Bearing Witness to Climate Change May 2020

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service released new data last week that supports their prediction that 2020 will rank as one of the two warmest years ever recorded.  Daily CO2 levels, measured in Hawaii, were 418 ppm, the highest in at least 3 million years. Temperatures for the month were well above average in Arctic and Antarctic areas.  And the Great Barrier Reef suffered its biggest coral-bleaching event ever in 2020 as a marine heat wave hit this biodiversity hot spot.

Seemingly good news that global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to plunge a record 8% this year underlies the fact that this is happening for all the wrong reasons.  The coronavirus pandemic has caused an estimated 4 billion people around the world to partially shut down their economic activity of producing and consuming.  Global energy use is said to be down 17-25% as people stopped working in factories, driving and flying.  The world’s oil use dropped 5% in Q1.  Road traffic was down 50% and air traffic was down 60% compared to 2019.  Coal use, our dirtiest fuel, dropped 8%.  Will reopening economies cause a rapid reverse of these improvements and we lose the will to make changes for “just the environment” without another crisis forcing us to?

A report from the Energy Information Administration estimates that electricity produced by renewable energy sources is poised to exceed that of coal this year for the first time.  These sources of renewables include wind, solar, and hydroelectric. This good news is somewhat misleading, as the burning of natural gas has also surpassed that of coal, doubling it, largely because gas is so much cheaper. Aging coal-fired plants like that of Great River Energy in North Dakota are being shut down and replaced by renewables.  And of course with so much of the economy shutdown, total electricity usage is also down.

In more good news, although for a horrific reason, total CO2 emissions from the U.S. are expected to fall by 11% this year alone. Global carbon emissions may fall as much as 5% compared to last year. If this trend continued, because nations of the world enacted a green new deal recovery out of the coronavirus crisis, the planet has a chance to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement that were until recently thought impossible.  The European Union is now discussing such a Green Deal plan that would accelerate their economies toward a carbon-neutral future by 2050 as part of the economic recovery program.

The Trump Administration, after nearly 3 years in office, has dismantled nearly 100 environmental rules put in place under former President Obama.  More than 60 rules have been officially reversed/revoked and over 30 are still in progress.  These are being done through Executive Order and also through the Trump appointees overseeing the Interior Department, the EPA, and the Courts.  This is unfortunately one of the few campaign promises he has actually kept.

A study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences states that as the climate continues along its warming trend for the next 50 years, up to one third of the world’s population or 3.5B people will live in areas that are considered unsuitably hot for humans.  Climate migration will force hundreds of millions of people to move to cooler areas.  More climate related changes are projected to happen in the next 50 years than have in the past 6000 years.

Homeowners along the shore of Lake Michigan in states like Indiana are facing heartbreaking decisions to abandon their homes or spend thousands of dollars to remain while seeking a federal disaster certification. With the onset of climate change, lake storms have become more severe with heavier rainfalls producing higher lake levels that are more than a yard higher over their long term average. This creates extreme shoreline erosion which causes damage or some homes to fall into the lake completely. The situation is made worse with Great Lakes that are no longer freezing over in the winter which would restrict wave action from further eroding the shore.

The journal Science reports that new satellite data from the Ice Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite -2 (ICESat-2) is helping scientists to better monitor the melting of Antarctica ice sheets due to global warming and climate change. The continent has already lost enough ice to raise sea levels across the entire planet by one-quarter of an inch. However, a massive melt would raise levels by many feet.

The NOAA has reported that while the Arctic had a relatively cold winter many far-north or high Arctic latitudes like Siberia, experienced temperatures more than 5 degrees above their historical average.

The use of “green hydrogen” is advancing across Europe and Asia Pacific as a far more cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. The problem with hydrogen energy powered vehicles before now was that the production and transportation of hydrogen itself was expensive requiring the burning of carbon fuels to produce it. However, hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources like wind and solar is more economically feasible and environmentally friendly.  Some industry analysts predict that hydrogen could provide 24% of the world’s energy needs by 2050.

Humans can indeed control the weather.  Scientists at NOAA studied 40 years of satellite images and came to the conclusion that human-caused global warming (burning fossil fuels which release greenhouse gasses) has strengthened the wind speeds of hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones around the globe.  The chance of a hurricane becoming a Category 3 or higher has increased about 8% per decade each of the past 4 decades.

A silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that global emissions have plunged an unprecedented 17% while humans were “sheltering in place”.  Another new study projects that the total 2020 emissions will still be down 4-7% at year-end assuming that we revert to our pre-pandemic ways in the second half of the year. The Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Great Britain warns that behavior change alone won’t be enough.  Even if the 17% drop was permanent, we’re collectively still generating too much carbon pollution to combat global warming.

It appears that Americans can worry about more than one thing at a time!  There was concern that panic about the pandemic would lessen the public urgency about climate change.  It’s called the “finite pool of worry”.  Do not worry…73% of those polled said that climate change was happening and 62% accepted that it was human-caused.  Only 10% of Americans said that it was not happening.  These numbers match the highest levels of acceptance from 2019.  The danger still is that “when leaders lead, followers follow” and we have a large contingent of political leaders worldwide (but especially in the US) who vehemently dey climate change.

BP may indeed live up to its new slogan, Beyond Petroleum. The company has announced that it will halve the ranks of its top management to prepare for the new low-carbon economy. No doubt the fact that oil prices have crashed may have accelerated the changes. And in a sign of oil’s tarnished image, another oil executive, former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond was demoted as an independent director of one of the larges global banks, Chase.

NOAA has predicted that the Atlantic hurricane season will be above average in the number of hurricanes. There is a 70% chance of 13-19 named storms with 6-10 hurricanes The past 10 years have been a decade of stronger and wetter tropical cyclones.

The Washington Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on why some spots on the planet are heating up faster than others. While average global temperatures have increase about one degree, it was reported that nearly one tenth of the world’s suface is already experiencing 2 degrees Celsius warmer temperatures or more. The results have already been substantial disruptions to local weather, health, wildlife, and economies.

A dam failed in Michigan after nearly a half foot of rain fell and overwhelmed it. Over 40,000 people were evacuated. Heavier downpours of extreme precipitation events associated with climate change are expected to put additional stress on nearly 100,000 dams across the country that civil engineers say are at risk of failing. Another example is the Oroville Dam in California which also failed in 2017 after heavy runoff causing 200,000 residents to be evacuated with costs approaching $1B.

The dam failure due to extreme weather was just one of several climate-related disasters this month. The Indian city of Kolkata, considered highly vulnerable to climate change, was hit by a massive cyclone. Wetter conditions from the Indian Ocean are said to be a contributor to the worse locust swarms in decades that are destroying crop lands of eastern Africa. And of course the coronavirus pandemic continues into its third month. The lessons of how the globe is responding, and not, to the pandemic is creating much conversation among climate scientists and activists. Lesson #1 is “listen to the scientists.”

A report in Science Magazine says that climate change is harming the capacity of the world’s forests to uptake carbon from the atmosphere. It is also said to be accelerating the death of older trees which store more carbon than younger forests.

Member states of the European Union, unlike the United States, are having serious discussions about big changes as they invest to reopen their economies going forward post-pandemic. Several EU politicians are campaigning to make a “green deal” that reduces carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 a central part of an investment plan to transform their economies.

After decades of scientists warning leaders about the perils of climate change, a new word has found itself into modern lexicon, Cassandrafreude. “The bitter pleasure of things going wrong in exactly the way you predicted, but no one believed you when it could have made a difference.” There is no pleasure; it is only bitterness.

(Featured image of the Serenity Prayer from Quotefancy)