Saturday, May 13, 2017

21.3 - Bad news and some hope about global climate change

Bad news and some hope about global climate change

Last week I celebrated the large turnout for the Peoples Climate Marches, and I use the plural because there were hundreds of events, both in the US and around the world, with something around or even over 250,000 taking part in the US, so I wanted to follow up on that with some related news.

You have by now, I'm sure, heard about how the White House is hiding away information about climate change, including taking down several EPA websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

Agency mouthpiece J.P. Freire justified the moves, saying "we can't have information which contradicts the actions we have taken in the last two months," which amounts to an admission that what they have done contradicts the science, but they have far too little self-awareness to notice.

Freire also said the removal of the scientific data was to "make room" to "reflect the views of the leadership of the agency." Funny, I didn't realize the Internet was running out of space.

What makes the news particularly disturbing is that it comes against a background of an ever-higher mountain of evidence.

For one thing, a new scientific study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global temperatures could exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above their pre-industrial levels within the next 8 years.

The study focuses on a natural planetary system known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, or IPO (sometimes referred to as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation). It's an alternating pattern of ocean temperatures that shifts periodically between warm and cool phases, helping to drive temperature and weather patterns all over the world.

It's similar to the more familiar El Niño/La Niña cycle, but the phases of the IPO tend to last much longer - sometimes a decade or more.

For most of the 2000s, the IPO has been in a negative, that is, a cooling phase, and scientists think its effect has helped to offset the effect of climate change. In other words, it has kept the climate cooler than it otherwise would have been.

Many scientists believe that the IPO is now transitioning back into a positive, or warming, phase, which would amplify, rather than offset, human-caused climate warming. And that could mean the Earth could hit the 1.5-degree threshold as early as 2025, five years sooner than current projections. Five years might not seem like a long time but it does mean having five years less to act.

The figure of 1.5 degrees is not important in an of itself as a number, no more inherently significant than 1.4 degrees or 1.6 degrees, but it is a marker, a milepost, which takes its significance from the fact that the Paris Climate accords are geared around striving to keep global temperature from rising any more than that if only to provide a buffer against the standard "beyond here it gets really bad" level of a two degree increase.

That buffer may be hard to maintain, however, considering that a long-feared natural feedback loop for warming appears to be developing.

A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is reporting an increasing volume of carbon dioxide entering the air from thawing permafrost in the Alaskan tundra.

Because Alaska is warming, the permafrost is thawing earlier and deeper in the spring and summer and refreezing later in the fall and winter, allowing more time for decomposing plant material to release CO2. Since 1975, there has been a 73 percent increase in the amount of carbon lost from the Alaskan tundra in the months of October through December. More CO2 means more warming which means more thawing which means more carbon release which means more warming and around and around you go.

There had been a hope that the "greening" of Alaska - because the warming also means a longer growing season - would allow the area to be a carbon sink, as growing plants suck up the CO2, but this latest study says that the loss from the thawing permafrost is outweighing that gain.

Still, still, still there is hope. Because it is possible - not possible in the sense of hypothetical but possible in the sense of yes it can be done - to move the United States to an economy powered entirely by renewable energy by 2050 and yes that includes heating and transportation. In 2014, an organization called The Solutions Project developed state-by-state proposals for a shift in the US to all renewables, varying by what mix would be most efficient in each case.

And it's not even just the US: It is technologically feasible to accomplish this for the entire world. A 2015 Greenpeace study done in conjunction with the German Aerospace Centre found that, in the words of the study:
There are no major economic or technical barriers to moving towards 100% renewable energy by 2050.
It also found that the world could be producing 85 percent of its energy needs with renewables in just 15 years.

The investment involved in this would be substantial, on the order of $1 trillion a year, but that may not be as much as it sounds when you consider that in 2015 the US GDP was over $18 trillion and the world product was over $74 trillion.

Even better, the study estimates that the costs would be covered by the slightly over $1 trillion a year in savings on fuel costs alone. What's more, such a project would create 20 million jobs over the next 15 years and would provide energy access to the one-third of the people of the world who currently lack it.

So yes, it is possible and according to a group called "Go 100%," 12 Countries, 70 Cities, 62 Regions or States - including major countries such as Denmark and Germany - have pledged to go 100% renewable by 2050.

And even as TheRump considers dropping out of the Paris agreement - which technically he can't do until November 2019 but he can just refuse to take any steps to implement it - the United States is already about halfway to meeting its commitment under that accord to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

All of which means that the only thing lacking for such a transition to an all-renewable economy is the political will.

Some in the Congress are trying to find that will. On April 27, two days before the Peoples Climate Marches, Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, and Cory Booker introduced the "100 by '50 Act," laying out a plan to move the US to all renewables by 2050.

It involves phasing out fossil-fuel generated electricity supply in favor of renewables, electrifying transportation and heating systems by means including a requirement for zero-emission vehicles, ending new fossil fuel investments such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, placing tariffs on imported carbon-intensive products, and creating and auctioning Climate Bonds to raise extra funds for projects - while at the same time making sure that poor and disadvantaged communities share in the benefits and workers affected by the changes are protected.

Yes, yes, yes, it's true, this bill will go nowhere in the current Congress - but nonetheless it is important that, again, the ground has been staked out; this can serve as a rallying cry, an organizing tool; this is not "gee, can we maybe cut back a little, please, if it's not too much trouble," this is calling for what should be done, can be done, not calling for what you maybe think might possibly get passed this session. And that is to the good.

All in all, things still seem dark to me with regard to climate change. I still have no faith that people - that Americans in particular, who often seem more inclined to fight than switch to renewables - can be roused from their corporate- and media-induced slumber in time to make a difference.

But at a time when at least a few Senators are waking up, when Bloomberg has opened a new website devoted to the idea that climate change is an economic issue, when sixteen Fortune 100 companies have signed a letter to the White House calling on the US to stay in the Paris Agreement, and when even Tiffany & Company, for pity's sake, can take out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the same thing, even an old cynic like me can't help but feel a little hope.

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