global climate report (see link, below). The western US was among the most “notable” warm areas along with Australia, southern South America, Mongolia, and China.

Globally, 16 of the last 17 years have been the warmest on record, and 2017 is on schedule to break records, too. In the contiguous U.S., average annual temperatures rose between 1901 and 2016 by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit or 1.0 degree Celsius.

Since 1980, the cost of extreme events for the United States has exceeded $1.1 trillion (not including the billions from Hurricane Harvey in Texas).

If Trump’s fossil fuels first approach maintains business as usual levels of Green-house gas (GHG) emissions temperatures may increase by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades, and between 2.8 and 11.9 degrees Fahrenheit by the late 21st century. Anything approaching this higher end risks “catastrophic” consequences (which I will address in a later blog).

You may also be interested to read EPA’s recently issued annual Report on the Environment.  In the ROE we address a series of environmental indicators, and provide data to show “how are we doing” on each.  One of the ~31 indicators is Greenhouse Gas:

If you click on the link, and then click on the headings below titled “What the Data Show,” you will find this sentence:

“Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased steadily since the beginning of the industrial era, rising from an annual average of 280 ppm in the late 1700s to 401 ppm as measured at Mauna Loa in 2015—a 43 percent increase. … Almost all of this increase is due to human activities (IPCC, 2013).”

Also, do see my colleague and NYSBA EELS Global Climate Change Committee Co-chair, Mike Gerrard's outstanding blog which I highly recommend:

As for facts on the ground, forests in Canada are ablaze. 2.2 million acres have burned so far this year in British Columbia alone. These fires, and others in the Yukon and NW Territories, have been emitting smoke that has reached 8 miles in height. Atmospheric winds carried the smoke to the Arctic where it could speed the melting of the sea and land ice there.

I mentioned in Blog 1 that I would address the threat of melting polar ice and the positive feedback loops that threaten multiple run-away harms. First, the smoke carries carbon and other GHG which add to the warming of the planet. Warmer air does more than just melt the ice on the land which adds to sea level rise (SLR). Warmer air also dries out soil and vegetation and increases evaporation from the seas and water bodies which loads more water vapor to the atmosphere. Water vapor is a GHG and acts to increase the planet’s temperature.  More water vapor in the atmosphere leads to heavier, more damaging, rainfalls and snowstorms. Climate models suggest that the NE US is particularly vulnerable in this regard (as is the south, especially along the Texas coast as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico have been so warmed by climate change).

The second harm posed by the drifting smoke is that it carries dark particles which are deposited on the ice. White ice is reflective but as the ice darkens from the deposited particles from the smoke, it absorbs heat hastening the melting of the ice. As darkened ice reflects less light into space, and as more land and sea is exposed, more light and heat is absorbed by the land and the water increasing the earth’s heat. The positive feedback loop is complete: as temperature rises, ice melts, the more that ice melts the less ice reflects light, and the more the earth absorbs heat via land and water. The more heat that is absorbed, the more heat is radiated out, which raises the temperature, which melts more ice, and so on. This is a positive loop in the sense that it feeds on itself to the detriment of the planet and the proper functioning of systems H. sapiens depend on.

The reflection of light into space is known as Albedo. When you hear about the diminishing Albedo Effect chances are you are hearing about the loss of polar ice. As polar ice melts it does numerous destructive things. First it disrupts the food chain with the immense and sudden introduction of fresh water into the salty sea. Second, massive infusions of fresh water disrupts the usual flow of oceanic currents and acts to slow the oceanic currents that ultimately drive the earth’s weather systems. Changes have been detected to the usual flow of currents, including the Gulf Stream, due largely to warming water and fresh water infusion, which likely will have other feedbacks we have yet to understand. These currents move immense amounts of heat around the planet and the disruption of this flow is affecting weather patterns on N. America and Europe and likely elsewhere.

A growing body of studies connects dwindling sea ice to wild weather. Reduced winter sea ice and warming seas leads to changing conditions in the air which triggers potent shifts in the jet stream that controls much of the planet’s weather. Thus, the shrinking polar ice affects two of the primary drivers of global climate, ocean currents and the jet stream air flow. If we wanted to be more disruptive of the planet’s climate stability (a foundational block supporting H. sapiens atop our food pyramid), I doubt we could do better than we are doing.

 Glaciers in the Arctic are shrinking. The massive Greenland ice sheet is melting. Since 2002, it has lost 4,400 billion tons of ice. If it has reached a tipping point, beyond which melting cannot be stopped, then SLR may exceed 21’. The havoc that would cause, starting the minute it became clear that the tipping point had been reached, which literally could be any day, threatens the future of human civilization. (I’ll explain more in future blogs).

 Another threat of similar proportions comes from the thawing of the Arctic tundra. The poles are heating twice as fast as the rest of the planet. An Arctic carbon bomb, in the form of immense amounts of carbon dioxide and methane (twenty times as potent as a GHG than CO2), is safely stored in the permafrost of Alaska and Siberia. But rising polar temperatures are melting the permafrost which initiates another positive feedback loop. As temperatures will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, more permafrost will melt, which will release CO2 and methane, which raises the temperature, and releases more CO2 and methane, and so on. And this further melts polar ice and the Greenland ice sheet which adds to SLR and global climate disruptions. This stuff is terrifying, it’s real and it is happening.

The third danger posed by melting ice is that the rapid introduction of freshwater into the ocean alters its chemical composition. The absorption of CO2 by the ocean (which leads to acidification as measured by falling pH levels) has resulted in the loss of much of the world’s coral reefs with devastating effects both in terms of sea life, shore protection and economic losses (a topic for a later blog).

Recall from rom Blog 1 H. sapiens proudly sitting atop the food pyramid supported by two blocks (Land-based Food and Sustenance, and Water/ocean-based Food and Sustenance) which in turn are supported by two larger blocks (Climate Stability, and Political Stability).  The majority of the world’s protein derives from the ocean. The oceanic food chain is based on krill and microscopic organisms. The rapidly melting ice and calving glaciers are changing the exquisitely sensitive chemical composition of the ocean that krill and microscopic organisms depend on. Should the foundation of the oceanic food chain be abruptly altered, it would adversely affect all higher levels of aquatic (and other) predators and ultimately man. This threatens to undermine the Water/ocean-based Food and Sustenance block supporting H. sapiens.

Monsoon rains have been a seasonal occurrence but now they bring death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Prior to Harvey, few in the US were aware of the human death toll in Bangladesh, Nepal and India from floods and mudslides which has exceeded 1,000 with over 41 million more displaced, missing or in need of assistance. People in Sierra Leonne are also suffering from torrential rains and mudslides, with 100s dead and 10s of 1,000s displaced and in need of emergency assistance. This was the deadliest natural disaster on record for Sierra Leone, just as Harvey delivered the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in the US.

Enough doom and gloom. On the bright side it is good to see the leading climate change fighter, Al Gore, so optimistic. In addition to reading the IPCC summary section in the summary report (see Blog 1), please see Gore’s films Inconvenient Truth and the sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel, Truth to Power, and buy and read both companion books. Gore gives numerous examples of how fast things can and have changed for the better. Regarding the speed of technological change, when cell phones first came out in 1980 projections were that by 2000 maybe 900,000 would sell. In fact, by the end of 2000, 109 million cell phones sold. 120 times more than was predicted.  And now the same thing is happening with the price of solar and wind energy. Costs are falling faster than anyone predicted. In many instances the cost of electricity from solar or wind is less than half the cost of electricity from burning coal or natural gas (even ignoring costs associated with climate change). Gore writes that in 2016 in the US, 70% of all new electricity-generating capacity came from solar and wind while less than two-tenths of 1% came from coal.  China has embraced solar and wind energy and canceled the construction of over 100 coal power plants not just because of the economics, but also because of public pressure to improve air quality.

The health benefits from clean, renewable energy are reason enough to pursue it. Fossil fuels not burnt because of wind and solar energy helped avoid between 3,000 and 12,700 premature deaths in the US between 2007 and 2015. Fossil fuels produce large amounts of pollutants like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, which are responsible for ill-health and negative climate effects. The US saved between $35 billion and $220 billion in that period because of avoided deaths, fewer sick days, and climate-change mitigation.

In addition, the renewable energy field spurs economic growth, creates new jobs, and leads to technology development. This too generates billions of dollars in the US alone.

Politically, in the US, nine eastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI (NY, NH, VT, CT, MA, DE, ME, MD, and RI), agreed to cut global-warming pollution from the region's power plants 30 percent between 2020 and 2030. The RGGI states—with five Republican governors and four Democratic governors—together represent the world's sixth largest economy, with $2.8 trillion in GDP. California, where the legislature recently voted to extend its own cap-and-trade program through 2030, falls just behind in GDP, at $2.5 trillion. In 2011, New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, withdrew his state from the coalition but there is reason to believe NJ will rejoin once Christie is gone. Carbon dioxide emissions from the RGGI states have fallen more than 40 percent compared to 2008 levels. In 2016, their annual CO2 emissions fell to just under 80 million tons.

The RGGI group says the proposed caps will cut carbon emissions an additional 132 million tons by 2030, equivalent to taking 28 million cars off the road for one year.

In California, six cities there have mandated that solar panels be installed on roofs of all new homes. South Miami, Florida, is now the 1st city outside California to enact a rooftop solar mandate. It may well be too little too late as the eyes of the world are watching Miami to see what happens to it and its economy as it ultimately floods due to SLR. I have looked in vain for studies of the likely domino effect of failing businesses as the realization takes hold that a major city cannot be saved. Trillions of dollars will be lost effectively over-night as real estate is suddenly worthless, businesses take flight and the physical inundation of the city’s infrastructure follows. If anyone is aware of such studies, please let me know.

In Washington the White House missed a deadline in August to release the National Climate Assessment which details the immediate dangers of climate change. And Trump then disbanded the advisory panel tasked with turning this report’s findings into policy solutions. You can’t make this stuff up. Trump also reversed another Obama rule limiting federally funded construction in flood plains. Houston and parts of Louisiana are now under water.

NYSBA members will be able to post replies and are encouraged to do so. I ask that you stay on point. Please add informative replies relevant to climate change developments on the ground (physical effects), in Washington (politics), in science, and share good news and bad. Please, no pure political rant one way or the other.

Carl R. Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee, NYSBA EELS

(The views expressed above are entirely my own.)