The changing climate on Our Dying Planet, in more ways than one

Posted by on April 29, 2012
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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?

11 Responses to The changing climate on Our Dying Planet, in more ways than one

  1. Počasí

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    • Sylvie

      can’t help with 2, but:1. Average global tupteramere. The acidity of the oceans. The number and/or intensity of tropical storms. The number/frequency of record high tupterameres. The depth of the ocean. Probably other things I’m not thinking of right now.3. Because there’s already a lot of warming “in the pipeline”. For example, the oceans will eventually release some or all of the excess CO2 they have absorbed, which will lead to more warming. Unless we not only stop emitting new fossil CO2, but actually remove some of the CO2 we have already emitted, the Earth will continue warming until it reaches a new equilibrium.Edit:I don’t know the numbers on the deaths, and didn’t feel like bothering to look up the best current estimates.To my knowledge, the timeframe for significant removal of CO2 from the carbon cycle is something on the order of a thousand years. I think the timeframe for reaching equilibrium warming from existing carbon in the carbon cycle is on the order of 100 years. Eventually, the excess CO2 will be removed, but it will take a *long* time. Before it’s removed, it will finish causing the warming that has already started.Son of edit:Even if I have the exact timescales wrong, the concept still applies. I’m reasonably certain that the climate reaching equilibrium warming is on a faster timescale than excess CO2 leaving the atmosphere. Even if we entirely ceased net CO2 emissions today, which would require fairly drastic measures (either entirely ceasing fossil fuel use, or fairly massive carbon sequestration projects) the Earth would continue to warm until it reached “full” warming for the CO2 already in the system.

  2. David Wilson

    hmmm … Czech …

    I do remember first hearing about global warming from some hippies I was hanging out with in the 70′s, and dismissed it at the time as something too impossibly improbable to contemplate … eventually though, late 90′s, it became clear

    since then I have been digging and delving, dibbling and hoeing – the central question for me is: how can so few be paying attention? – Charles Taylor (the Canadian philosopher, not the Liberian warlord) provided a keystone with his notions around ‘social imaginaries’ and latency in uptake; Clive Hamilton put some clues into his ‘Requiem For A Species’ … Simon Critchley in ‘Infinitely Demanding’

    even David Suzuki recognizes a “fundamental failure of environmentalism” ( though his spiritual mewling leaves me cold

    it is easy to imagine a simple we/they dualism, right vs left, something like that – easy that is if you ignore figures like Brian Mulrooney & Margaret Thatcher – and as you say, the IEA is hardly a radical hotbed

    recently, this caught my attention: ‘Leadership is the answer to the right’s problem with climate change’ ( – particularly since I have been carrying a largeish banner around here and there that reads “Hungry for Climate leadership” :-)

    comical really, I put that Guardian article out to a few eminent greenies of my acquaintance and got back ideas of an inter-generational struggle (doh!?)

    it is a work in progress … I used to read a bit of linguistic stuff, first came upon Noam Chomsky through transformational grammar not activism :-)

    and I am wondering now, having concluded long ago that communication is a function of will (the only thing that is good without qualification is the will to communicate), if that is not the missing ingredient, will (?)

    what would happen (I wonder) if someone like Conrad Black picked it up – a big man who regularly uses words like ‘defenestrate’ (?)

    nonsense of course, or is it?

    be well.

    • Juwon

      Organic waste often gets covered up and deocopmses anaerobically (ie without oxygen). So in landfill it often releases methane instead of CO2 like it would if it were incinerated. Methane, molecule for molecule, packs a much higher warming punch than CO2 (about 25 times higher is the current best estimate, but recent research suggests it could be even bigger).Also, it’s not so much what the waste does, as what it affects further down the supply chain.It takes trees to make paper, and a lot of energy to make paper/glass/metal/etc from raw resources. If you throw away a can then any new cans will need to be made from ore which is very energy intensive.If you recycle the can, this prevents a new one from being made from ore; and recycling saves approximately 95% of the energy for aluminium (it doesn’t save as much for plastic, paper and glass, but in most cases you’re still better off).Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, so by reducing energy use you’re reducing fossil fuel use and therefore CO2 emissions, which the overwhelming majority of the scientific community says is very important in global warming.

      • Zieyper

        Green technology tends to save more money in the long run, deipste being more expensive to begin with for example, motion-sensing light fixtures that only turn on when someone walks into a room are more expensive than regular lights, but after a few years the reduced power usage saves money. What examples of green energy are you looking at that are so cost-inefficient? Around here (Midwest) people have been installing windmills, which are quite green that have consistently proven profitable.

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    • Darltion

      Chem Flunky,So Let me get this straight, you have no idea how many dathes will occur or have occurred? So if this is the case, let me ask you how you would actually proceed. You have a trillion dollars. You can spend it on saving known lives at risk for any number of problems man faces or on reducing AGW, which do you spend it on? Listening to the scare-mongerers, it sounds like it will be billions. Is this realistic? DO you think a good risk assessment can be done, if we do not even know the risk? My answer to this question is simple. Since we do not know the risk, we go for solutions that will be beneficial outside of AGW causing dathes or not. Nuclear power is an example. We can make nuclear power cheaper than coal and it is already safer than coal. E-cars is another example. Not paying for gas would be awesome. If they can get the price of solar panels to a reasonable amount, it would be as well. Paying for half as much energy and not being totally reliant on the power companies would be great. Note that this solution without the constant scare-mongering, both addresses your issues and does not cause people to believe the world is going to end. Without the scare-mongering, do horrific things like denying third world countries, power plants become unthinkable. Also for your answer to Number 3, are you really suggesting that the earth will not naturally pull excess CO2 out of the air? We may disagree on the timeframe to do this, but your answer suggests that the earth will not pull excess CO2 out of the air at all.I understand why you say a thousand years. They have given the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere at up to 200 years, meaning that taking out 97% of the CO2 would take about 1 thousand years. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for the scientists trying to determine the length of time, this is not nearly an accurate way of measuring this. Imagine a sink where the drain is pulled, but water is coming in at a faster rate then it is going out. Now in this case, if you lessen the water coming in, then the time to for the level of water to go down has to do with the rate of water going in and going out. It has nothing to do with how long one molecule of water stays in the sink. In fact, the time of a molecule of water being in the sink will likely be much longer. Because of this, it is difficult to figure out rates, but it will be far less than 1000 years.

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    • Princess

      Sad story Bjf6rn, viscious ccirle, bad prospects! >>> I feel helpless. You thought and wrote more about this than most of us. What can we do except- next Sunday vote for a party taking the climate challenge seriously- get involved, participate in organizations and movements with a similar agenda- and as individuals: eat less meet, no car, collective transports, bicycles, save energy, electricity, hotwater etc.Is the sum of all this = what can be done, and if all of us Or what other possible actions do yoy see?c5ke

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