The United Nations’ (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their climate change report on Friday that they produce about every five to six years. The IPCC’s last report was published in 2007. The UN created the IPCC to assess the science, risks and impacts of global warming, and the IPCC is considered the world's leading authority on climate change.
A press release from the IPCC says, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models.”
“Warming in the climate system is unequivocal and since 1950 many changes have been observed throughout the climate system that are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850, reports the Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC Working Group I assessment report, Climate Change 2013: the Physical Science Basis, approved on Friday by member governments of the IPCC in Stockholm, Sweden.”
Extremely likely is an upgrade from a previous report that said it was very likely that human intervention was spurring climate change. The IPCC defines extremely likely as 95–100% probability of an outcome or a result, and very likely as 90–100% probability.
The report's authors do not conduct original research for the assessments, so the IPCC reports are primarily summaries of the state of the field. The findings are based on the aggregated results of the most recent published and peer-reviewed climate change research with more than 600 researchers from 32 countries reviewing more than 9,000 peer-reviewed studies for this report. They produced 2,000 pages of scientific analysis and worked through 56,000 comments.
Friday’s report represents the first of four sections that ultimately make up the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, or AR5. Other parts of the report examine socioeconomic impacts and potential ways to mitigate the effects of climate change.
US Secretary of State John Kerry responded to the UN report with this statement:
"Those who deny the science or choose excuses over action are playing with fire. Once again, the science grows clearer, the case grows more compelling, and the costs of inaction grow beyond anything that anyone with conscience or common sense should be willing to even contemplate."
The bottom line is alarm bells should be going off as you read about this disturbing report. Each of us influences climate change and it should frighten you that some of its impacts are happening faster than originally expected. We need to do more to correct the problem. This massive and critical report points to long term implications if we do not embrace a sustainable, cleaner energy future posthaste.
Among other good news on the climate change front this week, renewable energy is projected to exceed gas by 2016. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), by 2016 global electricity generation from wind, solar, hydro and other forms of renewable power will eclipse that from natural gas – and should be double that provided by nuclear plants.
The IEA points to a surge in renewables led by emerging economies such as China, which accounts for 40 percent of the projected global growth in renewables between 2012 and 2018. Although this is positive, we’re not out of the woods yet if we want to avoid the 2 degree Celsius increase threshold that scientists predict could lead to permanent changes to ecosystems. China still relies heavily on coal, and not just for electricity generation. The country also depends on the fossil fuel for steel production and making fertilizers, which generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. Even aggressive expansion of renewables and nuclear power leaves China using coal for up to half of its total energy needs by 2050.
In the U.S., a boom in shale gas production is stunting efforts to expand renewables. European growth of renewables has also slowed. But the new economic powerhouses of China, India and Brazil are leading the charge, which sweetens the overall global renewable picture.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the future is rosier than it seems. On the surface, these projections paint a picture where natural gas fills in for a decade or two while we build a low-carbon future based around renewables. That is certainly a likely scenario, but it requires the support of long-term policies in many countries to encourage sufficient investment in renewable power plants.
The problem is that policy uncertainty leads to building gas-fired plants that have a lifetime of three to four decades. This makes it difficult to phase out fossil fuels on the timescale needed to avoid dangerous global warming, which requires major cuts from 2030 onwards. In fact, the IEA itself warned in its 2011 edition of World Energy Outlook that fossil-fuel plants due to be built over the next five years are already likely to lock the planet into 2°C of warming.
So how can we fix this problem? Energy analysts say we need long-term assurances to investors that renewable plants being built now will deliver a better economic return than those fired by coal or natural gas. It’s a weakness of U.S. President Barack Obama's climate plan, announced earlier this week, which lacks the long-term targets that could be set if Congress would pass new legislation.
The stakes are high. We need significant changes in existing proposals for policy. Otherwise the chances are slim that we’ll avoid surpassing the 2 degree Celsius increase threshold climatologists warn will alter the lives of billions of people.
Some may think jellyfish are simply a pesky problem when we want to take a swim or snorkel, but they are actually a sign of flagging oceanic health. We think of them as the canary in the coal mine. The difference is the canary dies when there is a problem, but jellyfish flourish in the conditions that global warming wreaks on our oceans.
Climate change heats and acidifies the planet’s oceans. Overfishing adds to the first two major problems. All three contribute to creating an ideal environment for jellyfish to thrive and multiply. So what’s the big deal if there are too many jellyfish?
The issue is that jellyfish take a bad situation and make it worse. They have a unique trait where they’re able to eat up the food chain. This is surprising considering these sea creatures don’t even have brains. However, they actually can consume animals that are bigger, smarter and faster than they are. They damage the ecosystem further by competing with large mammals, such as whales, by feeding on the same fish and plankton that these other animals need to survive.
Marine expert Lisa-ann Gershwin wrote the new book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. She points to an example where jellyfish wiped out an entire food chain simply by eating from the bottom up.
The jellyfish species Mnemiopsis leidyi was accidentally introduced into the Black Sea in the early 1980s. In just a few short years, these jellyfish comprised “95 per cent of the biomass in the Black Sea”. This means “ninety-five per cent of every living thing was this one species of jellyfish”.
Jellyfish could rule our planet’s oceans as they once did in the Precambrian era. A time when biodiversity was low, the jellyfish commanded the oceans, and mammals and reptiles did not exist. This is a scary eventuality, that our feet are firmly planted on the path towards. We need to heed the warnings that these gelatinous invertebrates provide and begin seriously reducing our carbon footprints and offsetting the rest of our carbon emissions.
You would think that out of all the industries in the world, the one that would be most concerned with climate change would be the insurance industry. Take a look at the costs for Superstorm Sandy alone. The extreme hurricane caused damage estimated at nearly $75 billion. According to a press release last month by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, 2012 cost insurers $35 billion in privately insured property losses, which is $11 billion more than the average over the last decade.
Insurers, and the reinsurance companies that shoulder much of the ultimate risk in the industry, heavily rely on scientific thought and not which way the political wind is blowing on global warming. They are comfortable with the scientific consensus that the rampant burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change. Despite their confidence, the question remains, what is the insurance industry doing about global warming considering the problem directly impacts their own interests?
Surprisingly, the answer is not much. Insurers mainly focus on zoning regulations and disaster alleviation since the industry is disinclined to enter energy policy’s controversial fray. Furthermore, insurers are more insulated from climate change’s devastation than at first meets the eye. The federal government covers flood insurance, which is an enormous risk during extreme weather. Additionally, insurers adjust to higher risks by raising premiums or dropping coverage. So successfully that despite Superstorm Sandy and the protracted drought that ravaged the Midwest Corn Belt, property and casualty insurance in the United States was more profitable in 2012 than in 2011.
However, there are signs that the insurance industry is looking increasingly favorably on a carbon tax. The true costs are placed on the polluters with a carbon tax rather than being passed on to the rest of us. Also, they’re encouraged to pollute less. Most insurers would prefer a carbon tax over a host of additional regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Although the industry is warming to the idea of a carbon tax, they’re still hesitant to throw all of their weight behind it. Again, money talks; insurers haven’t yet experienced heavy losses from climate change. The exception is 2004 and 2005 when a series of hurricanes including Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, caused damage worth more than $200 billion.
So the bottom line is that if these storms continue to hit people and businesses in the wallet, then eventually even the staunchest global warming disbelievers will admit the obvious. However, we need to do what we can in the meantime to avert global disaster. We don’t want to pass the point of no return.
Last week our planet reached a scary milestone for carbon dioxide, the most important global warming gas. The average carbon dioxide reading exceeded 400 parts per million at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) on the island of Hawaii for the 24 hours that ended at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, May 9, 2013. Earth hasn’t had this much carbon dioxide concentrated in the air for at least three million years, which is before human life on the planet.
This should be a wakeup call that major and potentially catastrophic global weather changes are coming and a sign we’re not doing enough to tackle climate change.
We’ve seen carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million in the Arctic last year and even in some hourly readings at NOAA’s MLO. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the average reading for an entire day exceed that level. Carbon dioxide levels do rise and fall along with the seasons. As foliage grows over the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, 10 billion tons of carbon will be pulled out of the air. But it’s only a temporary pardon in a situation that’s becoming direr by the moment.
We simply must invest in alternative energy technologies and begin curbing our dangerous global appetite for fossil fuels. Otherwise, the time will come soon where no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.
The official target to limit the damage from global warming is 450 parts per million (PPM), which is generally agreed to be the maximum level compatible with that goal. Our relentless, long-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions are likely get us to 450 PPM in well under 25 years. The time to slow down global warming is dwindling quickly. Twenty five years may seem like a long time, but our planet is huge. It will take more time than that to right the ship.
Not every country has agreed to set binding emissions targets, either. Unfortunately, the United States count among those shirking their responsibility. Now greater efforts are necessary, and are all but impossible without severe economic disruptions.
Can we live on a planet that is warmer and wetter? Probably, but billions of people are going to suffer as we make the transition. It’s a better plan to lower our carbon footprints and speedily move to no and low carbon energy sources. The price is going to be high either way, and it’s only getting steeper as we hurtle towards the point of no return.
In a blog post last month, I wrote about how climate change science is set to be taught unevenly in the US curriculum. It’s great that middle and high school age kids in the US are going to learn about climate change. Unfortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards are voluntary and could take years to implement. So is there an option if we want our children to learn about global warming now?
The non-profit Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) fills this need. Their mission is to, “educate high school students on the science behind climate change and inspire them to take action to curb global warming”. One look at their website and you can see they are on the right track in reaching their target audience. It’s packed with social media links and interactive blog entries.
Since the fall of 2009, ACE has reached more than a million high school students at over 1,550 schools. While this is impressive, there are some teachers and parents who oppose the presentations, believing climate change to be a controversial and/or political issue. However, all of the climate science ACE presents comes from peer-reviewed published science articles, with a focus on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4). The IPCC AR4 is one of the most heavily researched science reports in history.
ACE’s efforts don’t end with their presentations. They also offer Student Action Programs to help get kids started right away. Then ACE grooms student environmental leaders who influence peers and lead change.
With the help of an ACE grant, Daniela Lapidous and Shreya Indukuri installed energy monitoring technology at their school. Saving both energy and money led them to expand the project to other local schools. Their project’s success brought them to the White House’s attention, where a mere two years after their first ACE presentation, they advised Energy Secretary Steven Chu on their smartmeter project that reduced their school's electric bill by 13%. Daniela wrote about her experience on ACE’s blog, “Hot and Bothered” and is a co-founder of SmartPowerEd.org.
It’s inspiring to see the ripple effect that climate change education can bring about. And getting information about global warming to high school aged kids is critical and a conscious choice. "They're going to be the generation to feel the impacts [of climate change] hardest and first," says Matt Lappe, ACE's education director. "And so in some sense we target high-schoolers and young people in general, because they really have a right to know climate science."
We should all take a page out of the next generation’s book. Not only are they learning about global warming, but they are taking the next steps to do something about the problem. Taking charge of the future is what it is all about since they’re the ones that will have to live with the consequences if we don’t.
In a previous blog post about The Art of Climate Change Communication, I covered the six American publics and how they perceive climate change. The Dismissive is one of the smallest groups, making up a mere eight percent of the American public. They do not believe climate change is happening, nor do they believe it is human caused or a serious problem. Although small, they are very vocal. Sometimes it’s easy for climate change communicators to be discouraged by this group. Nonetheless, now there is evidence that more than half of Americans (58%) say, “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”
The Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey – Climate Change in the American Mind – conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. These two organizations interviewed 1,045 adults between April 8 and 15, and found that “many Americans believe global warming made recent extreme weather and climatic events ‘more severe,’ specifically: 2012 as the warmest year on record in the United States (50%); the ongoing drought in the Midwest and the Great Plains (49%); Superstorm Sandy (46%); and Superstorm Nemo (42%).” The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.
Typically, climate scientists avoid making a connection between climate change and the day-to-day weather. Their stance used to be that no single weather event is caused by climate change. In recent years, however, climate science has advanced to the point where researchers can see climate change’s impact on individual heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and other storms. At the very least, many are ready to admit that climate change makes extraordinary weather worse. And most of the American public agrees.
The report released this week also highlighted that, “overall, 85 percent of Americans report that they experienced one or more types of extreme weather in the past year, most often citing extreme high winds (60%) and extreme heat (51%).” It is part of The Psychology of Climate Change that humans need to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level. We comprehend global warming is a serious threat more easily when we see the effects of extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy.
While it is vindicating to climate change communicators that our country is beginning to make the important connection between climate change and extreme weather, I am hoping the knowledge coalesces into further global warming realizations and ultimately stimulates a grass-roots movement that engenders meaningful change. Knowing there is a problem is an important first step. Doing something about the problem is an even more important next step.
For decades, fossil fuel companies have enjoyed the benefit of master limited partnerships (MLPs). A MLP is a business structure that acts like a corporation with its corporate stock trading on the open market, but is taxed as a partnership rather than at the corporate tax rate. This allows investors to buy and sell their shares in the public markets, and project developers to access cheaper capital through the markets. It’s an attractive tax benefit to be a MLP; an advantage that is inaccessible currently to renewable energy investment.
Since the 1980s, Congress has enabled investors to bundle energy projects like oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel developments from companies that extract, process or transport “depletable” natural resources and exempted them from corporate income taxes. The word “depletable” specifically excludes renewable energy.
U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, introduced a bill last year that would give wind, solar and other renewable projects the same tax benefit. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act was re-introduced this week by a bipartisan group of senators.
In order to effectively combat climate change, renewables need to be priced at, or better yet, lower than fossil fuels. It’s easier to sell shares to individuals and institutional investors such as pension funds when renewable projects are set up as MLPs. Widening the pool of potential investors adds new competition, which could lower the cost of financing projects, and in the end reduce the cost of renewable power.
Is leveling the playing field for wind, solar and other renewable projects the magic bullet to renewable energy investment? No, but it is a step in the right direction. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act is actually part of a broader toolkit, one that the federal government has used successfully in the past to develop domestic energy resources. Tax benefits such as the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit remain essential tools within the renewable energy industry.
Other tax reforms the industry and its supporters say will help level the playing field with fossil fuels include allowing renewable companies to organize as real estate investment trusts (REITs) and letting renewable tax credits be claimed by more types of investors. In December of 2012, a bipartisan group of 29 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to the President calling for changes to both MLPs and REITs.
Even with bipartisan support in a deeply divided Congress, the bill faces some serious obstacles. A 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated that extending MLPs to renewable energy companies would cost the U.S. Treasury about $2.8 billion between 2010 and 2014. At the moment, the broad political momentum in Congress involves eliminating loopholes and exemptions in order to raise revenue and lower tax rates. The report suggests that if leveling the playing field is the endgame, the alternative is closing the tax loophole for oil and gas companies.
Personally, I want to stop global warming and move into a sustainable energy future. Let your Congressional Representatives know you want them to support the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act.
Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, temporarily stalling renewable energy production. When that happens, what fuel source fills in the energy gap? Traditionally the answer was coal, but due to increased supply and low prices, the answer of late has been natural gas. Coal is certainly the dirtier of the two fossil fuels, but natural gas is not a perfect choice either. The increased supply in natural gas was achieved through the process of hydraulic fracturing (called fracking), which can be harmful to the environment.
Last spring natural gas prices fell to all-time lows of $2 to $3 per thousand cubic feet in the United States. This spring natural gas prices are on the rise. In fact, they’ve doubled to just over $4 per thousand cubic feet, but the bottom line is natural gas is still pretty cheap. Experts say prices in the $4 or $5 range won’t affect the increasing use of the fuel by consumers and the energy industry since the price was $8 just a few years ago. In Europe and Asia prices are even higher; think $10 to $14.
According to a Citibank research report, “Gas and renewables could in fact be the making of each other in the short term.” Expect renewables to cost about the same as conventional fuels in many parts of the world “in the very near term.” Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the price of renewable energy has declined substantially in recent years, and that’s expected to continue, making them even more competitive. As demand for renewables builds, it will in turn “drive demand for more gas-fired” power plants to be used as backup.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) missed an April 13 deadline to issue much-anticipated new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. Proposed a year ago, the rules were first to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new plants. Once a limit is set for new facilities, the EPA is legally obligated to address existing plants, which pose the true climate threat at the moment. The US’ power plant fleet is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said last week that the agency expects to propose new rules on greenhouse gases from existing plants in fiscal 2014.
The draft rule for new power plants sets a limit of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity. That cutoff point would be easy for natural-gas-fired plants to meet, but not conventional coal plants. Already, power companies build natural gas plants almost exclusively because of the low price of gas.
There is speculation that the EPA’s indefinite delay on the new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants is due to second thoughts at the EPA and the White House over the single standard. The EPA is said to be contemplating setting two standards, one for coal plants and the other for natural gas, which might make the new rule more legally defensible in an attempt to avert the inevitable legal wrangling that goes on whenever the EPA sets a new rule including limitations.
Environmental groups argue that separate standards make little sense. “Setting a separate standard for coal- and natural-gas-fired plants would greatly weaken the standard’s ability to ensure a transition away from building high-carbon electricity-generation sources,” said economist Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Natural gas may be the interim answer as we build our renewable energy infrastructure and then the backup once we move to a sustainable energy future. For the sake of slowing down climate change, the EPA needs to set the rules on new electricity generation plants posthaste. Then they should tackle existing power plants without delay. Global warming won’t wait.
A national multi-state effort to create new standards in science education was announced this week. For the first time, science curriculum identifies climate change as a core concept and emphasizes the role that human activity has on climate systems.
The Next Generation Science Standards for state education curriculums is a joint effort of the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the nonprofit group Achieve. The new standards are the first extensive national recommendations for science instruction since 1996. They were developed by scientists and experts in 26 states, but they are optional.
So this means some middle and high school students enrolled in the American public school system will soon be required to study climate change as a scientific occurrence. About 40 U.S. states are expected to identify global warming as a man-made problem. Environmentalists are cheering, but unfortunately the issue is just as charged in the educational arena as the political one.
“Climate change is not a political issue and climate change is not a debate. It is science,” Mario Molina, deputy director at the Alliance for Climate Education, told the Guardian. “It is strongly supported heavily researched science, and our hope is that teachers will not see this as a political issue or a political debate.”
Unfortunately, some very vocal Americans do not consider climate change scientific. They see it as a controversial issue that shouldn’t be taught in schools. “It’s a shame that American school kids are being taught claims of certitude on an issue that continues to unravel before our eyes,” Marco Morano, communications director for Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, told The Washington Examiner, while referencing studies that suggest global warming has nothing to do with human actions. “To teach kids there’s a consensus… is a major disservice to children, and a disservice to education,” he added.
Here’s how the New York Times describes the new standards: “Educators involved in drawing them up said the guidelines were intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, to standardize teaching among states, and to raise the number of high school graduates who choose scientific and technical majors in college, a critical issue for the country’s economic future.”
“The focus would be helping students become more intelligent science consumers by learning how scientific work is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence, and how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.”
Meanwhile, The UK Department of Education has introduced a proposal that would completely ban climate change from educational discussions, due to its controversial nature. Children under 14 will no longer be able to learn about the human impact on climate change.
So the battle to educate Earth’s children about global warming rages on, but at least it will soon be an option in the U.S.