These days, maintaining a blog is a challenge. It’s spring around here; a wonderful time of year, and a time with plenty of things to do other than prepare a post. The environmental crisis, my primary focus, is an unravelling which proceeds slowly compared to human timelines (although at breathtaking speed if viewed from a geological perspective). There simply is not breaking news every week or so, and, apart from an expected and grossly stupid announcement in the White House Rose Garden on June 1st, things have been relatively quiet lately on the environmental front, if one judges by the media. Because. This year, the Trump circus is sucking all the air out of the room, dominating the media at the expense of every other topic including the environment.
I don’t want to contribute my own rant to the anti-Trump chorus, and yet the possibilities for outrage, for flailing at the machine, and perhaps for humor are very enticing. On Twitter, I tried referring to him as Unpresident Trump (riffing off his own tweet in which he referred to ‘unpresidented’ attacks by the media, while also noting his lack of qualifications for his job). But that term did not catch on with others. I’ve also thought of calling him Emperor Trump, assuming readers would make the connection to the emperor who had no clothes.
Unqualified, ill-informed, brash, outspoken, but apparently very comfortable in his own skin
He recently returned from his first overseas trip, with all the opportunities it provided for revealing his shallow absence of understanding or nuance, and his petulant, bullying, narcissism. My congratulations to Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected President of France, who masterfully managed to out-manipulate him in the hand-shake and greeting department, and to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who responded to Trump’s misleading call for greater defense spending by NATO countries with “Decisions on Canadian military spending are made in Canada by Canadians”. But back in Washington, desperate to remain the center of attention, he has now signed yet another Executive Order instructing his government to remove the USA from the Paris Agreement at the earliest possible date. Nothing like moving fast. But then Trump is only about the show, the event, the entertainment. Definitely a petulant Unpresident.
It is increasingly difficult to take Donald Trump seriously. His decision on the Paris Agreement reveals his total lack of understanding of that accord, or of how diplomacy works. Far from restoring the stature of the USA in the world, he has eroded it severely. Cartoons often tell real truths. Image © Robert Ariail/The State.
Trump’s withdrawal from Paris may be a good thing
From an environmental perspective, the Trump presidency is likely to significantly roll back protections for US natural environments, much as the decade of rule by former PM Stephen Harper did in Canada. Canadians are seeing how long it takes to rebuild environmental management, and the US will have that task once Trump is bundled off to wherever he ends up next – King of the World, perhaps. On the international stage, Trump has chilled discussion of climate change, but has not yet had significant impact on actions being taken (even by States within the US). In this regard, an interesting commentary appeared May 23rd in the Globe & Mail, written by political scientist Matthew Hoffman of University of Toronto. He argued that it would be best for the world for Trump to announce a formal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as soon as possible. In Hoffman’s view, there is sufficient commitment to the idea of the necessity of global climate action for the world to move forward, whether or not Trump keeps the US near the front of the parade. Better to have him make his illogical decision and fade away, then to have him continue engaged, while actively working against real progress. Looks like Hoffman has got his wish.
Given my concern with the need for a much more robust effort at emissions reduction than is presently in place, I was not sure I agreed with Hoffman when I read his piece, although I do believe the irrelevance of a denialist agenda is being recognized by an ever-widening majority of people. I feared that until he does fade from view, we would just have to put up with the strange reporting on Trump’s body language and his mental health that fill the pages of the reputable press, while Trump does what he can to strip away environmental regulations. Trump is clearly unlike any prior US President.
But that was BEFORE 1st June. The outrage that greeted his announcement was substantially stronger, and far more widespread than I had expected. Progressive voices within the USA were quick to pounce, both on the decision itself and on the arguments Trump used to justify it. The news media around the world (the serious news media like the New York Times and the Washington Post) not only reported the decision, but wrote editorials critical of it. The Economist referred to the decision as “unconscionable and fatuous” and reported it was a decision rejected by most of his advisors, most large US companies, and 2/3 of Americans. The New Yorker dug deeper and described how the decision (and its support by most Republican members of congress) was a clear demonstation of the effectiveness of the dark money campaign by the Koch brothers and others on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. David Rank, chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Beijing and a career diplomat with 27 years’ service, resigned from the State Department because he could not deliver the formal announcement of Trump’s decision to the Chinese in good conscience. Foreign leaders of every political stripe joined in with comments ranging from deeply disappointed to outright anger. The Economist felt the decision had dealt a severe blow to America’s interests and international standing. Even my friend, Randy Olson, who pleads constantly for environmental scientists to learn how to tell their stories effectively, jumped in, claiming Trump was the B in the ABT rule for story-telling (his blog post on this is worth a read). And Twitter was alive with outrage. Meanwhile a large number of other actors pledged to move forward on climate no matter what the Trump administration decided. Here are my thoughts on the substance of the decision.
This image accompanied the New York Times editorial on June 1st. Not only has the flag fallen out of the tree of countries in the Paris agreement, the flag is being flown upside down, and we all know what that symbolizes! Image © New York Times
National Public Radio has provided a full annotated transcript of the event including the opening remarks by Vice President Mike Pence, and closing remarks by EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt. The comments of those two gentlemen reveal the enormous gulf that presently exists in American political life. Here is one quote from Pence:
“Since the first day of this administration, President Donald Trump has been working tirelessly to keep the promises that he made to the American people. President Trump has been reforming health care, enforcing our laws, ending illegal immigration, rebuilding our military, and this president has been rolling back excessive regulations and unfair trade practices that were stifling American jobs. Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, American business are growing again, investing in America again, and they’re creating jobs in this country instead of shipping jobs overseas. Thanks to President Donald Trump, America is back.”
Apart from the obvious (and acceptable) boosterish tone, this quote is full of aspirations expressed as achievements, plus claims of causation for events, such as job growth, that may or may not be justified. Reading it, I struggle to understand the nature of the rose-colored spectacles that Pence and colleagues are wearing, because the Trump presidency does not look remotely like that to me. CORRECTION – not rose-colored spectacles, Pence is not wearing any. Must be the nature of the cool-aid I do not understand.
Scott Pruitt’s closing comments are not quite so egregious. In fact, he even seems to consider reducing CO2 emissions to be a good thing – a strange perspective from one who denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change. But there are two sentences in the middle that typify the problem some American leaders have with being a part of the world:
“This is an historic restoration of American economic independence, one that will benefit the working class, the working poor, and working people of all stripes. With this action, you have declared that the people are rulers of this country once again.”
Apparently, for Pruitt, and perhaps Trump, international agreements erode sovereignty, while restoring that sovereignty will somehow help the poor. Renouncing Paris somehow restores American democracy? But, hey, I’m not a political scientist. I’m just a lowly environmental scientist who cannot be expected to understand.
Trump’s 1st June announcement revealed either total unconcern about details, or total lack of understanding of the Paris Agreement. He refers to it, throughout as the Paris Accord, when its correct name is Paris Agreement (lots of people make this error). But in one telling sentence he reveals how little he knows about its content:
“Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”
Does Donald Trump not know what the word ‘non-binding’ means? How can a non-binding agreement impose severe financial or economic burdens on a country? Later he claims that “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as $2.7 million lost jobs by 2025, according to the National Economic Research Associates.” Setting aside his reference to a widely disputed cost estimate, which, among other things, took no notice of new jobs likely to be created in the developing renewables economy, this sentence reinforces the view that the Paris Agreement sets mandatory costs on the USA. It doesn’t. That is what non-binding means.
Much of Trump’s announcement was a mish-mash of statistics about jobs, the economy, and growth or retreat of specific sectors, plus praise for the high environmental standards of the USA. He is meanwhile doing all he can to erode those environmental standards. Nowhere in his announcement does he mention climate change except for the spurious claim that “if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a [0.2oC change in temperature].” That is one low-ball estimate of the incremental improvement due to Paris that has been widely disputed; a more realistic estimate is 0.8oC, but all people recognize that the commitments already on the table because of Paris are just a first step, and that there will be further commitments in the future. (This fact about the Paris Agreement is seen by some as one of its greatest strokes of genius – it builds a community within which there will be peer pressure to do ever better – while others claim it is one of its great weaknesses.) Instead of denying that climate change is a problem to solve (something I’d have expected from Trump), he avoids all mention of potential climate change impacts and their costs, and converts the Paris Agreement into some nefarious plot by those other nations to unfairly constrain the vibrant economy of the USA.
Bizarrely – well, OK, the whole announcement is bizarre, but, even more bizarrely — he announces that on withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the US will immediately begin to renegotiate it. I guess this kind of brinksmanship is the type of business negotiation he is used to, but does he realize how long was spent in negotiating Paris? Does he realize that to formally withdraw, the USA must wait 3 years from its date of coming into force (4th November, 2016) to send the letter, and an additional year before the withdrawal takes place (that’s in 2020, just after the next Presidential election)? When is he expecting to commence renegotiations? If there is one thing that Trump’s announcement made abundantly clear, it is that he simply does not understand the details of the agreement that he is determined to withdraw from. But then, we are all beginning to learn that Trump does not bother about details. Ever. Just the spectacle. Just the pomp. Truly an Emperor without any clothes on.
This image is a year old, but is as relevant today as back then.
Cartoon © Steve Sack, Star Tribune.
Yet the environmental crisis goes on
Despite the Trump circus, the media continue to provide coverage of the environmental crisis. Bloomberg has now put up two of three articles on changes in the Arctic on its website. The third will appear in June. Apart from stunning photography (such as this image showing what can happen when melting permafrost burps methane), the articles provide an update on how rapidly the Arctic is warming, and on the impacts of this on the weather, the natural environment, and international politics and economics. Countries like Canada should recognize there is a huge downside to continued warming up there.
A crater formed by the explosion of a “pingo”, a pocket of methane gas, on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia. Those are people standing on the edge. Warming is leading to more frequent occurrences and greater methane emissions. Photo © Vasily Bogoyavlensky/AFP
On 18th May, a report in The Guardian detailed a paper published in Scientific Reports by Sean Vitousek of University of Illinois at Chicago, with five colleagues from the US Geological Survey and University of Hawaii. They evaluated the consequences for flooding risk of continued sea level rise. While sea level rise of ~4mm per year will not cause significantly increased flooding risk directly for many years, it does facilitate flooding during storm events when seas can be noticeably elevated above usual levels. Flood risk management is always about these extreme events and how frequently they can be expected to occur.
Putting aside the disturbing fact that estimates of sea level rise expected during this century continue to rise as scientific understanding of the behavior of glaciers grows. The Vitousek article, by analyzing the effects of elevated sea level on impacts of large waves and storm surges, showed first that these effects are somewhat more important at low latitudes because tidal ranges are generally lower there. They calculated that the risk of extreme water-level events is doubled by an increase in sea level of 5-10 cm. This will likely occur by 2030. Obviously, with still greater sea level rise the risk increases further. In the authors’ view, the maps they developed of flooding risk suggest a dire future for many places including major cities like San Francisco, Mumbai, Ho Chi Min City and Abidjan. As with other aspects of climate change, the picture keeps getting more bleak as we learn more details of how the planetary systems will respond to the changing climate.
On 9th May, Takamatsu Ito of Georgia Tech, and three colleagues from US and Japanese labs, published an article in Geophysical Research Letters. The article is, as usual, behind a paywall, but there is a good summary of it on the website, Phys.Org. Using a global database of ocean physics and chemistry, Ito and colleagues reviewed dissolved oxygen content in the upper 1000 meters of the global ocean for the period from 1958 to 2015. They found a measurable reduction in oxygen content beginning in the 1980s, and continuing today. The total reduction over that time is greater than the natural year to year variability in oxygen content, and its extent varies geographically.
The trend in oxygen content at three depths over the period 1958 to 2015. Black areas are places missing data. The reduction, measured as micromoles per year, is substantial in some parts of the ocean, and is partly caused by alterations in solubility of oxygen due to rising temperatures. Image © M Ito and Geophysical Research Letters.
The amount of oxygen loss since 1980 is about three times more than anticipated based on temperature-induced changes in solubility. Ito and colleagues believe this discrepancy can be explained by the simultaneous changes in water circulation associated with the warming. The fact of the decline makes the long-term consequences for ocean biology an important question for ocean scientists in coming years. Substantial loss of dissolved oxygen may contribute to the growth in coastal dead zones (chiefly caused by largescale nitrification due to land-sourced agricultural and domestic pollution) and has been a feature of several of the past mass extinction events on this planet.
Scientists continue to identify ways in which we are modifying this planet by our meddling with the atmosphere. Politicians and the general public are increasingly aware of the urgency of the need to rein in CO2 emissions, in order to prevent extreme warming or run-away climate change. Progress in decarbonizing the global economy is being made, although it remains far too slow. June 1st, 2017 may well become identified as the day that climate change denial reached its ultimate level of absurdity, in the Rose Garden of the White House, and the day from which we will be able to mark the beginning of a global acceleration in actions to mitigate CO2 emissions. The hope that sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs can survive the next century has likely been bolstered, so long as we commit to a more active management of them than in the past. By getting the rest of the planet to recognize, and commit publicly to the need to act on climate change now, Trump may actually have finally done something useful.
Trump? Not my President! No Sir!
A great photo showing parrotfish on Maldive reef © Victor Tribunsky