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kottke.org posts about global warming

How Do We Know Recent Climate Changes Are Caused By Humans?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2018

One of the ways that climatologists know that the dramatically increasing amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide (and corresponding temperature increase) is caused by human activity is by measuring changing land use and how much fossil fuel has been burned over the last few hundred years. From a 2004 RealClimate article:

One way that we know that human activities are responsible for the increased CO2 is simply by looking at historical records of human activities. Since the industrial revolution, we have been burning fossil fuels and clearing and burning forested land at an unprecedented rate, and these processes convert organic carbon into CO2. Careful accounting of the amount of fossil fuel that has been extracted and combusted, and how much land clearing has occurred, shows that we have produced far more CO2 than now remains in the atmosphere. The roughly 500 billion metric tons of carbon we have produced is enough to have raised the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to nearly 500 ppm. The concentrations have not reached that level because the ocean and the terrestrial biosphere have the capacity to absorb some of the CO2 we produce. However, it is the fact that we produce CO2 faster than the ocean and biosphere can absorb it that explains the observed increase.

That was back when the CO2 concentration was ~380 parts per million…it’s now ~407 ppm. That is pretty convincing evidence all by itself…the inputs match the outputs.

But there is also extremely compelling corroborating evidence that has to do with what kind of carbon is being released into the atmosphere — the smoking gun of anthropogenic climate change, if you will. For several hundred years before the start of the 19th century, the CO2 in the atmosphere contained a more-or-less consistent ratio of two carbon isotopes: carbon-12 and carbon-13 (which contains one more neutron than carbon-12 and is therefore heavier). Plants prefer consuming the lighter carbon-12 over carbon-13 and since fossil fuels are ultimately made from decayed plants, when you burn them, they disproportionately produce carbon-12 (when compared to atmospheric CO2).

So if you’re burning a bunch of oil and coal, you’d expect to see carbon-12 levels in the atmosphere go up…and that’s exactly what scientists have found. If you graph the amount of carbon-12 present in the atmosphere over time, you can see very clearly that it begins rising in lockstep with CO2 concentration right around when people began burning a lot of fossil fuels circa 1800.

Light Carbon Graph

You can read more about how scientists took these measurements in the 2004 RealClimate article I mentioned above. Meteorologist Eric Holthaus says learning about these measurements “propelled me to a career in climate” and I can totally see why — this is really persuasive.

We almost stopped climate change in the 80s. What happened?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

Steinmetz Desert

The New York Times Magazine has devoted its entire issue this weekend to a single article by Nathanial Rich: Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?

Because in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Photo by George Steinmetz, who did the photography for the Times piece.

Update: For a critical reading of Rich’s piece, check out this Twitter thread by Alex Steffen.

I notice that reactions to “Losing Earth” seem divided along a pretty straight-forward line: Those who work in climate science, journalism or advocacy-and those who don’t.

Folks who don’t work on climate for a living seem more positive about the piece than those who do.

There’s a reason for that: It’s a long essay that gets its subject wrong, and the ways it goes wrong are ways many of us who work on climate have seen again and again. It’s work that doesn’t know its history, and so makes old mistakes.

Weirdly central in Nathaniel Rich’s story is the claim that there existed a time before politics, when climate change was not hampered by opposition: “The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way…”

This is simply untrue.

He doubles down on the idea by explicitly exonerating high-CO2 industries + the GOP

“A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. …Nor can the Republican Party be blamed.”

Robinson Meyer makes a similar point at The Atlantic.

The thrust of this history seems to suggest that powerful figures in the Republican Party were already skeptical of human-caused climate change by 1980. These leaders had not yet converted most Republican rank-and-file voters to their view, and indeed there may have been a few supporters of climate action in the party. But by and large, the most influential administration officials muddied climate science and weakened climate policy.

If Rich seems a little too charitable to the G.O.P, he lets fossil-fuel interests off the hook entirely. It’s likely that oil executives knew humans were triggering climate change before Rich’s story even picks up.

James Hansen’s 1988 climate predictions have proved to be remarkably accurate

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2018

In 1988, Dr. James Hansen testified in front of Congress about the future dangers of climate change caused by human activity. That same year, the results of a study released by Hansen and his team at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies detailed three possible scenarios for possible future warming. Their middle-of-the-road prediction has proved to be remarkably accurate over the past 30 years.

Hansen Warming Trend

Changes in the human effects that influence Earth’s global energy imbalance (a.k.a. ‘anthropogenic radiative forcings’) have in reality been closest to Hansen’s Scenario B, but about 20-30% weaker thanks to the success of the Montreal Protocol in phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Hansen’s climate model projected that under Scenario B, global surface air temperatures would warm about 0.84°C between 1988 and 2017. But with a global energy imbalance 20-30% lower, it would have predicted a global surface warming closer to 0.6-0.7°C by this year.

The actual 1988-2017 temperature increase was about 0.6°C. Hansen’s 1988 global climate model was almost spot-on.

Scientists have known this was happening for decades and have been telling our government officials about it for more than 30 years. Our present inaction on a national level on this is shameful and “the global poor, the disenfranchised, the young, and the yet-to-be-born” will soon pay the price.

See also a brief history of America’s shameful inaction on climate change.

Are we completely fucked because of climate change?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

In a review of William T. Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies, a two-volume set of books that the review calls “the Infinite Jest of climate books”, Wen Stephenson succinctly answers a question about our climate that is on many people’s minds: Are we completely fucked because of climate change?

Yes, of course, we’re fucked. (Though it’s important to specify the “we” in this formulation, because the global poor, the disenfranchised, the young, and the yet-to-be-born are certifiably far more fucked than such affluent, white, middle-aged Americans as Vollmann and myself.) But here’s the thing: with climate change as with so much else, all fuckedness is relative. Climate catastrophe is not a binary win or lose, solution or no-solution, fucked or not-fucked situation. Just how fucked we/they will be — that is, what kind of civilization, or any sort of social justice, will be possible in the coming centuries or decades — depends on many things, including all sorts of historic, built-in systemic injustices we know all too well, and any number of contingencies we can’t foresee. But most of all it depends on what we do right now, in our lifetimes. And by that I mean: what we do politically, not only on climate but across the board, because large-scale political action — the kind that moves whole countries and economies in ways commensurate with the scale and urgency of the situation — has always been the only thing that matters here. (I really don’t care about your personal carbon footprint. I mean, please do try to lower it, because that’s a good thing to do, but fussing and guilt-tripping over one’s individual contribution to climate change is neither an intellectually nor a morally serious response to a global systemic crisis. That this still needs to be said in 2018 is, to say the least, somewhat disappointing.)

I got this via Robinson Meyer, who calls it “as good an answer as I’ve seen”.

Global warming blankets

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

Using simple graphic representations of annual temperatures (like this one posted by climate scientist Ed Hawkins), people are knitting and crocheting blankets that show just how warm the Earth has gotten over the past few decades. See Katie Stumpf’s blanket, for example.

Global Warming Blankets

According to climate scientist (and crocheter) Ellie Highwood, these blankets are a subset of “temperature blankets” made to represent, for example, daily temperatures over the course of a year in a particular location. The blanket she crocheted used NOAA data of global mean temperature anomalies for a 101-year period ending 2016.

I then devised a colour scale using 15 different colours each representing a 0.1 °C data bin. So everything between 0 and 0.099 was in one colour for example. Making a code for these colours, the time series can be rewritten as in the table below. It is up to the creator to then choose the colours to match this scale, and indeed which years to include. I was making a baby sized blanket so chose the last 100 years, 1916-2016.

If you read her post, she provides instructions for making your own global warming blanket.

P.S. You might think that with the Earth’s atmosphere getting warmer on average, these blankets would ironically be less necessary that they would have been 50 years ago. But climate change is also responsible for more extreme winter weather events — think global weirding in addition to global warming. So keep those blankets handy!

Degrees of Uncertainty

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2018

Degrees of Uncertainty is an upcoming documentary by Neil Halloran that “uses data-driven animation to explore the topic of global warming”. It’s based on this XKCD comic of A Timeline of Earth’s Average Temperature.

Halloran is a creator of the excellent The Fallen of World War II interactive documentary, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the topic of climate change.

I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2018

The Wizard And The Prophet

A couple of weeks ago, I finished Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet. Normally I shy away from terms like “must-read” or “important” when talking about books, but I’m making an exception for this one. The Wizard and the Prophet is an important book, and I urge you to read it. (The chapter on climate change, including its fascinating history, is alone worth the effort.)

Mann is the author of 1491 and 1493 (both excellent, particularly 1491, which is one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and I’ve been thinking of this one as the natural third part of a trilogy — it easily could have been called 2092. The Wizard and the Prophet is about two “dueling visions” of how humanity can provide food, energy, housing, and the pursuit of happiness to an estimated population of 10 billion in 2050 and beyond. According to Mann, this struggle is exemplified by two men: William Vogt and Norman Bourlag. The book, in a nutshell:

Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism” — the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give. If we continue, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale, perhaps including our extinction. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose!

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism” — the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger. To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution. Only by getting richer, smarter, and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win!

Or put more succinctly:

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

To combat climate change, should we stop flying (as meteorologist Eric Holthaus has urged) & switch to renewable energy or should we capture carbon from coal plants & build nuclear power plants? GMO crops or community-based organic farming? How can 10 billion people be happy and prosperous without ruining the planet?

I came to this book with an open mind, and came away far more informed about the debate but even more unsure about the way forward. The book offers no easy answers — it’s difficult to tell where Mann himself stands on the wizard/prophet continuum (although I would suspect more wizard than prophet, which is likely my leaning as well) — but it does ask many of the right questions. Wizards can order the book from Amazon while Prophets should seek it out at their local bookstore or library.

Further reading: an interview with Mann in Grist; Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People?, an Atlantic article by Mann; The Edge of the Petri Dish, a piece by Mann in The Breakthrough; State of the Species, a 2012 piece by Mann that was an early attempt at W vs P; and The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari.

A map of the world after four degrees of warming

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

Four Degrees World Map

In this speculative world map published in 2009, New Scientist imagines what the world might look like if (or more likely, when) the Earth warms by 4ºC. Many current coastal areas would be underwater and much of the most heavily populated areas of the Earth would be desert or otherwise uninhabitable while the northern parts of Canada and Russia would become the new bread baskets of the world. But on the plus side, western Antartica would be habitable and possibly “densely populated with high rise cities”. In an article that accompanied the map, Gaia Vince wrote:

Imagine, for the purposes of this thought experiment, that we have 9 billion people to save — 2 billion more than live on the planet today. A wholesale relocation of the world’s population according to the geography of resources means abandoning huge tracts of the globe and moving people to where the water is. Most climate models agree that the far north and south of the planet will see an increase in precipitation. In the northern hemisphere this includes Canada, Siberia, Scandinavia and newly ice-free parts of Greenland; in the southern hemisphere, Patagonia, Tasmania and the far north of Australia, New Zealand and perhaps newly ice-free parts of the western Antarctic coast.

The citizens of the world’s wealthiest and most populous nations will become climate refugees, which means things are going to get really, really ugly for everyone else.

The death of an Alaskan glacier

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2017

Rick Brown owns an adventure tour company called Adventure Sixty North in Seward, Alaska, a small town on an inlet of the Kenai Peninsula. They offer guided hikes and kayaking tours of the surrounding country, including ice hikes on the Exit Glacier.

In this video, Brown talks very simply and powerfully about the changes that he’s witnessed in the glacier and in Alaska in his long career as a guide…like that the Exit Glacier is currently retreating 10 to 15 feet per day.

Normally I think the park will tell you that it retreats about 150 feet per year. Right now they’re looking at 10 to 15 feet per day. You’re seeing the big crevasses that used to be blue up on top of the compression zones now down in the toe of the glacier just falling over. Something that normally would take hundreds of years we’re seeing probably in a matter of a year or two.

You can see a map of how much the glacier has retreated since 1950. But it’s not just the glacier…other changes are occurring in Alaska.

We’re seeing a change in the wildlife. We have villages that are being relocated. We get storms up here that if they were happening down in the lower 48, we’d name them something. Our ten-year floods are happening every other year now. You can drive to our town and look at what’s going on, and if you can’t see what’s happening, then I think that you must be blind. Normally I would need a plow here in my office and we need a lawnmower.

While Seward is not quite so far north, I couldn’t help but think of Eric Holthaus’s recent piece on how the fundamental character of the Arctic has changed, possibly for good. Namely, that it won’t be frozen anymore:

Last week, at a New Orleans conference center that once doubled as a storm shelter for thousands during Hurricane Katrina, a group of polar scientists made a startling declaration: The Arctic as we once knew it is no more.

The region is now definitively trending toward an ice-free state, the scientists said, with wide-ranging ramifications for ecosystems, national security, and the stability of the global climate system. It was a fitting venue for an eye-opening reminder that, on its current path, civilization is engaged in an existential gamble with the planet’s life-support system.

In an accompanying annual report on the Arctic’s health — titled “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades” — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees all official U.S. research in the region, coined a term: “New Arctic.”

What an astonishing thing. Perhaps in 20 years, when someone over the age of 35 uses a phrase like “Arctic cold” as a stand-in for extremely cold weather, their kids won’t know what the hell they’re referring to. (via @JossFong)

Melting Antarctic glaciers could raise global sea level 11 feet by 2100

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2017

Writing for Grist, Eric Holthaus reports on some research about a pair of fast-melting glaciers in Antarctica that could add 11 feet to the global sea level.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today.

To figure that out, scientists have been looking back to the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, when global temperatures stood at roughly their current levels. The bad news? There’s growing evidence that the Pine Island Bay glaciers collapsed rapidly back then, flooding the world’s coastlines - partially the result of something called “marine ice-cliff instability.”

The ocean floor gets deeper toward the center of this part of Antarctica, so each new iceberg that breaks away exposes taller and taller cliffs. Ice gets so heavy that these taller cliffs can’t support their own weight. Once they start to crumble, the destruction would be unstoppable.

“Ice is only so strong, so it will collapse if these cliffs reach a certain height,” explains Kristin Poinar, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We need to know how fast it’s going to happen.”

Eleven feet of sea level rise would be, uh, hugely problematic for the world’s coastal areas:

Three feet of sea-level rise would be bad, leading to more frequent flooding of U.S. cities such as New Orleans, Houston, New York, and Miami. Pacific Island nations, like the Marshall Islands, would lose most of their territory. Unfortunately, it now seems like three feet is possible only under the rosiest of scenarios.

At six feet, though, around 12 million people in the United States would be displaced, and the world’s most vulnerable megacities, like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City, could be wiped off the map.

At 11 feet, land currently inhabited by hundreds of millions of people worldwide would wind up underwater. South Florida would be largely uninhabitable; floods on the scale of Hurricane Sandy would strike twice a month in New York and New Jersey, as the tug of the moon alone would be enough to send tidewaters into homes and buildings.

Alarming, but read the whole article. Scientists are still trying to figure out how probable this scenario is…early days still.

Update: The site Climate Feedback, a network of scientists that evaluates media coverage of climate change, recently rated Holthaus’ piece as “high” on the credibility scale and described it as both “accurate” and “alarmist”.

Scientists who reviewed the article found that while it accurately described recent research on these processes, it should have provided more accurate context on the timescale of these sea level rise scenarios and the scientific uncertainty about how likely these scenarios are to come to pass.

The US Climate Explorer

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2017

Last year, the NOAA updated their Climate Explorer tool, which lets you see how climate change will affect the weather (daily max/min temperatures, really hot & cold days, precipitation, etc.) in different parts of the United States. For example, if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase throughout the next 80 years, the average temperature in Miami will increase from a current ~84.5 °F to over 91 °F in 2100…and even worse, the annual number of 95+ degree days will go from less than 10 to 140.

Climate Explorer

Climate Explorer

Which actually isn’t that big of a deal because a bunch of the city will be underwater and uninhabitable because of rising sea levels. Ok, moving on…

You live in the northeast and like to ski? Well, that might be a problem in the future. In Stowe, VT, the annual number of days with minimum temperatures below 32 °F will decrease from about 175 now to ~140 by 2070 even if emissions of greenhouse gases start dropping in 2040.

Climate Explorer

And if emissions don’t drop, Vermont could only see ~105 days of minimum temperatures below 32 °F by 2100. Goodbye ski season.

See also our potential neverending hot American summer.

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)