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Climate Chaos, the Science and Our Own Responsibilities

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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On the last day of the UN Climate Change (June 17-27, 2019) meeting in Bonn the key IPCC report on 1.5 C was blocked from further discussion by Saudi Arabia and an unlikely set of allies:  the US, Iran and Russia. The report as the saying goes has been deep-sixed meriting only a five-para watered down waffle at the end of the agreement, so what next?

If the Paris Agreement was transformative in its democratic innovation, its voluntary aspects opened up the possibility of countries failing to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) targets.  These are at the heart of the Paris agreement and their voluntary nature invites democratic engagement — the example of Greta Thunberg and her mushrooming support comes to mind.  Even more necessary after the Bonn meeting, democratic pressure on governments is vital to counter the fossil fuel lobby. 

Also the climate change debate is framed around two temperature figures, the famous 1.5 C and 2 C scenarios.  We need a rallying cry but the fact is temperature is an amorphous goal.  We cannot ask countries to reduce temperature by a certain number because the whole earth is involved and it is beyond individual capacities; hence the target NDCs, the rather dull but practical numbers. 

When the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change first released its famous (now banished) 1.5 C report last October, it set off alarms.  Comprising the work of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, it predicted a grim future and a narrowing window of action.  It examined a 1.5 C rise in mean global temperature from preindustrial levels, comparing it with a 2 C rise.  We are already experiencing the effects of being 1 degree above, and according to the report should reach the 1.5 C level as early as 2040.  The 1.5 C and 2 C figures result from simulation exercises, although by undoubtedly respected and expert scientists. 

At 1.5 C above, the report states, 70-90 percent of the world’s sea corals would be lost (with a 2C rise 99 percent would be gone); the Arctic sea ice would be in fast retreat threatening polar bears and raising sea levels; and with higher ocean temperatures we can expect worsened severe storms, rain and flooding. 

There is worse for at a 2C rise the cycle becomes self-sustaining, meaning a runaway feedback loop cycle.  Clearly the Paris agreement, holding temperature increase to 2C, is no longer viable if we are not to leave behind a raging planet to our children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Paris itself is facing a heat wave with temperatures expected to exceed 40 C (104 F) and national records for June temperatures likely to be shattered.  Europe as a whole is experiencing the same, although it made little difference to the dissenters in sweltering Bonn.  While climate change is usually not blamed directly for short-interval, extreme weather events, a warmer earth is still likely to be an exacerbation, and scientists might well be able to prove a closer link as research in this area matures.  At the very least, it makes intuitive sense.     

It has already been hot further north. Greenland had temperatures 40 F above normal in mid-June.  It caused an early, unprecedented ice melt when it is more usual for big melts to occur in July.  On just one day (June 13, 2019), scientists estimated a melt of 2 billion tons.  If Greenland experienced a record melt in 2012, then 2019 could be a year that might surpass it.  The problem of high temperatures and above normal ice melt spans the Arctic.  Moreover in the Antarctic, the coldest regions, long believed to be immune, are beginning to show signs of melting.

Foreshadowing the 1.5 C report, the expected consequence has been a rise in ocean levels.  These are already 7 centimeters (about 3 inches) higher than in the 1990s (keyfinding 1) of the Climate Science Special Report.  Human-caused climate change is considered a major culprit.  The reported rise is accelerating and is now at a rate of 3.9 millimeters a year, or about an inch every 6 years.

Coastal land flooding and loss is no longer just a problem faced by The Maldives in the Indian Ocean, or some Pacific Islands.  Low-lying cities like Norfolk, Virginia have begun to flood at high-tide.  This nuisance tidal flooding is expected to increase 5 to 10 fold (keyfinding 4).

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 be tripling that same area by 2050.  Future projections point to both larger fires and a longer fire season.  Some consequences run counter to presumptions and surprise us.  Who would have expected a heat wave in Canada to kill more than 90 people in 2018?  It is not the only example.  The UK  suffered debilitating summer heat in 2018 and 2017, and a heat wave engulfed southern Europe in 2018, where Portugal and Greece were also hit somewhat unusually by wildfires.  The same in the Southern Hemisphere, for in Australia the wildfire season now starts earlier, is longer and more devastating.  In Spain, a 10,000 acre fire is raging right now, caused by extreme heat self-igniting a manure pile.

The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when its overview concluded:  “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”  The assessment 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 then press secretary, claimed the report was “not based on facts.”  The “facts” on which the Trump administration reached its conclusions have not been released.  The source of these quotes, Science, is the principal organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  It has labeled the gap between action and what is demanded by the worsening climate-fueled weather disasters as the policy ‘breakdown of the year’.  About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was moved to remark, “They’re in la-la-land.”

Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless because the US changing tack on climate action gives other countries leeway to do the same.  One example:  Brazil’s new (this year) right-wing 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 from earth, returning more back.

So we have rising temperatures and scientifically ignorant politicians but all is not lost.  It is quite likely we will fall short of the 1.5 C target.  Yet the plain fact is there will not be a clash of cymbals and the world will not end with a bang.  All that will happen will be a greater reliance on carbon capture directly with its fast developing technology, or indirectly through means such as afforestation.  In short, to stop hothouse earth, we have to start removing CO2 from the air.   

Carbon capture from the atmosphere has been difficult and expensive.  A better alternative might be to remove it at the source.  That means at power stations and factories, plus there are new processes offering hope.  These include a powder that soaks up CO2 before it is expelled into the air.  For CO2 already in the atmosphere, there is a resin in the form of resin trees to absorb it, and a company that promises to capture air CO2 and turn it into fuel.  Yet most carbon emission comes from transportation, so it also points to a future of electric cars.

That is also the thesis of Greg Ballard’s 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 a few Republicans are finally seeing the light.   

Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries.  Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs.  Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry.  As some have noted if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.  Hence the Beyond Burger type of substitutes from vegetable sources.  If it doesn’t quite make the taste test for some, there is the intriguing potential of lab-grown meat — no animals involved. 

This and other innovations have been described not unappetizingly in the National Geographic.  For example, crickets are an excellent source of protein offering more protein per pound than beef and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison.  Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods.  Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion.  There is also a new oil made from algae.  Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive.  With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans

All this innovation demonstrates that although the window to act narrows by the day, climate change is not unassailable, provided there is the wherewithal (clearly absent in this administration) to make the urgent and necessary changes in public policy — for example, investment in carbon capture research to make costs viable.  In addition, we need the commitment to make changes in our own lives.

Author’s Note:  This article first appeared on Counterpunch.

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Green Planet

Venice Is Flooded: A Look at Our Coastal Future

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If humans have been lucky, basking in the comforting warmth of an inter-glacial period for the last 10,000 years, that luck may be about to turn.  Rest assured we are not entering a glacial period.  No, our quest for greater comfort has us pumping fossil fuel residues in the air—particularly CO2—warming the earth beyond its natural trajectory.  One consequence is melting Arctic (especially Greenland) ice and coastal flooding.

Problematic as that might be, new research holds worse in store… much worse, for the Antarctic has not been a passive bystander.  It melted when the north was taking a rest allowing no let up.

The previous glacial age lasted from 125,000 to 118,000 years ago.  A paper published November 6, 2019 in Nature Communications (Vol. 10, Article # 5040) has found the Greenland ice sheet melt insufficient to explain the highs of the rise then.  In fact, it was the Antarctic ice sheet, previously thought to be inconsequential, that was key.  It turns out the Southern Ocean warmed first at the start of the inter-glacial, leading to a change in the circulation pattern of the oceans and to a warming of the northern polar areas to start the ice melt in Greenland.

Temperatures then were up to 1°C higher than now but the same has been estimated for us in the future.  However, this time climate changes on earth have been accelerated by greenhouse gas emissions over the industrial period, resulting in more extreme climate changes than in the last inter-glacial. 

The research has also revealed that ice melt caused a 10 meter sea level rise above the present level at a rate of 3 meters (about 10 feet) per century, a rate that is 10 times higher than the rise observed in the last 150 years.  If 10 ft. per century has a remote feel, try a foot every 10 years!   

This is far greater than current projections of sea level rise that anticipate an increase at the most to about 3 feet above 2000 levels by 2100.  The predictions, however, do not account for an important natural outcome of ice sheet melt, that of ice cliff instability.  The ice cliffs form as the warm water melts their ice under the water, eating away until the cliff shears off and collapses into the sea. 

The collapse is a sudden and unpredictable addition to the gradual melt in the ocean.  It also means that polar ice sheet melt can affect sea levels far more intensely than has been projected so far, and it could account at least in part for the much higher rise found by the researchers in the prior inter-glacial. Are we in for a surprise! 

If incoming solar radiation was greater in the last inter-glacial because of the earth’s position relative to the sun, the CO2 levels were lower, at 280 parts per million as opposed to 410 plus today.  Worse, in the former inter-glacial the two polar areas did not warm up simultaneously.  Today’s intensive climate change is propelled by greenhouse gases, and the warming is bipolar with the ice melting in  both polar regions at the same time. 

Another paper also published in Nature Communications a week earlier (Vol. 10, Article # 4844 October 29, 2019) examines global vulnerability to coastal flooding from rising sea levels given new metrics for measuring land elevation.  The model currently in use for this measurement, developed by NASA, has a 2 meter vertical bias.  Using a new Coastal DEM (Digital Elevation Model) and a mean estimate of sea level rise this century, the authors estimate 190 million people live below projected high tide lines at present.  This rises to 630 million by century’s end in the extreme case of high emissions.  Increase the sea level rise to 3 meters (10 feet) projected in the other paper above and a billion people could be in jeopardy.

What can one expect?  Well, the first signs of trouble will be when coastal flooding that used to happen once a decade becomes an annual event, or when unprecedented events occur.  Venice is a current example.  In a rare historic flood its iconic St. Mark’s Square is hip-deep in water.  The church itself and its priceless frescoes could be in danger if the water rises further. 

The increased coastal flooding will be gradual of course.  Our children, their children, and so on down the line will be the real innocent victims of our legacy/profligacy.  

Note:  This article appeared originally on CommonDreams.org

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Green Planet

Thirty years on, what is the Montreal Protocol doing to protect the ozone?

MD Staff

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The Montreal Protocol to protect the Earth’s ozone layer is to date the only United Nations environmental agreement to be ratified by every country in the world. It is also one of the most successful. With the parties to the Protocol having phased out 98 per cent of their ozone-depleting substances, they saved an estimated two million people from skin cancer every year.

Following the thirty-first meeting of the parties in Rome during 4–8 November, Stephanie Haysmith, the communications officer for the Ozone Secretariat, explained why the Montreal Protocol has been so successful and what lies ahead for the treaty.

The 2019 ozone hole is the smallest on record since its discovery. How does the ozone repair and how long will it take?

The Montreal Protocol has been successful in reducing ozone-depleting substances and reactive chlorine and bromine in the stratosphere. As a result, the ozone layer is showing the first signs of recovery. It is expected that the ozone layer will return to pre-1980s levels by the middle of the century and the Antarctic ozone hole by around 2060s. This is because once released, ozone-depleting substances stay in the atmosphere for many years and continue to cause damage. The 2019 hole is indeed the smallest since recording of its size began in 1982 but the ozone is also influenced by temperature shifts and dynamics in the atmosphere through climate change. In 2019, the stratosphere was particularly warm during the Antarctic winter and spring.

The Kigali Amendment, which came into force January 2019, requires countries to limit hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air-conditioners by more than 80 percent.  Yet, there is a growing demand for cooling. How can the two needs be met?

While there is a growing global demand for cooling systems for personal well-being and in the commercial sector, improving energy efficiency with low or zero global-warming-potential will be needed to meet needs while minimizing adverse impacts on climate and environment. Research and development have kept pace: equipment design has changed and improved with the ozone-depleting substances phase-out.

At the Rome meeting, parties were made aware of an unexpected increase in global emissions of trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11. Why is that, and what is being planned to address it?

The issue of unexpected emissions of CFC-11 was brought to the attention of the parties in 2018. Global emissions of CFC-11 had increased in the period after 2012. This unexpected trend suggests that there is illegal production and consumption of CFC-11. The exact sources of these emissions have yet to be found. The parties take this very seriously and a decision was made at the MOP30 [30th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol] to cooperate in further scientific research. In addition, the parties will assess the mechanisms of monitoring for the Montreal Protocol and the Multilateral Fund. 

What is meant by “a sustainable cold chain” and how does it reduce food loss?

A cold chain is a connected set of temperature-controlled facilities (pack houses, cold stores, refrigerated transportation, etc.) that ensures perishable foods maintain their freshness and quality while in transit. Access to cold chain allows local producers to link with high-value markets locally, nationally and internationally. By enabling perishable food commodities to be stored and transported in a temperature-controlled environment not only ensures quality and safety, but reduces overall food loss, while improving economic gains and increasing sustainability.

From an environmental perspective, it is important that increasing demand for cold chain is sustainable with increased use of green fuels, energy efficiency and low or zero global warming potential technologies.

What do you hope the Montreal Protocol will inspire?

The Montreal Protocol is one of the world’s most successful environmental treaties and since its adoption, it has encouraged countries to commit to phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. The parties to the Protocol, on realizing that the alternatives, known as hydrofluorocarbons, are potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, agreed to address this. After protracted discussions, in 2016 the parties adopted the Kigali Amendment. The global partnership, stakeholder involvement and overall commitment of the countries lent to the success of the ozone protection regime. A successful hydrofluorocarbon phasedown is expected to avoid up to 0.4°C of global temperature rise by 2100, while continuing to protect the ozone layer.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Consequences of U.S. formal exit from Paris climate pact: More isolation globally

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The U.S. has formally begun to exit the Paris climate agreement. Regardless of whether or not the Paris Agreement is legally binding, the U.S. has committed to cut 26-28% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 from 2005 levels, and donate three billion dollars to poor countries by 2020.

 The U.S. is now the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China. In other words, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were about 7000 million metric tones, which is more than total emissions of the entire EU countries. However, the U.S. president claimed that he has decided to pull his country out of the Paris climate pact because his job is to “protect America and its citizens”. 

Commenting on the reason for withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. president said that the pact is favorable for other countries not the United States, because it puts the country at a very big economic disadvantage. Trump also presented statistics showing that implementation of the agreement for the U.S. will result in losing 2.7 million job opportunities by 2025 as well as 440,000 industrial opportunities inside the country. The president added that this is not what the U.S. needed. This issue is not acceptable to Trump that China can continue to emit greenhouse gas for another 13 years, and India is able to continue its greenhouse gas emissions till 2020, while receiving billions of dollars.

The U.S. president also complains that his country has already donated about one billion dollar to Green Climate Fund, which is founded to help developing countries, while no other country has spent such a large sum in this field. 

Trump, despite his decision to exit the Paris Agreement, has announced that he is ready to “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers”. He also said that if they reach an accord, that will be great and if they do not, that will be fine.

 Consequences of U.S. withdrawal

It should be noted that the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord by the U.S. is not its first unconventional action toward valid international documents. After coming to the White House, in one of his first moves, Trump ordered to pull the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was signed in 2016. The TPP is the greatest trade agreement in the world, which was signed between 12 countries around the Pacific Ocean with the exception of China, and aimed to remove trade barriers to the countries that signed the agreement. 

However, the Paris Agreement is of particular importance for the current generation and the world’s future in terms of environmental and international rights. Obviously, legal and political consequences of the Paris accord is more serious than those of the TPP. The following is the summary of the effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate pact:

1.    U.S. political and legal isolation: the U.S. will be seriously isolated if it withdraws from the Paris accord, because besides Europeans, countries like Canada, Russia, and Asian countries such as China and Japan have signed the agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Chinese president reaffirmed that they will be committed to the pact even after the U.S. withdrawal. 

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, at a meeting in Berlin, described the U.S. withdrawal as a completely wrong move.  Juncker said that the U.S. cannot exit the agreement just like that. He added that Trump says he will exit the Paris climate pact because he is not well aware of this pact. This is while, he said, in 2015, about 200 countries signed an accord in 2015 in Paris, based on which they were committed to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C to prevent global warming.

2.    Lack of states’ trust on the U.S. to reach an agreement on other issues: this move by Trump shows the U.S. non-compliance with international agreements that could disturb its prestige and position in the world. The move also will cause other Western partners, especially Europeans, lose their trust of the United States. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, other countries will hesitate to cooperate and sign contract with the White House on other issues. 

3.    Distrust of environmental rights: one of the important issues in legal subjects is environmental right, which is being taken into account at national and international level. The U.S. withdrawal from the pact means disregard to international documents related to environmental rights. This approach can be a serious threat to plans to control global warming. Furthermore, the approach indicates that the world’s second largest polluter does not pay much attention to environmental protection, which has been one of most important challenges for environmental rights in recent decades.

From our partner Tehran Times

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