In Our Dying Planet, I devoted a chapter to climate change including the changes that were affecting the oceans and via oceans the coral reefs. Climate change also featured in my discussions of energy use, population growth, and our challenges for the future. Its disappointing to see that nothing I wrote two years or more ago has turned out to be exaggerated. I would love to be wrong about climate change, but if anything, I will be found to have underestimated its consequences.
A quick perusal of the media this morning (thank you, Google) has provided several topics that illustrate where we are with climate change. First up we have Canadian Minister of Environment, Peter Kent. On the one hand, he defended the government’s muzzling of its scientists as established practice in all large organizations. Apparently he believes Canada’s national government is a ‘large organization’ comparable to a private business with products to sell. The latest muzzling event concerned an e-mail sent to Environment Canada scientists participating in the International Polar Year conference held in Montreal 22-27 April. The e-mail instructed them to respond to all questions from the media by requesting a business card and offering to set up a later time for an interview (when a media minder would be present to advise and record what was said). On the other hand, and only a few days earlier, Mr. Kent was publicly announcing that in 2010, for the first time in 22 years, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions stayed constant. Of course, the economic downturn was not mentioned, and I am left with the nagging doubt that our greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 would probably have not even been announced publicly if they had not remained constant. After all, Kent is part of a government that is progressively stripping back Canada’s environmental regulations, including such things as an obligation to report annually on climate change policy and results attained – this particular requirement (and several others) were stripped out as part of the recent budget legislation. Message control destroys the power of science to inform, and its time our government recognized that it, and its science departments, are supposed to serve the people. As for the IPY conference, fortunately there are other governments and non-government scientists in Canada to present the story now unfolding.
The story out of IPY 2012 is that climate change is hitting the Arctic and Antarctic in myriad ways, and doing so faster than scientists were predicting as recently as the 2004 IPCC report. Arctic sea ice is retreating so quickly that over 2000 scientists from 67 countries signed a letter released by the Pew Environment Group on the eve of the IPY conference proposing an immediate international moratorium on commercial fishing in the Arctic until the fisheries scientists have sufficient data on the stocks and their capacity to sustain fishing. The concern is that the fishing boats will be going north far sooner than expected. Ice retreat in the Antarctic is such that seven of 12 peninsular ice sheets are now gone or in serious decline. One scientist stated, “I think if you look at everything we’ve learned, we see the polar regions are much more vulnerable to global warming than we thought. Global biological and oceanographic systems are responding faster than we ever expected. Earth has gone through this before, and some past warm cycles have been extreme, but we as humans have never seen anything like it” I said in Our Dying Planet that the polar regions, next to reefs, were likely to be the ecosystems most likely to be impacted hard by climate change. Data seem to be proving that statement correct.
Still in the Arctic, a study by Eric Kort and others, published on-line in Nature Geoscience, April 22, reports their discovery of unexpected emissions of methane from the Arctic ocean, entering the atmosphere from regions of open water and through cracks in the sea ice. The concentrations are small, about 1% above background, but the source, likely mid-water biological activity, is not yet known. Still, the Arctic Ocean is a large area and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so this is one more example of an unanticipated result that will shift global temperatures upwards.
Leaving the Arctic behind, Paul Durack and others have just reported in Science (April 22) that the global hydrologic cycle has been intensifying in the period since 1950. What this means is that the rates of evaporation, and condensation as rain or snow, have been increasing, and water is going around the cycle more quickly. They used records of patterns in surface salinity of the world’s oceans to estimate regions of drought over nearby land masses, and examined how these patterns changed over some 50 years of records. Their results show a significant intensification of the spatial pattern of salinity, representing a change in climate towards more pronounced droughts and floods. The disturbing thing is that their results suggest this change to the hydrological cycle is proceeding about twice as quickly as the data based on modeling of climate had predicted. Once more, we seem to have been underestimating the severity of climate change.
Meanwhile, a group of scientists led by Harvard PhD student, Eric Liebensperger, has just reported in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, that relatively poor air quality over the eastern U.S. has delayed the effects of climate change in that region until recently. The clean-up of air pollution, initiated under the U.S. Clean Air Act, beginning in the 1970s, removed particulates, particularly sulfates from coal-fired power plants, from the atmosphere, and with their removal, climate is now catching up with where it should be. Maybe that warm March was not a fluke after all? And on that note, I turn to NOAA’s website which provides monthly and annual regional, national and global summaries of weather data. This is perhaps one of the best ways to quickly track what is happening, almost as it happens. While March was the warmest on record in many parts of North America, it was only the 16th warmest March globally. Isn’t it nice that Canadians can turn to their American neighbors to find out what is happening to our climate? I wonder if Peter Kent, who used to be a good news reporter ever looks at such data?
To finish up this disorganized set of observations, James Hansen, who was recently honored in Scotland with award of the Edinburgh Medal for his work in climate science, took the opportunity to make two points: climate change is on a par with slavery as a moral problem, and, at the very time that climate science grows more and more strong, and the conclusions become ever more precise, public opinion is moving in the other direction, under the influence of powerful groups that do not want our economies to deviate from business as usual. His fear is that without public support it will be impossible to make the changes that are needed if the worst excesses of climate change are to be avoided.
If that is not enough to keep you thoroughly cheered up, on April 25th, Maria van der Hoven, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA – not known as a radical green group) reported at a meeting of energy ministers from the world’s largest economies and emitter nations, that governments are falling badly behind on low-carbon energy, putting carbon reduction targets out of reach and pushing the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. The IEA report, Tracking Clean Energy, states that “achieving this transition [to a non-carbon energy economy] is technically feasible, if timely and significant government policy action is taken, and a range of clean energy technologies are developed and deployed globally” Seems to me it is far past time to stop dithering, or denying, and start doing things that are constructive. Now, how do we tell Peter Kent and his fearless leader, Stephen Harper?