In the wake of climate-fueled disasters and several alarming reports on climate change, a gap is evident — a gap between how the world is responding to the climate crisis and how it should.
A new study appearing in Nature Climate Change (Feb. 25, 2019) examined three sets of satellite data using three teams of scientists. The scientists’ findings now have a five-sigma level of confidence that climate change has anthropogenic cause; labeled a statistical “gold standard” it means a one-in-a-million chance of error. Having proved conclusively that human activities are responsible, they hope their work will spur change. There is now plenty of new and accumulated evidence of global warming, and of human involvement.
Heat trapping gases concentrating in the atmosphere cause an energy imbalance manipulated in a warming earth. About 93% of this heat is accumulated in the oceans. The rising ocean heat content (OHC) becomes a record of global warming. New research based on OHC observations over time shows a disturbing acceleration in ocean warming. Without proactive measures to reduce global warming, the report demonstrates an increasing rate at which oceans warm for each scenario it simulated. It warns of major global impacts such as a sea level rise of 30cm by 2100, unprecedented severe weather events, and coastal flooding.
Overall temperature in the oceans is now the highest since record-keeping began. Moreover, ocean levels are already 7cms (about 3 inches) higher than in the 1990s (keyfinding 1), human-caused climate change being a major culprit. The rise appears to be accelerating, now at the rate of 3.9 millimeters a year or about an inch in 6 years.
Coastal land loss from flooding is no longer just a problem faced by The Maldives in the Indian Ocean, or Pacific Islands like Kiribati. Low-lying coastal cities in the US have begun to flood at high-tide. This nuisance tidal flooding is expected to increase 5 to 10 fold (keyfinding 4).
Tell-tale signs of the exacerbation of weather events are already here: Hurricanes intensify quickly and then move slowly shedding unprecedented amounts of rain. It happened with Harvey over Houston in 2017, and with Florence over North Carolina in 2018. What might come as a surprise is the fact that half of the world’s annual rainfall and snow pelts us on the 12 wettest days of the year and by century’s end the same amount of precipitation will occur in 11 days. So reported scientists last November. A warming atmosphere means it can hold more moisture; thus more intense deluges will further test the ability of the soil to absorb the water leading to an increased likelihood of worse flooding.
Changing weather patterns also have other consequences. In California, large fires now burn twice the area they did 50 years ago, and are expected to triple that by 2050. Future projections point to both bigger fires and a longer fire season. And then who would have expected a heat wave in Canada to kill more than 90 people in 2018? It is not alone. The UK suffered debilitating summer heat in 2018 and 2017, and a heat wave hit southern Europe in 2018 where Portugal and Greece were also hit by wildfires.
The same is true in the Southern Hemisphere, where Australia suffered an intense heat wave in January, while its wildfire season now starts earlier, is longer, and is more devastating. Experts confirm these effects to be long term in a new joint report: The climate has warmed 1C since 1910; the sea levels around the country are rising; stream flow patterns in the country are changing; and rainfall has decreased except in Northern Australia. “Australia is experiencing climate change now …” is the blunt appraisal from the director of the climate science center at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) which issued the report jointly with the Bureau of Meteorology.
The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when it reported, “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.” The report is mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government. President Trump, who religiously opposes climate change believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally, had a brief response: “I do not believe it.” About the report’s estimated economic impacts, Sarah Sanders, his press secretary, claimed the report was “not based on facts.” The “facts” on which the Trump administration reached its conclusions have not been released.
Sadly their indifference is not harmless because when the US changes tack on climate action, it gives other countries leeway to do the same. China has slackened and Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro has promised to open more of the Amazon rain forest for development reversing its CO2 capture into more CO2 emission. CO2 happens to be the most sensitive gas to the heat radiation wavelengths reflected back from earth, sending more back to earth.
All this at a time when the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report last October setting off alarms. Comprising the work of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, it predicts a grim future and a narrowing window of action. Labeled the 1.5C report, it looks at a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in mean global temperature from preindustrial levels. We are already experiencing the effects of being 1 degree above, and according to the report should reach the 1.5C level by 2030 to 2052. It leaves a 12-year window to act before the process becomes self-sustaining and uncontrollable.
Even at 1.5C above, 70-90 percent of the world’s sea corals would be lost; the Arctic sea ice in fast retreat threatening polar bears and raising sea levels; and with higher ocean temperatures worse severe storms, rain and flooding. A safer move would be to start removing CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps even now. Certainly the Paris agreement, holding temperature increase to 2C, is no longer a viable alternative if we do not wish to leave behind a raging planet to our children and grandchildren.
Carbon capture from the atmosphere is difficult and expensive. Climeworks, a Swiss startup has a pilot project outside Reykjavik, Iceland, removing 50 tons of CO2 a year. For perspective, about a trillion tons are expected to be emitted by 2100, while researchers limit the potential for direct air capture (DACCS) at the most to 5 billion tons per year or about a quarter of the emissions. The cost also is high at $100 to $300 per ton, and it requires considerable energy usage — a 300 to 500 Megawatt power plant to remove a million tons annually reports Scientific American (January 2019).
Another alternative might be to remove it at the source. That means at power stations and factories, and there are claims of new and more affordable processes offering hope. However, most carbon emission comes from transportation, and it points to a future of electric cars using electricity from CO2 scrubbed power stations.
That is also the thesis of Greg Ballard’s newly released book, “Less Oil or More Caskets.” The book’s title refers to the human and military cost of protecting the free flow of oil. A former Marine Lt. Colonel and two-term Republican mayor of Indianapolis, he is a long-term advocate of electric cars and rapid-transit electric buses, the latter underway in Indianapolis. He even managed to secure federal grants despite Trump’s opposition, proving both that Trump is not unassailable and some Republicans are seeing the light.
It only goes to prove, Trump is not unassailable. Neither is climate change although the window to act narrows by the day … provided there is the wherewithal to shape the necessary and urgent changes in public policy, and the public pressure to force Trump’s hand. That he eventually caved on the shutdown shows it’s possible.
Greta Thunberg a 16-year old Swedish schoolgirl’s decided to stop attending school on Fridays and picket her parliament to draw attention to climate change. She followed up with an address to COP24 in 2018 and the World Economic Forum in Davos this year galvanizing a student protest movement in Europe demanding action on climate change. Led mostly by girls, it has led to school strikes by tens of thousands of young students across Europe, and now they have called for a day of unified global action on March 15. In addition to a March 15 strike in the US, continuing protests as in Europe are urgently needed to support the girls.
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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