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kottke.org posts about global warming

Climate change could be making our food less nutritious

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2017

A potential link between human-driven climate change and the nutrients in our food has some scientists worried. More study is needed, but here’s what may be happening. Plants are bingeing on the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which causes them to contain fewer nutrients and more sugar. Plants with fewer nutrients result in animals with fewer nutrients…and the humans who eat both are receiving fewer nutrients from eating the same amount of food.

Loladze and a handful of other scientists have come to suspect that’s not the whole story and that the atmosphere itself may be changing the food we eat. Plants need carbon dioxide to live the same way humans need oxygen. And in the increasingly polarized debate about climate science, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. Before the industrial revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century-essentially twice the amount that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors.

If you’re someone who thinks about plant growth, this seems like a good thing. It has also been useful ammunition for politicians looking for reasons to worry less about the implications of climate change. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, recently argued that people shouldn’t be so worried about rising CO2 levels because it’s good for plants, and what’s good for plants is good for us.

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth,” the Texas Republican wrote. “This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food.”

But as the zooplankton experiment showed, greater volume and better quality might not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they might be inversely linked. As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc.

The life cycle of a t-shirt

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 08, 2017

In a video for TED-Ed, Angel Chang takes us through the life cycle of a typical t-shirt, from cotton to rags, with a focus on the embodied energy of the manufacture and use of a shirt. For instance, because of how it’s produced and shipped around the world, clothing production accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions.

See also Planet Money’s T-shirt Project.

How climate change makes hurricanes like Harvey worse

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2017

How anthropogenic climate change affects single storms like Hurricane Harvey is difficult to say. But from climate data, a couple of things about hurricane trends are clear. While the overall number of hurricanes will decrease due to the effects of climate change, the number of severe hurricanes, those causing the most damage, will increase. And the storms will also be wetter and, when combined with rising sea levels (also caused by climate change), will result in more coastal flooding and damage like we’re seeing now with Harvey.

See also Houston is experiencing its third ‘500-year’ flood in 3 years. How is that possible?

Climatologists say the mechanism by which this is happening is fairly straightforward. “Warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air,” according to the 2014 Climate Assessment produced by the U.S. government. “Global analyses show that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has in fact increased due to human-caused warming. This extra moisture is available to storm systems, resulting in heavier rainfalls.”

A graph of global temperature anomalies from 1900-2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2017

Using NASA’s GISTEMP data (a measure of the surface air temperature around the world), climate researcher Antti Lipponen put together this data visualization of global temperature anomalies from 1900-2016. Until about the mid-90s, the lines in different parts of the world pulse blue (cooler) or yellow/red (warmer) each year as regional climate varies…but it slowly turns less blue and more yellow. From 1997 on, the thing is basically an angry red porcupine.

Short answers to hard questions about climate change

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2017

From Justin Gillis at the NY Times, some succinct answers to frequently asked questions about climate change, including:

Is there anything I can do about climate change?
Will reducing meat in my diet really help the climate?
Will a technology breakthrough help us?
Why do people question the science of climate change?
Is crazy weather tied to climate change?

And “How much is the planet warming up?”:

As of early 2017, the Earth had warmed by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or more than 1 degree Celsius, since 1880, when records began at a global scale. That figure includes the surface of the ocean. The warming is greater over land, and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica.

The number may sound low. We experience much larger temperature swings in our day-to-day lives from weather systems and from the changing of seasons. But when you average across the entire planet and over months or years, the temperature differences get far smaller — the variation at the surface of the Earth from one year to the next is measured in fractions of a degree. So a rise of 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century is actually high.

I think part of the problem, at least for Americans, is that the temperature numbers typically bandied about — the magic number of two degrees above pre-industrial levels — are in Celcius, not Fahrenheit. That 2°C is 3.6°F…the entire Earth warming up by 3.6°F is a tremendous amount of heat.

Climate change: a plausible worst-case scenario for humanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2017

Climate Worst Case

After talking with dozens of climatologists and related researchers, David Wallace-Wells writes about what will happen to the Earth and human civilization without taking “aggressive action” on slowing climate change. It is a sobering piece.

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still.

Carbon is not only warming the atmosphere, it’s also polluting it.

Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

Our climate is supposed to move slowly, in concert with many other slow moving things like ecosystems, evolution, global economies, politics, and civilizations. When the pace of climate change quickens? A lot of those slow moving things are going to break. Heat, drought, famine, coastal flooding, pollution, disease, war, forced migration, economic collapse…humanity will survive, but the worst case scenario is not pretty. And of course, the most vulnerable among us — the poor, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled, and the otherwise disadvantaged — will undergo the most suffering.

Update: And once again, addressing climate change isn’t about saving the planet, it’s about preserving humanity and preventing human suffering. As Seth Michaels tweeted: “‘the planet’ will be fine. the patterns and structures that determine where we live, what we eat, how we get along? *that’s* what’s at stake”. (via @lauraolin)

Update: A piece like this was going to be controversial and some of the responses are worth reading.

Climate scientist Michael Mann:

I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.

The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.

Eric Holthaus: Stop scaring people about climate change. It doesn’t work.

The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.

Our brain’s limbic system is hard-wired to prioritize these kinds of threats, so we shift into fight-or-flight mode. And because the odds look stacked against us, most choose to flee. If anything, strategies like this make the problem worse. They take people willing to read something like “The Uninhabitable Earth” and essentially remove them from the pool of people working on real-world solutions.

Robinson Meyer: Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?

Many climate scientists and professional science communicators say no. Wallace-Wells’s article, they say, often flies beyond the realm of what researchers think is likely. I have to agree with them.

At key points in his piece, Wallace-Wells posits facts that mainstream climate science cannot support. In the introduction, he suggests that the world’s permafrost will belch all of its methane into the atmosphere as it melts, accelerating the planet’s warming in the decades to come. We don’t know everything about methane yet, but the picture does not seem this bleak. Melting permafrost will emit methane, and methane is an ultra-potent greenhouse gas, but scientists do not think so much it will escape in the coming century.

Andrew Freedman: Do not accept New York Mag’s climate change doomsday scenario.

In several places, the story either exaggerates the evidence or gets the science flat-out wrong. This is unfortunate, because it detracts from a well-written, attention-grabbing piece. It’s still worth reading, but with a sharp critical eye.

In recent years, scientific evidence has solidified around central findings, showing that sea level rise is likely to be far more severe during the rest of this century than initially anticipated, and that key temperature thresholds may be crossed that make life difficult for some kinds of plants and animals to survive in certain places.

An Atlas for the End of the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2017

Atlas End World

The Atlas for the End of the World is a project started by Penn architect Richard Weller to highlight the effects of human civilization and urbanization on our planet’s biodiversity.

Coming almost 450 years after the world’s first Atlas, this Atlas for the End of the World audits the status of land use and urbanization in the most critically endangered bioregions on Earth. It does so, firstly, by measuring the quantity of protected area across the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots in comparison to United Nation’s 2020 targets; and secondly, by identifying where future urban growth in these territories is on a collision course with endangered species.

There’s lots to see at the site: world and regional maps, data visualizations, key statistical data, photos of plants and animals that have been modified by humans, as well as several essays on a variety of topics.

And here’s a fun map: countries with national biodiversity strategies and action plans in place. Take a wild guess which country is one of the very few without such a plan in place!

The 100 best solutions to reverse climate change, ranked

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2017

Climate Change Solutions

Environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken has edited a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming which lists “the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming, based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world”.

In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here-some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. If deployed collectively on a global scale over the next thirty years, they represent a credible path forward, not just to slow the earth’s warming but to reach drawdown, that point in time when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline.

On the website for the book, you can browse the solutions in a ranked list. Here are the 10 best solutions (with the total atmospheric reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions in gigatons in parentheses):

1. Refrigerant Management (89.74)
2. Wind Turbines, Onshore (84.60)
3. Reduced Food Waste (70.53)
4. Plant-Rich Diet (66.11)
5. Tropical Forests (61.23)
6. Educating Girls (59.60)
7. Family Planning (59.60)
8. Solar Farms (36.90)
9. Silvopasture (31.19)
10. Rooftop Solar (24.60)

Refrigerant management is about replacing hydro-fluorocarbon coolants with alternatives because HFCs have “1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide”. As a planet, we should be hitting those top 7 solutions hard, particularly when it comes to food. If you look at the top 30 items on the list, 40% of them are related to food.

If, somehow, we could get to a place where we are talking about dealing with climate change not as “saving the planet” (which it isn’t) but as “improving humanity” (which it is), we might actually be able to accomplish something.

A brief history of America’s shameful inaction on climate change

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2017

This is the most depressing video I have seen in a long time. The premise is devastating in its simplicity: a collection of clips of news programs and politicians (mostly Republicans) talking about climate change next to a pair of charts showing rising global temperatures and falling Arctic sea ice coverage.

I found it striking that before the 2008 election of Obama and (especially) the 2010 midterm election that resulted in a Republican majority in the House, Republican politicians spoke clearly and publicly that climate change was happening and that something needed to be done about it. And now? Republicans deny climate change is happening and Trump is on the verge of pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement.

Update: See also How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science.

Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil.

Government rules intended to slow climate change are “making people’s lives worse rather than better,” Charles Koch explained in a rare interview last year with Fortune, arguing that despite the costs, these efforts would make “very little difference in the future on what the temperature or the weather will be.”

History, I hope, will not be kind to the Koch brothers. The ruin they have brought upon America for their own personal gain will be felt for decades.

Is the Great Barrier Reef dead?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

Due to the unprecedented bleaching events over the past few years, the Great Barrier Reef has been eulogized extensively in the media. But it’s not actually dead. Yet. In this video for Vox, Joss Fong explains how corals form, bleach, and die and how our response to climate change might be the only thing that can save the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s other coral reefs from death.

Studying climate change with small self-contained ecosystems

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2017

Carl Zimmer reports that a team of Australian scientists have developed a useful way of studying the effects of climate change: they’re building small-scale ocean ecosystems in the lab and manipulating different variables and studying the outcomes. The approach is a middle-of-the-road effort to minimize the number of variables typically present in a real-world ecosystem like a coral reef while having the habitats be large enough to observe the effects they’re looking for without oversimplifying.

To test the effects of climate change, Dr. Nagelkerken and his colleagues manipulated the water in the pools. In three of them, the researchers raised the temperature 5 degrees - a conservative projection of how warm water off the coast of South Australia will get.

The scientists also studied the effect of the carbon dioxide that is raising the planet’s temperature.

The gas is dissolving into the oceans, making them more acidic and potentially causing harm to marine animals and plants. Yet the extra carbon dioxide can be used by algae to carry out more photosynthesis.

To measure the overall impact, Dr. Nagelkerken and his colleagues pumped the gas into three of the pools, keeping them at today’s ocean temperatures.

In three others, the researchers made both changes, heating up the water and pumping in carbon dioxide. The scientists left the remaining three pools unaltered, to serve as a baseline for measuring changes in the other nine pools.

Climate change is shifting cherry blossom peak-bloom times

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2017

Kyoto Cherry Blossom Chart

Records of when the cherry blossoms appear in Kyoto date back 1200 years. (Let’s boggle at this fact for a sec…) But as this chart of peak-bloom dates shows, since the most recent peak in 1829, the cherry blossoms have been arriving earlier and earlier in the year.

From its most recent peak in 1829, when full bloom could be expected to come on April 18th, the typical full-flowering date has drifted earlier and earlier. Since 1970, it has usually landed on April 7th. The cause is little mystery. In deciding when to show their shoots, cherry trees rely on temperatures in February and March. Yasuyuki Aono and Keiko Kazui, two Japanese scientists, have demonstrated that the full-blossom date for Kyoto’s cherry trees can predict March temperatures to within 0.1°C. A warmer planet makes for warmer Marches.

Temperature and carbon-related charts like this one are clear portraits of the Industrial Revolution, right up there with oil paintings of the time. I also enjoyed the correction at the bottom of the piece:

An earlier version of this chart depicted cherry blossoms with six petals rather than five. This has been amended. Forgive us this botanical sin.

Gotta remember that flower petals are very often numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence.

An Inconvenient Sequel

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2017

In 2006, Davis Guggenheim directed An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film about Al Gore’s fight to educate the world about climate change. It made nearly $50 million at the box office, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and is credited for moving the conversation about climate change along (although not nearly fast enough, in my mind). This July, a followup documentary will be released: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. From a review in the LA Times:

Eleven Sundances later, Gore’s star wattage seemed entirely undimmed at Thursday evening’s premiere of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” an awkwardly titled, stirringly crafted follow-up that measures the progress that has and hasn’t been made in the battle against global warming. Taking over for Davis Guggenheim, the directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk largely abandon the framing device of Gore’s lecture (which he and his international team of trainees continue to give regularly) in favor of a nimbler, more on-the-go approach.

Despite some updates on the continuing decline of the world’s glaciers and the link between climate change and the recent Zika virus outbreak, the focus this time is less on science than on politicking. Cohen and Shenk tag along with Gore on a globe-trotting mission to persuade various heads of state to invest in wind and solar energy, and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels — an effort that culminates on-screen with the signing of last year’s historic Paris climate accord.

“When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

Climate change has shifted from being a scientific issue to a political issue, both because the science is settled1 and because conservatives have embraced climate denialism. As a result, when deep-sea biologist Andrew Thaler talks to people about climate change, he doesn’t talk about science. He talks to people about things like fishing:

Fishermen know that things are changing, that black bass, scup, and butterfish (an important prey species in the tuna fishery) are moving further and further north. Oystermen know that the increasingly high high tides have a negative effect on the recruitment and growth of commercial oysters. More importantly, fishing communities have records and cultural knowledge that go back centuries, and they can see from multi-generational experience that the seasons are less predictable now than in the past and that the changes taking place today are nothing like the more gradual changes of previous generations.

And flooding:

I know fishermen in Guinea living in houses that have stood for hundreds of years. Some of those houses now flood at high tide. Every high tide. They weren’t built at the water’s edge, the water’s edge came to them. I lived in the same house in Beaufort, North Carolina for ten years. When I moved in, we were high and dry. Now our street has a permanent “high water” sign. The farm I just left in coastal Virginia is inundated after heavy rains or strong tidal surges. The front fields, which once held vibrant gardens, now nurture short grass and salty soil.

And other things like farming and faith. People who aren’t scientists and have grown distrustful of them won’t be convinced by science. But they will believe stories that relate to important matters in their lives. (via @EricHolthaus)

  1. Overwhelmingly, science says the Earth’s climate is warming quickly and humans are the cause.

Global weirding continues with massive Arctic warm-up

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2016

Arctic Warming 2016

Something is rotten to the north of Denmark. Climate scientists are alarmed at the extreme warmth in the Arctic right now. It’s currently dark up there 24 hours a day, which usually means cold temperatures and rapidly freezing ice. Instead, temperatures are risingArctic temps are currently a whopping 36°F above normal.

“The Arctic warmth is the result of a combination of record-low sea-ice extent for this time of year, probably very thin ice, and plenty of warm/moist air from lower latitudes being driven northward by a very wavy jet stream.”

Francis has published research suggesting that the jet stream, which travels from west to east across the Northern Hemisphere in the mid-latitudes, is becoming more wavy and elongated as the Arctic warms faster than the equator does.

“It will be fascinating to see if the stratospheric polar vortex continues to be as weak as it is now, which favors a negative Arctic Oscillation and probably a cold mid/late winter to continue over central and eastern Asia and eastern North America. The extreme behavior of the Arctic in 2016 seems to be in no hurry to quit,” Francis continued.

Is 2017 the year the Arctic finally loses most of the ice cap during the summer?

Important victory for the kids suing the US over climate change

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2016

A group of children and young adults are suing the United States over climate change.

The young plaintiffs, who range in age from 9 to 20, allege that climate change violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by causing direct harm and destroying so-called public trust assets such as coastlines. The case argues that climate change is worsened by the aggregated actions of the federal government in permitting fossil fuel development, subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, and many other such actions. Further, the children and their lawyers say these government actions are willfully prioritizing short-term profit, convenience, and the concerns of current generations over those of future generations. The plaintiffs state that the government and these companies have continued to prioritize these short-term gains for more than five decades with full knowledge of the extreme dangers they posed.

Last week, federal district court judge Ann Aiken in Oregon ruled against the federal government’s motion to dismiss, an important hurdle to clear for the lawsuit to move forward. Aiken wrote:

I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. Just as marriage is the foundation of the family, a stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress. … To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government’s knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink.

You can donate to their effort on their website.

Before the Flood

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2016

Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic teamed up to make a documentary about climate change called Before the Flood, available in its entirety on YouTube for a limited time.

Before the Flood, directed by Fisher Stevens, captures a three-year personal journey alongside Academy Award-winning actor and U.N. Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio as he interviews individuals from every facet of society in both developing and developed nations who provide unique, impassioned and pragmatic views on what must be done today and in the future to prevent catastrophic disruption of life on our planet.

Fisher Stevens, who you might remember from Short Circuit, also produced The Cove, which won an Oscar for best documentary in 2010.

Scientists accidentally discover a process to turn CO2 into fuel

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2016

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have stumbled upon a process that uses “nanospikes” to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol, a common fuel.

This process has several advantages when compared to other methods of converting CO2 into fuel. The reaction uses common materials like copper and carbon, and it converts the CO2 into ethanol, which is already widely used as a fuel.

Perhaps most importantly, it works at room temperature, which means that it can be started and stopped easily and with little energy cost. This means that this conversion process could be used as temporary energy storage during a lull in renewable energy generation, smoothing out fluctuations in a renewable energy grid.

This sounds like a big deal…is it now possible to limit the effects of climate change by sinking carbon while also placing less dependence on fossil fuels? Here’s the Oak Ridge press release. That this news is almost a week old already and we haven’t heard more about it makes me a bit skeptical as to the true importance of it. (Of course, CRISPR is potentially a massive deal and we don’t hear about it nearly enough so…)

Update: A relevant series of tweets from Eric Hittinger on “why creating ethanol from CO2 cannot solve our energy or climate problems”. Wasn’t fully awake when I posted this apparently because, yeah, duh. (via @leejlh)

A timeline of the Earth’s average temperature

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2016

XKCD Climate Change

From XKCD, a typically fine illustration of climate change since the last ice age ~20,000 years ago.

When people say “the climate has changed before”, these are the kinds of changes they’re talking about.

And then in the alt text on the image:

[After setting your car on fire] Listen, your car’s temperature has changed before.

The chart is a perfect use of scale to illustrate a point about what the data actually shows. Tufte would be proud.

Update: Tufte is proud. (via @pixelcult)

Our potential neverending hot American summer

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2016

The frying of America

In today’s installment of terrifying graphics about climate change, the NY Times made a series of three maps showing the potential rise of 100 degree temperatures across the United States if current greenhouse gas emission trends continue through the end of this century. Look at the areas in orange and red on the 1991-2010 map: what sort of landscape do you picture? Keeping that landscape picture in your mind, look at the orange and red areas on the 2060 and 2100 maps. Yep! And Phoenix with 163 days above 100 degrees — that’s every day from March 25th to September 4th over 100 degrees.

P.S. A word about climate change and rising temperatures. The temperature that climate scientists typically reference and care about with regard to climate change is “the average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas”. According to the NOAA, the average temperature of the Earth in the 20th century was 13.9°C (57.0°F). In 2015, the average global temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above that.

In order to avoid dangerous effects of climate change, climate scientists advocate keeping the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees (and more recently, below 1.5 degrees). In late 2015, 195 nations came together in Paris and agreed to:

[Hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change

That’s degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but as an American, when I hear 2 degrees, I think, oh, that’s not bad. But 2°C is an increase of 3.6°F, which does seem significant.

Note also that it specifies keeping the temperature “below pre-industrial levels” and not below 20th century levels. It is maddeningly difficult to track down an exact figure for the pre-industrial global temperature, partially because of a lack of precise data, partially because of politics, and partially because of the impenetrability of scientific writing. From a piece Eric Holthaus wrote for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year:

It sounds easy enough to measure global warming: see how hot it was, compare it to how hot it used to be. But climate scientists have several ways of measuring how hot it used to be. NASA’s base period, as I mentioned above, is an average of 1951-80 global temperatures, mostly because that was the most recently available 30-year period when the data set was first created. By chance, it’s also pretty representative of the world’s 20th-century climate and can help us understand how much warmer the world has become while many of us have been alive.

Other organizations go further back. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of climate scientists that was formed to provide assessments to the United Nations, bases its temperature calculations on an 1850-1900 global average. There was about 0.4 degrees of warming between that time period and the NASA base period.

Climate scientists often refer to that 1850-1900 timespan as “pre-industrial” because we don’t have comprehensive temperature data from the 1700s. But meteorologist Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, has argued that an additional 0.25 degrees of warming occurred between the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) and 1850. Including Mann’s adjustment would bring February 2016 global temperatures at or very near 2 degrees above the “pre-industrial” average.

I now completely understand why some people deny that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seriously. I looked for more than 30 minutes for a report or scientific paper that stated the average global temperature for 1850-1900 and I couldn’t find one. I looked at UN reports, NASA reports, reports from the UK: nothing. There were tons of references to temperatures relative to the 1850-1900 baseline, but no absolute temperatures were given. Now, I don’t mean to get all Feynman here, but this is bullshit. When the world got together in Paris and talked about a 1.5 degree increase, was everyone even talking about the same thing? You might begin to wonder what the scientists are hiding with their obfuscation.

Anyway, the important point is that according to climate scientists, we are already flirting with 1.5°C of global warming since pre-industrial times. Which means that without action, the spread of those Phoenician temperatures across the circa-2100 United States is a thing that’s going to happen.

Permafrost thawing in Russia has led to an anthrax outbreak

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2016

A Siberian heatwave has led to permafrost thaws that have released long-dormant anthrax bacteria, resulting in the hospitalization of 13 people and the death of over 1500 reindeer.

Citing earlier work from 2007, they estimated anthrax spores remain viable in the permafrost for 105 years. Buried deeper, the bacteria may be able to hibernate for even longer. At the same time, where meteorological data were available they indicate temperatures in Yakutia are increasing.

“As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back,” the scientists warned, “especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.” Cattle grave sites should be monitored, they concluded, and “public health authorities should maintain permanent alertness.”

Another one of those delightful little climate change gotchas, like the near-death of the Great Barrier Reef.

Update: Eric Holthaus talked to some experts and climatologists and yes, pathogens released by warming are something we were warned about and we need to be concerned about it.

Romanovsky says the possibility that additional pathogens may be released from the permafrost, if that is indeed the source, makes it even more important to study this specific outbreak closely. Once in the water supply, in theory, a future pathogen could spread outside the local area, carried by people or by migrating birds or animals.

Though the current outbreak is happening during an unusual period of extreme warmth, Romanovsky says that, “if it gets warmer in the future, and it seems like it will, the thawing permafrost could be massive.” A further degradation of the permafrost would allow more opportunity for the emergence of sequestered microbes.

Warm Regards, a new podcast about climate change

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 27, 2016

Eric Holthaus, the internet’s favorite meteorologist, is hosting a new podcast on climate change called Warm Regards (on iTunes). A recent episode is embedded above and here’s a bit more about the show, including some info about his co-hosts:

Joining me with co-hosts Andy Revkin, a veteran environment writer for the New York Times who has covered climate change for 30 years, and Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine who is an actual, real-life climate scientist and flawlessly navigates climate Twitter.

Also, Holthaus recently started a project on Patreon to support his independent journalism on climate change. I’m in for $3/mo…chip in if you enjoy Eric’s work and Twitter contributions and wish to see more.1

  1. I wish all of Holthaus’ Patreon stuff was public, not just for the people supporting him. I want to fund his current public work and help him create more work that will, hopefully, be disseminated far and wide. The folks that need intelligent writing and podcasting about climate change aren’t the people who are going to back him. I know it’s difficult to make that pitch to people (i.e. you get what everyone else does whether they pay or not), but I think most people are paying to support Holthaus and his work, not to get members-only stuff.

The Industrial Revolution, climate change, and Brexit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016


The Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century in Great Britain. To provide power for the wondrous new inventions producing marvelous new goods and services, coal (and later oil) was dug out of the ground and burned, releasing billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide. In time, the speedy introduction of all this new carbon into the atmosphere caused the Earth’s climate to change.

In order to procure new resources for manufacturing and gain access to new markets for finished goods, the British Empire expanded across the globe. At some point, Great Britain invaded nearly 90% of the world’s countries. The expansion fueled climate change and created avenues for immigration to Britain from their colonies. Their activities eventually bring them to the Middle East in search of oil.

Fast forward to 2006. Drought exacerbated by climate change is one of many factors that pushed Syria into a prolonged civil war. The war triggered a humanitarian crisis and millions flee the country, becoming refugees, and some are able to migrate to Europe and other countries around the world, including Britain. The Syrian immigration issue fueled British nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, triggering a vote about whether Britain should leave the European Union. Yesterday, more than 17 million Britons voted to leave, with strong support for Leave in areas with now-empty coalfields and declining industrialization.

Coincidence? Not even close. More than 250 years on, Britain is still dealing with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. (via @EricHolthaus, @johnupton, @MichaelEMann, @chucktodd)

Wild ideas to slow or reverse climate change

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

Fake trees to pull carbon dioxide out of the air, sun shields to deflect heat and radiation without damaging the atmosphere, giant ice cubes mined from comets to cool down the oceans. Okay, that last one is from a Futurama episode. But some researchers really do think we can try to slow or reverse climate change with technology built for that purpose — and that we’ve already changed the Earth’s environment so much that we may have no choice. I guess it’s worth a try.

Scientists: climate change isn’t a prank

posted by Jason Kottke   May 03, 2016

Jimmy Kimmel had some scientists on his show recently to tell the American public that anthropogenic climate change is real, that’s it’s not a prank, and that the scientific community is “not fucking with you” about this. Trigger warning: the first minute of this video features Sarah Palin speaking.

Addressing climate change is not about saving the planet

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2016

This video from Vox makes an often overlooked point about climate change. Climate change is not about saving the planet. Earth will be fine. Life, in general, will be fine. But many species of plants and animals will die. Addressing climate change is about saving plants and animals that are in some way “useful” to us and preventing human suffering. (via @mims)

Update: George Carlin riffs on this point in an old standup routine:

There is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked.

(via @austinkleon)

Status report: How’s the climate doing?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2016

In the past two weeks, the results of three surveys and studies about the Earth’s climate have been released: a paper on a possible dramatic climate shift, a survey of coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, and a study on the West Antarctic ice sheet. All three investigations tell the story of climate change happening quicker than was previously anticipated.

From the paper published last week by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen and a number of colleagues:

Virtually all climate scientists agree with Dr. Hansen and his co-authors that society is not moving fast enough to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, posing grave risks. The basic claim of the paper is that by burning fossil fuels at a prodigious pace and pouring heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, humanity is about to provoke an abrupt climate shift.

In Australia, more than 40% of the Great Barrier Reef has been damaged by coral bleaching.

Scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying the reef and its ecosystem say the current bleaching is unprecedented, and perhaps unrecoverable. The emotion in their responses so far have been palpable.

“I witnessed a sight underwater that no marine biologist, and no person with a love and appreciation for the natural world for that matter, wants to see,” said Australian coral scientist Jodie Rummer in a statement, after spending more than a month at a monitoring station in the Great Barrier Reef.

Though corals comprise only about 0.2 percent of the global oceans, they support perhaps a quarter of all marine species.

And just yesterday, a study on the West Antarctic ice sheet was released that says the ice sheet could melt much faster than previously thought, raising global sea levels by 3 feet in less than 90 years. Even the normally staid NY Times invoked the Sword of Damocles in the lede.

The great ice sheet, larger than Mexico, is thought to be potentially vulnerable to disintegration from a relatively small amount of global warming, and capable of raising the sea level by 12 feet or more should it break up. But researchers long assumed the worst effects would take hundreds — if not thousands — of years to occur.

Now, new research suggests the disaster scenario could play out much sooner.

Continued high emissions of heat-trapping gases could launch a disintegration of the ice sheet within decades, according to a study published Wednesday, heaving enough water into the ocean to raise the sea level as much as three feet by the end of this century.

Miami might not make it to the end of the century.

Oh and BTW, the maximum extent of sea ice in the Arctic was a record low in 2016, February was a total Messi-esque outlier in terms of how unusually hot it was, March, while not as warm, will still be the hottest March ever, and just look at the 2016 trend in the first chart here.

You can think of the Earth as a massive machine, with many interconnected, resilient, and redundant systems. For a long time, humans thought it was too big for our actions to affect this machine in a meaningful way. But the Industrial Revolution’s release of hundreds of millions of years of stored greenhouse gases in less than 300 years put a strain on that entire machine. We didn’t notice that strain for a long time, but we’re starting to now in the form of higher temperatures, weird weather, bleaching coral reefs, rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland & Antarctica, and dozens of other ways. I hope there’s still time to do something meaningful about it before the slower moving parts of the machine fail permanently.

Scientists warn of dramatic climate shift much sooner than expected

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2016

A new paper by climate scientists, including ex-NASA scientist James Hansen, warns that our climate could dramatically change within decades, not centuries.

Virtually all climate scientists agree with Dr. Hansen and his co-authors that society is not moving fast enough to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, posing grave risks. The basic claim of the paper is that by burning fossil fuels at a prodigious pace and pouring heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, humanity is about to provoke an abrupt climate shift.

Non-linear systems, man. Gradually, then all at once.

Update: Slate’s Eric Holthaus has more on the paper and its potential implications.

In addition to the risk of “several meters” of sea level rise this century, which Hansen calls the most important finding, the final version of Hansen’s paper gives new emphasis to the possibility that the ocean’s heat circulation system may be in the process of shutting down. The circulation shutdown would precede the rapid increase in global sea levels. If the shutdown happens, simultaneous cooling of the waters near Greenland and Antarctica and warming in the tropics and midlatitudes could spawn frequent strong storms on the order of Hurricane Sandy or worse.

If that sounds a lot like the plot of The Day After Tomorrow to you, you’re not alone.

Hansen also released a 15-minute video about the paper:

Climate change art

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2016

Artist Jill Pelto turns climate change graphs into art. So, for instance, a chart of rising global temperatures turns into a forest fire, which are becoming more common as temps rise:

Jill Pelto

And a graph of the retreat of glaciers over the years becomes a retreating glacier:

Jill Pelto

(via @EricHolthaus & climate central)

El Nino explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2015

The forecast high temperature for Christmas Eve in New York City is 66°F. What the hell is going on? Climate change? Yes, but mostly the balmy East Coast temps are due to a super-strong El Niño.1 In the video above, Vox explains what El Niño is and how the Pacific weather pattern affects weather around the globe (including the East Coast of the US).

El Niño is a weather phenomenon that occurs irregularly in the eastern tropical Pacific every two to seven years. When the trade winds that usually blow from east to west weaken, sea surface temperatures start rising, setting off a chain of atmospheric impacts.

El Niños can be strong or weak. Strong events can temporarily disrupt weather patterns around the world, typically making certain regions wetter (Peru or California, say) and others drier (Southeast Asia). Some countries suffer major damage as a result.

  1. Although the severity of this and future El Niños may be due to greenhouse warming. Complex systems, yo!