Bearing Witness to Climate Change June 2021

NOAA reported that in May the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded the highest levels of CO2 in the atmosphere at 419 parts per million.  CO2 levels have now surpassed a staggering 50% higher than in pre-industrial times. The drop in emissions last year due to the pandemic and a near worldwide shutdown of travel and industry was short lived having fallen only about 6%. It is sober testimony to how difficult it will be to slow GHG emissions with a growing population and roaring economy based on perpetual consumption and growth.  Humans put about 50 billion metric tons of CO2 into the air each year that will last in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. There is no time left, and yes, now is the time to panic and take drastic actions.

To ward off rising sea levels, the city of Miami, Florida is facing multi-billion dollar plans to build a sea wall that could be as high as 20 feet in some places. Miami is thought to be one of the most at-risk metropolitan areas from storm surges during hurricanes and warming expanding ocean waters due to climate change. The city has already appointed a chief heat officer. The city and its residents will also face billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, including phasing out below ground septic tanks and building new sewer systems that rising water levels will render obsolete. They are not alone as many low-lying locations around the world are already experiencing coastal flooding.

Later in the month, the sudden collapse of a 12-story condominium building in the Miami area killed over 100 and was a tragic reminder of how vulnerable the coastal region is. While the weather and climate change are not thought to be the main cause of the structural failures which brought the building down, it was likely due to corrosion which will only become worse with rising salty seawater levels pouring into and softening underground limestone that so many high rise buildings along the shore rest upon.

Researchers in France have reported that one of the largest contributions to CO2 in the atmosphere may have been discounted. The conversion of carbon-rich peatlands into agriculture may have released up to 250 billion tones of CO2n which is the equivalent of 7 years of current emissions or 10% of all carbon due to humans  Scientists have been long worried about the thawing of permafrost could accelerate global warming.

A European study warns that a confluence of events could trigger a cascade of irreversible tipping points. These include the melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets, deforestation of the Amazon rain forest, and large changes in the Atlantic ocean overturning circulation. Scientists admit the relationships between each of these is complex and difficult to model, but deserve more study given the likelihood of temperature increases substantially in excess of the limits set by the Paris Agreement.

President Biden has suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were previously greenlighted by the Trump administration. This is good news as the International energy Agency just last month warned that countries must stop approving new fossil fuel extractions to keep more of the carbon in the ground instead of the atmosphere.

American auto manufacturers Ford and General Motors have announced billions more of investments in electric vehicles including battery manufacturing plants. The EV market is expected to be a 5 trillion dollar market during the next decade because less than 2% of vehicle sales last year were electric.

Many rightfully ask that with the rush to electrify everything, especially in transportation, will the US move fast enough to produce electricity from renewable carbon-free choices? If not, then we will have only externalized or moved the resulting carbon pollution from one pocket to another with no net reduction. By some high estimates the country will need to generate and distribute 80% more electricity by 2050 than we used in 2018, and most if not all of it will need to be from zero-carbon sources. Transportation is predicted to consume up to three-quarters of the increase. Some argue that it is unlikely that solar, wind, and hydro alone can meet the challenge.

On occasion of the G7 meeting , the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned this month that the world is nearing a point of no return if we fail to not just slow the trends but revers them. He urged that G7 leaders abolish subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and putting a price on carbon.

The Canadian builder of the long-disputed Keystone XL Pipeline has announced it will terminate the project. Climatologists and environmentalists have warned for years that we need to keep remaining fossil fuels, like those of the Canadian tar sands,  in the ground, and certainly not in pipelines on the way to refineries and consumers. President Biden rescinded permits for the pipeline on the day of his inauguration.

Scientists at NASA and NOAA report that the amount of heat the Earth traps has doubled in the last 15 years, and as a result the planet is warming faster than expected.  The results were based on estimating the energy imbalance between what the planet takes in from the Sun and radiates back into space. Oceans are said to absorb about 90% of the planet’s heat.

More consumer product companies are creating labels that tell the buyer how much carbon the product is responsible for from its creation, transportation, use, and end of life. It is being promoted as the new “calorie” for those consumers concerned about their carbon footprint. However, there is no universal standard, methodology, or regulatory agency so consumers are justified in their concern about how accurate the labels are.

An extreme heat wave has stricken the western US on top of a mega-drought just as the summer begins. Record-breaking temperatures have been experienced in the Pacific Northwest with triple digit 110-120 degrees F temperatures which are running some 15-30 degrees above their average. Hundreds in the US and Canada are reported to have suffered from heat stroke and died. Emergency rooms were full, roads buckled, pools closed, flights delayed, and power lines melted with rolling power outages. Meteorologists report that heat waves are running 3-5 degrees warmer due to climate change which is increasing the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves.

With more than half of the western US in a drought, officials are particularly worried that this summer may see the most devastating wildfire season on record. The town of Lytton Canada burned and was evacuated the day after it recorded record temperatures of 121 degrees F. Many of the largest lakes and reservoirs are at record low water levels less than 50% of their capacity. Public officials in the west are warning that they are not prepared with the resources for another year of fighting extreme fires with overworked and underpaid firefighters. Last year’s wildfires in the US west were reported to have destroyed more than 15,000 buildings and cost over $16B.

A new European study has examined the likelihood that the world can become net-zero thru decarbonization of the global economy by 2050. The study concluded that while the technology drivers are moving quickly, the pace of societal transformation and cultural changes are not happening fast enough. The authors advise that the social challenge is far greater than many people can imagine and the report should serve as a wake-up call.

President Biden’s infrastructure deal has been reduced to including money for charging stations and other public transit projects but no longer has a national clean energy standard and incentives for wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Climate activists say it is not a transformative bill that the country or planet needs with so little time left.

A Swedish partnership has announce a breakthrough in producing a form of iron from renewable energy sources such as hydrogen.  Iron and steel making consumes a great amount of energy to produce and accounts for 3% of human-made emissions.

A draft copy of the next UN IPCC report warns that climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth with millions suffering from migrations, heat waves, famine, drought, disease, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events. Irreversible tipping points may cause the extinction of complete ecosystems unless we stop putting GHG into the atmosphere.

Featured image is atmospheric CO2 measured at the Mont Loa Observatory at