Tuesday, January 24, 2017

10.6 - Climate change: 2016 hottest year on record

Climate change: 2016 hottest year on record

I want to address something I haven't talked about in a while but was raised by that last set of protests I mentioned: global warming, aka climate change.

On January 18, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the UK Met Office announced that their separate records of surface temperatures across the globe confirm that 2016 was the hottest year in the historical record. It broke the record set in 2015 - which broke the record set in 2014.

Meanwhile, on January 9, NOAA reported that the US had its second-warmed year on record in 2016. Every single state had a warmer-than-average year; in fact 2016 ranks as at least the seventh warmest year on record for every state. It also marks the 20th straight year of above-average continental US temperatures as compared to the average for the 20th century as a whole.

In fact, according to the US National Climate Data Center, every individual month since February 1985 has seen above average global temperatures for that month, compared with the twentieth century.

It is no longer possible to rationally deny the reality not only of climate change but of the human source of it. Nothing else explains what we've seen.

The nanny-nanny naysayer sometimes claim that no, it's not people, it's all natural processes, such as changes in volcanic activity or solar output or wobbles in the Earth's orbit.

Well, here are three graphs comparing the changes caused by those influences (the green lines) versus the actual temperature record since 1880 (the black line).

Change in temperature due to volcanos
Changes in temperature due to Earth's orbit

Changes in temperature due to solar radiaiton

You notice that none of them even come even close to matching the historical record. The impact of one thing, however, does agree with the record: greenhouse gas emissions.

The facts are so clear that it has gotten to the point where some researchers are saying we have to focus more on adapting to climate change than heading it off and that by 2030, the record-breaking heat of 2016 will be normal.

We don't have to wait until then to see the impacts.

Something else that happened in the US was that 2016 had the second highest number of weather disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage: Fifteen separate ones together causing $46 billion in damage and 138 deaths.

And the climate in the Arctic is getting strange. Temperatures in Barrow, Alaska in November were 20 degrees Celsius - that's 36 degrees Fahrenheit - above normal and sea ice is at a record low.

Global warming is altering the entire ecology of the Arctic Ocean on a huge scale, something thought to be linked to a massive die-off of puffins in the fall, many of them appearing to have starved to death.

At the other end of the world, 2016 saw the biggest ever die-off of coral in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and scientists have realized that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting from the inside out and could collapse completely within the next 100 years, raising world sea levels by three meters, or about 10 feet, inundating coastlines around the world.

It is no longer adequate to say we are screwing with the climate. Rather, the fact is we have screwed with the climate. We have screwed up the climate.

And even the attempts by officials to be upbeat have a hollow ring to them when you get past the puffery.

For example, outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz says that there is great progress being made on the climate and the progress is probably irreversible.

There is some truth to what he says: Clean-energy and renewable energy technologies have become much cheaper and more efficient; for example, costs have fallen 41 percent for land-based wind power and 64 percent for utility-scale solar power since 2008. The global market for such technologies will only grow and utility and manufacturing industry executives, who have to plan investments on 30-year time horizons, aren't likely to make long-term bets on high-carbon projects, so there is market pressure for a lower-carbon economy.

The move from coal to natural gas, which is less carbon-intensive, also has had an impact.

But here is where we get past the puffery. The shift from coal to natural gas did not occur because the latter is cleaner in a global warming sense but because it is cheaper. Which means that shift will continue only so long as that remains true. And natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Meanwhile, the energy industry still talks about the chimera of "clean coal" and Moniz enthused about a doubling of domestic oil production as if that was a good thing - which is particularly objectionable since the increase was from shale oil.

In other words, the vision being presented is not one of a carbon-free economy or even of a low-carbon economy, but only of a not-as-high carbon economy. And that is just not good enough, especially not when we are now facing the prospect of an administration lead by a man who has openly proposed scrapping all NASA climate research, is filling his administration with hard-core climate deniers, and appears to be readying a witch hunt against Energy Department staff who have promoted climate change programs.

I'm not ready to give up, not yet, not when we have seen plans out there, specific plans on how we can create a carbon-free economy within a couple of decades, plans I have talked about on this show. But I have to tell you, I am not hopeful.

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