The International Panel On Climate Change will meet in Inchon, Korea, the first week in October. Its mission will be to review and approve the 6th IPCC climate change report, a document that will detail the progress made toward meeting the goal set at the COP 21 conference in Paris in 2015 to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5º Celsius.
Global Warming Of 1.5º C
That document, entitled simply “Global Warming of 1.5º C,” has been in the works for the past two years with input from many of the world’s most prominent climate scientists. Once approved, it will be published officially on October 8. But some hints about what it will say are beginning to emerge.
Drew Shindell, a Duke University climate scientist and a co-author of the report, tells The Guardian that meeting the under 1.5º C goal will require a massive change in how humans behave and how they derive the energy they need to maintain their accustomed lifestyle.
Emissions from transportation, electricity generation, and agriculture will need to be slashed dramatically or eliminated entirely in order for there to be any hope of meeting the goal, Shindell says. “It’s extraordinarily challenging to get to the 1.5º C target and we are nowhere near on track to doing that. While it’s technically possible, it’s extremely improbable, absent a real sea change in the way we evaluate risk. We are nowhere near that.”
Even assuming carbon emissions can be greatly reduced, the world will have to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to meet the 1.5º C goal. That will be a problem. “The penetration rate of new technology historically takes a long time,” Shindell says. “It’s not simple to change these things. There aren’t good examples in history of such rapid, far reaching transitions.”
The Norway Conundrum
At the UN this week, Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s environment minister, told The Guardian, “We have to find solutions even though the US isn’t there. We are moving way too slowly. We have to do more of everything, faster. We need to deliver on policies at every level. Governments normally move slowly but we don’t have the time.
“The 1.5º C target is difficult, but it’s possible. The next 4 to 12 years are crucial ones, where we will set the path to how the world will develop in the decades ahead. The responsibility in doing this is impossible to overestimate. To reach the goals of the Paris agreement we need large structural changes.”
Elvestuen’s comments illustrate precisely what is involved in the battle against global warming. Norway is a world leader in EV adoption, thanks to aggressive incentives. But it is also one of the world’s larger producers of petroleum and natural gas. The profits from those industries have made it possible for Norway to fund a lifestyle for its citizens that is the envy of the world. But can it continue to do so if it stops producing fossil fuels?
The United States, which is currently a hostage to fossil fuel special interests, has shown little appetite for curbing its carbon intensive lifestyle. The political consequences of addressing an increase in global average temperatures suggest everyone is happy to talk about climate change and make flowery promises, but few are willing to do the heavy lifting needed to prevent the looming climactic crisis facing the world community.
The disconnect between short term goals and long term concerns was painfully obvious at the United Nations this week where alleged president Donald Trump encouraged global leaders to think more about their own self interest rather than work together. Nowhere in his tirade was there any mention of the threats to the America that rising sea levels and more frequent forest fires present. One wonders if The Donald has the mental capacity to appreciate the enormity of the challenge the United States faces from an overheated atmosphere.
It’s one thing to tell people there is a storm out to sea that may bring high winds, rain, and flooding to their area in a few days. It’s quite another to tell people there’s a storm brewing in the atmosphere that is going to dramatically affect their lives in 40 or 50 years.
As humans, we seem genetically incapable of comprehending threats that won’t affect us for decades. Perhaps it is function of the reptilian part of our brains, the part where our “fight or flight” response is located. Back in the dim mists of time, when having the neighbors for dinner meant something quite different than it does today, survival was totally dependent upon reacting to immediate threats in real time. Our internal programming doesn’t permit us to see much beyond the end of next week.
1.5º C seems like something humanity could adapt to quite easily, but Dr. Tabea Lissner, head of adaption and vulnerability at Climate Analytics, warns “Even 1.5º C is no picnic, really.” It will mean the Arctic will be ice free in summer, half of land based creatures will be severely affected, and deadly heatwaves will occur with much greater frequency. Getting to 2º C of warming would make things just that much worse. “0.5º C makes quite a big difference,” Lissner says.
Many climate scientists are already beginning to think in terms of 3º to 5º of average global temperature rise. But that’s 100 years from now. Who even cares about something that far in the future? Heck, the Earth could be wiped out by a meteor before then. And besides, when we really need it, science will come up with something completely unexpected that will save us all and allow us to drive our F-150s forever. Right?
By Chris Mooney, “At this rate, Earth risks sea level rise of 20 to 30 feet, historical analysis shows: New research finds that a vast area of Antarctica retreated when Earth’s temperatures weren’t much warmer than they are now.” Washington Post, 20 Sept 2018
Temperatures not much warmer than the planet is experiencing now were sufficient to melt a major part of the East Antarctic ice sheet in Earth’s past, scientists reported Wednesday, including during one era about 125,000 years ago when sea levels were as much as 20 to 30 feet higher than they are now.
“It doesn’t need to be a very big warming, as long as it stays 2 degrees warmer for a sufficient time, this is the end game,” said David Wilson, a geologist at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the new research, which was published in Nature. Scientists at institutions in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Spain also contributed to the work.
The research concerns a little-studied region called the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, which is roughly the size of California and Texas combined and contains more than 10 feet of potential sea-level rise. Fronted by three enormous glaciers named Cook, Mertz and Ninnis, the Wilkes is known to be vulnerable to fast retreat because the ice here is not standing on land and instead is rising up from a deep depression in the ocean floor.
Moreover, that depression grows deeper as you move from the current icy coastline of the Wilkes farther inland toward the South Pole, a downhill slope that could facilitate rapid ice loss.
What the new science adds is that during past warm periods in Earth’s history, some or all of the ice in the Wilkes Subglacial Basin seems to have gone away. That’s an inference researchers made by studying the record of sediments in the seafloor just off the coast of the current ice front.
Here, they found several layers of sediments that appeared to come from beneath where the ice currently lies, providing a hint that when these layers of the seafloor were laid down, Wilkes contained either less ice or no ice at all.
Those sediments corresponded in time to several well-known past warm periods, when seas rose considerably. But what’s worrying is that these eras were in many cases not much warmer than the planet already is right now.
Humans have caused about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above the preindustrial planetary temperatures experienced before the year 1880 or so. The world has pledged to avoid a warming above 2 degrees Celsius, and even hopes to hold the warming to 1.5 degrees, but current promises made by countries are not nearly enough to prevent these outcomes.
In other words, we are already on a course that could heat the planet enough to melt some or all of the Wilkes Basin.
“We say 2 degrees beyond preindustrial, and we’re already beyond preindustrial,” Wilson said. “So this is potentially the kinds of temperatures we could see this century.”
The study cannot reveal, however, just how quickly ice emptied out of the Wilkes Basin. The past warm periods in question are thought to have been driven by slight variations in Earth’s orbit as it rotates around the sun, leading to stronger summer heat. That warmth was maintained for thousands of years.
“What we definitely can say is that during the [geological] stages where temperatures were warm for a couple of degrees for a couple of millennia, this is where we see a distinct signature in our records,” Wilson said. “We can’t necessarily say things didn’t happen quick, but we can’t resolve that in our data.”
The new research “contributes to the mounting pile of evidence that East Antarctica is not as stable as we thought,” Isabella Velicogna, a glaciologist at the University of California at Irvine, said by email. Velicogna was not directly involved in the paper.
“What I found particularly interesting is that the authors came to their conclusions using a data record off shore, not directly beneath the ice (which would be ideal), but this is clearly putting more incentive into studying this part of East Antarctica in more detail,” she wrote.
“The only way to obtain unequivocal evidence of the ice sheet retreat they describe is to drill through the ice sheet itself into the basin,” added Reed Scherer, an Antarctic expert at Northern Illinois University. “Until that gets done, this study from just offshore provides the clearest evidence yet that marine terminating glaciers of both East and West Antarctica are at risk for the future as global temperatures rise.”
The new research comes just as the U.S. and British governments prepare to launch a multiyear research project to study Antarctica’s huge and remote Thwaites glacier, which is in West Antarctica and is viewed as the largest risk to coastlines in this century.
The situations of Thwaites and Wilkes are eerily similar — both feature enormous amounts of ice resting on the seafloor, rather than on land, and downward slopes that create what scientists call a “marine ice sheet instability.” And both contain enough ice to unlock 10 feet or more of sea-level rise.
Thwaites is “sitting in a very unfortunate spot … resting over some of the deepest bedrock in West Antarctica,” Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., said at a planning event at Columbia University on Wednesday.
The new study suggests that Thwaites is the beginning, not the end, of our worries. One key difference, though, is that Thwaites is already losing 50 billion tons of ice per year, whereas the Wilkes region appears to be relatively unchanged for now, according to Wilson.
But it may simply be that while the world is already warm enough to awaken West Antarctica, just a bit more warmth will cause the same to happen to parts of the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet. That would not only explain a lot about the link between past sea levels and past temperatures in Earth’s history — it would further illuminate the future we’re heading toward.
In a lead-up to the 2016 Democratic Party nomination, candidate Bernie Sanders characterized Hillary Clinton’s approach to global warming as slow and bureaucratic. Calling the Paris Agreement “a lot of paper” during a debate broadcast on CNN, he claimed that the former Secretary of State did not recognize the enormity of the challenges facing humanity. “When we look at climate change now, we have got to realize that this is a global environmental crisis of unprecedented urgency,” he demanded.
His recommended solution: a society-wide mobilization of the kind that transformed the United States in the 1940s. “Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we moved within three years … to rebuild our economy to defeat Naziism and Japanese imperialism,” he said. “That is exactly the kind of approach we need right now.”
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and ran for the Democratic nomination, isn’t the only politician drawing parallels between climate change and fascist aggression. New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been hailed as an up-and-coming progressive champion, has spoken about the need for a World War II-style commitment to fighting global warming. The Democratic Party in 2016 included similar language in its official platform.
The injection of this messaging into American political discourse can be traced in part to The Climate Mobilization, a largely volunteer-run nonprofit founded in 2014. Executive Director Margaret Salamon Klein, pictured with colleagues, says the organization was born out of a conviction that only a narrow window of time remains to prevent widespread climate catastrophe.
“We used to call World War II-scale climate mobilization a hidden consensus, because so many environmental leaders, scientists, thought leaders had said or signed statements … calling for it,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s definitely not our idea, but we are the only group that is actually campaigning for this thing that everybody knows we need.”
Victory planning and wartime mode
So what would this mobilization look like? In 2016, the group released a paper laying out its vision. After Pearl Harbor, it says, the private sector and ordinary citizens alike embraced the need for an immediate shift to wartime mode, financed by massive public spending. Soldiers flew to Europe to fight, while civilians ramped up scientific research efforts, transformed factories into military production centers, and planted Victory Gardens to supplement food rations.
Translating this effort into the modern era, The Climate Mobilization advocates for nationwide initiatives to halt greenhouse gas emissions and cool the planet to safe levels. Among its policy recommendations: harnessing the Federal Reserve Board to fund emergency climate action; rationing products and services that emit greenhouse gases; and launching a massive research and development program aimed at reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to preindustrial levels.
During the 2016 campaign, The Climate Mobilization focused its efforts on influencing candidates for national office. But when Donald Trump’s victory smashed hopes of federal progress on climate, Klein Salamon and her team turned their attention to local governments.
Their first collaboration with municipal officials grew out of a call from the office of Los Angeles Council Member Paul Koretz. Having seen The Climate Mobilization’s work on the presidential campaign, Koretz’s staff wanted to learn more about how these ideas could be implemented on the local level.
Early this year, Koretz introduced a motion to create a municipal Climate Emergency Mobilization Department; in April, the city council voted unanimously to explore the idea further. While the city ponders its next steps, The Climate Mobilization is helping to prepare a local action plan. “We’re working with leading community and environmental justice organizations from South Los Angeles to bring the plan to their communities, so it’s based in their needs and values,” said Ezra Silk, the organization’s director of strategy and policy.
To help persuade other cities to buy into its ideas – and demonstrate that the dramatic emissions reductions it calls for are feasible – The Climate Mobilization prepared sample action plans for nine additional cities around the U.S. Engineer John Mitchell, who wrote the plans, pulled data about each city from publicly available sources like municipal utility reports and Google’s Project Sunroof. He then created tailored recommendations based on policies and programs that have been successfully implemented elsewhere, ranging from a municipal waste-processing initiative in Halifax to a combined electric vehicle and rooftop solar program in Japan.
In the past year, The Climate Mobilization and partners and volunteers have convinced four local governments to declare climate emergencies. In California, these include Berkeley and neighboring Richmond. On the east coast, Hoboken, New Jersey, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have signed on.
While a number of climate organizations focus on cities, The Climate Mobilization describes itself as unique in its emphasis on World War II-style measures. Its focus on using cities to put pressure on regional and national governments also stands out. While municipalities need to eliminate their own greenhouse gas emissions, their commitment must extend beyond their borders, the organization contends. Given the scale of the problem, it says, cities need to join forces to push for emergency measures at higher levels.
According to Silk, Berkeley has taken this idea to heart. The local government held a town hall on August 24 to promote the idea of a wave of emergency declarations throughout the Bay Area; Los Angeles’s Paul Koretz was one of the speakers. As a follow-up, it plans to host a two-day summit early next year to galvanize action in the wider region.
Telling the truth … ‘at core of change’
The Climate Mobilization’s cities strategy draws heavily on the ideas of Philip Sutton, an Australian environmentalist who leads a climate emergency movement in a small community near Melbourne. In his writing and speeches, Sutton emphasizes the need for thoughtful planning and action to accompany emergency declarations, as opposed to the purely rhetorical statements he’s seen from some cities.
But for Margaret Klein Salamon, who holds a PhD in psychology, simply acknowledging the problem is a vital first step. She believes that current climate communication approaches may do more harm than good, describing them as akin to “don’t scare the children.” Assuming that people will simply shut down once they fully grasp the threat posed by global warming, some climate leaders prefer to focus on positive messages such as the benefits to be gained from decarbonization. But she fears this approach can make it difficult for non-experts to understand the severity of what’s at stake. (See this month’s ‘This is not Cool’ Yale Climate Connections video on related issues involving emotional responses to climate change impacts.)
A better strategy, she contends, is to present all aspects of the issue as clearly as possible, making the risks of continued warming clear so that people can make informed choices. “What my psychology background has taught me is that telling the truth is at the core of change,” she said.
In this line of thinking, if the only way to prevent worst-case warming scenarios is to throw all of humanity’s creativity and resources at the problem immediately, the broadest possible range of individuals needs to feel strongly motivated to act. And cities can help provide this motivation.
“If a city – if an elected government body – is willing to say we’re in a climate emergency and we need World War II-scale climate mobilization now,” Klein Salamon said, “that’s a huge shift.”
Just how huge may well depend on how many cities – and which ones – rise to the challenge.