Friday, December 19, 2008

I'm just a hunka hunka burnin' love

Or so they say.

Okay, there are more reasons why Cavuto's vapid blathering is more than just bitterly amusing.

It comes at a time when US military and intelligence services are concerned about the national security implications of climate change. A time when even leading denialist China is admitting there is a problem.

And a time when evidence that global warming is already having serious and larger-than-expected impacts in the polar regions is growing almost by the day. Now, those effects have
for the first time been attributed directly to human activities, according to a study. ...

In 2007, the UN's climate change body presented strong scientific evidence the rise in average global temperature is mostly due to human activities. ...

At the time, there was not sufficient evidence to say this for sure about the Arctic and Antarctic.

Now that gap in research has been plugged, according to scientists who carried out a detailed analysis of temperature variations at both poles.
The study was actually quite straightforward: It examined records of actual temperature changes and compared them with two sets of climate models, one of which assumed there was a human influence that the other assumed there wasn't. The best fit of the data matched the former set. Thus,
"We're able for the first time to directly attribute warming in both the Arctic and the Antarctic to human influences," said Nathan Gillett of the University of East Anglia, in Britain, who led the study.
Peter Stott, another of the researchers involved in the study, said demonstrating an human effect on Antarctica was the most significant conclusion.
"In the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report for example," he said, "it wasn't possible to make a statement about the Antarctic because such a study had not been done at that point.

"But nevertheless when you do that you see a clear human fingerprint in the observed data. We really can't claim anymore that it's natural variations that are driving these very large changes that we are seeing in our in the climate system."
One of the reasons Antarctica was key is that even though it's more than 1.4 times the size of the US, it has just 20 weather stations.
Scientists can see that the warmer parts of Antarctica, including the Western Antarctic and Antarctic Peninsula, which juts north toward South America and is home to millions of seals and penguins and other birds, are seeing temperature increases.

But the frigid East Antarctic, with ice 2,226 metres[, nearly 1.4 miles,] thick, has seen no significant change in air temperature during the past 50 years - in fact it has shown evidence of cooling - and this has made overall conclusions about the greenhouse gas effect inconclusive.
But this study showed an "overall warming" of the continent, even if the degree of warming varied widely from one region to another, and was able to, in the words of Andrew Monaghan of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "demonstrate convincingly" that human activities contributed to that warming.

Monaghan also noted that despite the Anarctic Peninsula having seen one of the largest increases in average monthly temperature of any place on Earth - up to 3oC or 5.4oF since the 1950s - that average monthly temperature is still ranges from 1oC (34oF) down to -15oC (5oF).
"We won't see anything catastrophic in the next century if things continue at the current rate. But the melt could accelerate," Monaghan said.
If the Arctic is any indication, that last caveat is a wise one. On Tuesday came word that
[s]cientists have found the first unequivocal evidence that the Arctic region is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world at least a decade before it was predicted to happen.

Climate-change researchers have found that air temperatures in the region are higher than would be normally expected during the autumn because the increased melting of the summer Arctic sea ice is accumulating heat in the ocean. The phenomenon, known as Arctic amplification, was not expected to be seen for at least another 10 or 15 years and the findings will further raise concerns that the Arctic has already passed the climatic tipping-point towards ice-free summers, beyond which it may not recover. ...

[I]n a study to be presented ... to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, scientists will show that Arctic amplification has been under way for the past five years, and it will continue to intensify Arctic warming for the foreseeable future.
This was in the wake of the news in October that
[t]he thickness of Arctic sea ice "plummeted" last winter, thinning by as much as 49 centimetres (1.6ft) in some regions, satellite data has revealed. ...

Sea ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record in September 2007, when it extended across an area of just 4.13 million sq km (1.59 million sq miles), beating the previous record low of 5.32 million sq km, measured in 2005.

The team from [University College London]'s Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling - part of the UK's National Centre for Earth Observation - found that last winter the ice had thinned by an average of 26cm (0.9ft) below the 2002-2008 winter average.
So not only is the area covered by the ice shrinking, the thickness of the remaining ice is, as well - that is, the total volume of winter sea ice is now known to be declining.
Temperature readings for this October were significantly higher than normal across the entire Arctic region – between 3C and 5C [5.4oF - 9oF] above average – but some areas were dramatically higher. In the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, for instance, near-surface air temperatures were more than 7C [nearly 13oF] higher than normal for this time of year. The scientists believe the only reasonable explanation for such high autumn readings is that the ocean heat accumulated during the summer because of the loss of sea ice is being released back into the atmosphere from the sea before winter sea ice has chance to reform.
The result is that the first Arctic ice-free summer might not come in 60 or 70 years, as formerly predicted, but could come within 20 years.

This is a perfect example of the sort of self-reinforcing feed-back loop that climatologists fear could both dramatically accelerate the time frame of, and worsen, global warming: The high albido (reflectivity of heat) of ice and snow reflects some of the sun's warmth back toward space while the low albido of sea water tends to absorb it. So human actions generate warming which lessens Arctic ice. The open water absorbs heat from the sun. As the suns sets for the season, that stored warmth is released back into the environment, where it interferes with ice formation, which leads to more open water come the following summer, which leads to more heat absorption, which leads to more and so on.

I'm sure it's not necessary to note, but I will, that the extra heat being released does not just stay in the Arctic and changes there can't be isolated from changes elsewhere. Remember Barry Commoner's First Law of Ecology: "Everything is connected to everything else."

Footnote: One of the more perspicacious observations about the "debate" over global warming was made by Professor Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, one of the researchers on the Antarctica study. He said:
I still think that a number of people, including some politicians, are reluctant to accept the evidence or to do anything about it until we specifically come down to saying that one particular event was caused by humans like a serious flood somewhere or even a heatwave.

Until we get down to smaller scale events in both time and space I still think there will be people doubting the evidence.
That is, just like there were for so long people, people with vested interests, who denied that tobacco was connected to heart disease or lung cancer or emphysema because it couldn't be shown that this particular heart attack or this particular lung cancer or this particular case of emphysema was caused by smoking.

Another Footnote: Last month a group calling itself the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of corporations and co-opted environmental groups, called for federal legislation establishing
a mandatory cap-and-trade system to limit the release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases.
While I certainly don't oppose cap-and-trade, I fear it will have little impact on global warming and is more a basis to tell ourselves (more pointedly, for corporations to tell us) that something is being done when little is.

There are a couple of variations of cap-and-trade, but they're pretty much the same. The basic idea is that the government sets a ceiling on the amount of CO2 plants can emit. Plants that exceed that limit would have to buy credits covering the difference while those plants that are below the limit could sell credits equal to that difference. The underlying claim is that it brings the magic of the marketplace to bear on environmental concerns by making it more profitable to lower emissions. Advocates point to its successes with acid rain as proof of the concept.

There are two serious flaws there: One is that the case of acid rain is not analogous. In that case, the issue was the local concentration of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. Spreading out the production of sulfur dioxide emissions, which is what cap-and-trade did, reduces acid rain by reducing local concentrations. In the case of CO2 and global warming, it's the total amount produced that's important; simply spreading our output more evenly over the country will not help.

The other is more subtle and strikes at the heart of our national problem in facing the issue: The program works only so long as it's more profitable to pay the costs of reducing your pollution than it is to pay the costs of continuing to pollute. And there is absolutely no guarantee that will be the case either in any individual example or for an industry as a whole. Cap-and-trade turns pollution - and therefore its human, ecological, and economic impacts - from something to be minimized into just another market commodity subject to the whims of short-term corporate profit-seeking. Which strikes me on principle as being ethically and environmentally a very bad idea.

The only way - the only way - a cap-and-trade system can work against global warming is if there are continuous reductions in the ceilings allowed, reductions that much be deep, must be rapid, and must be strictly enforced. And bluntly, I have absolutely no faith whatsoever that any of those three requirements will be met in the face of denialism and corporate profit-hunger.

One More Footnote: An excellent source for keeping up with climate change news is DeSmogBlog, which served as the source of some of the above links.

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