The carbon-rich permafrost warmed “in all permafrost zones on Earth” from 2007 to 2016, according to a new study.
Most ominously, Siberian permafrost at depths of up to 30 feet warmed a remarkable 1.6°F (0.9°C) in those 10 years, the researchers found. The permafrost, or tundra, is soil that stays below freezing (32°F) for at least two years.
Permafrost warming can “amplify global climate change, because when frozen sediments thaw it unlocks soil organic carbon,” warns the study, which was released Wednesday by the journal Nature Communications.
The thawing releases not only carbon dioxide but also methane (CH4) — a far more potent greenhouse gas — thereby further warming the planet. And as the planet continues to warm, more permafrost will melt, releasing even more greenhouse gases in a continuous feedback loop.
Earth’s thawing permafrost threatens to unleash a dangerous climate feedback loop
Normally, plants capture CO2 from the air during photosynthesis and slowly release that carbon back into the atmosphere after they die. But the Arctic permafrost acts like a very large carbon freezer — and the decomposition rate is very low. Or, rather, it was.
Humanity is leaving the freezer door wide open. As a result, the tundra is being transformed from a long-term carbon locker to a short-term carbon un-locker.
A 2017 study found the Alaskan tundra is warming so quickly it had become a net emitter of CO2 ahead of schedule. That study was the first to report a major portion of the Arctic had already become a net source of heat-trapping emissions.
The lead author, Dr. Roisin Commane, told ThinkProgress at the time, “We’re seeing this much earlier than we thought we would see it.”
The ‘ancient carbon’ of Alaska’s tundra is being released, speeding up global warming
The new study released on January 16 is the first “globally consistent assessment of permafrost temperature.” Four dozen researchers from around the world found that the ground temperature tens of feet below the surface “increased in all permafrost zones on Earth” — in the Northern Hemisphere, the mountains, and Antarctica.
“My take home [on the new study] is that the anecdotal site thawing that I heard about this winter is part of a region-wide warming that seems to be accelerating faster in this decade than in previous decades,” Dr. Commane told Inside Climate News.
That’s no surprise given that “Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900,” as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in its annual Arctic Report Card last month.
The only surprise is that the world continues to ignore this gravest of threats to humanity, even as it speeds up, triggers amplifying feedbacks, and rapidly approaches a climate death spiral.
Trees are supposed to slow global warming, but growing evidence suggests they might not always be climate saviours.
Kapur trees (Dryobalanops aromatica) in Malaysia avoid overlapping crowns as they grow, which creates a jigsaw-puzzle pattern when viewed from below. Credit: Stuart Franklin/Magnum
When it comes to fighting global warming, trees have emerged as one of the most popular weapons. With nations making little progress controlling their carbon emissions, many governments and advocates have advanced plans to plant vast numbers of trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in an attempt to slow climate change. But emerging research suggests that trees might not always help as much as some hope.
Forest schemes got a big boost from the 2015 Paris climate accord, which for the first time counted all countries’ efforts to offset their carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use and other sources by planting or protecting forests. China aims to plant trees over an area up to four times the size of the United Kingdom. California is allowing forest owners to sell credits to CO2-emitting companies, and other US states are considering similar programmes, which could motivate projects that establish new forests and protect existing ones. The European Union is moving towards allowing countries to include forest planting in their plans to fight climate change; some nations in the bloc have also pledged billions of dollars to tropical forest programmes.
Many scientists applaud the push for expanding forests, but some urge caution. They argue that forests have many more-complex and uncertain climate impacts than policymakers, environmentalists and even some scientists acknowledge. Although trees cool the globe by taking up carbon through photosynthesis, they also emit a complex potpourri of chemicals, some of which warm the planet. The dark leaves of trees can also raise temperatures by absorbing sunlight. Several analyses in the past few years suggest that these warming effects from forests could partially or fully offset their cooling ability.
Such concerns have prompted vigorous debate among scientists about how forests in different regions have warming or cooling effects. Nobody denies that trees are good for the environment; after all, forests provide a host of benefits, and harbour much of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. And no researchers are suggesting cutting down existing forests or curtailing efforts to combat deforestation. But as governments, corporations and non-profit organizations advance ever-more ambitious programmes to slow climate change, some scientists warn against relying on forests as a solution to global warming until a better understanding emerges. Researchers are involved in major campaigns to collect data using aeroplanes, satellites and towers in forests to sample the full suite of chemicals that trees emit, which can affect both climate and air pollution.
At the same time, some researchers worry about publishing results challenging the idea that forests cool the planet. One scientist even received death threats after writing a commentary that argued against planting trees to prevent climate change.
The questions are multiplying as more scientists enter the debate. At the same time, increasingly dire warnings about climate change — and the potential for huge amounts of money to go towards planting forests — have made working out how trees affect climate a matter of urgency. “People want an answer; they want to be able to say, ‘this is what we should do’,” says Gordon Bonan, a geoscientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. When it comes to forests and their ability to cool the climate, he says, “there are a lot of misstatements or overplaying of what can be done.”
If tree-planting programmes work as advertised, they could buy precious time for the world to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and replace them with cleaner sources of energy. One widely cited 2017 study1 estimated that forests and other ecosystems could provide more than one-third of the total CO2 reductions required to keep global warming below 2 °C through to 2030.
Although the analysis relies on big assumptions, such as the availability of funding mechanisms and political will, its authors say that forests can be an important stopgap while the world tackles the main source of carbon emissions: the burning of fossil fuels. “This is a rope that nature is throwing us,” says Peter Ellis, a forest-carbon scientist at The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia, and one of the paper’s authors.
The first inkling that plants suck CO2 from the air dates back to the 1780s, when Swiss pastor Jean Senebier grew plants under different experimental conditions. He suggested that plants decompose CO2 from the air and incorporate the carbon, an idea corroborated by subsequent discoveries about the mechanisms of photosynthesis.
More than two centuries later, Senebier’s insights form a key component of plans to combat the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The rationale is that trees can lock up carbon in their wood and roots for decades or even centuries. The 1997 climate treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol allowed rich countries to count carbon storage in forests towards their targets for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions. In practice, few nations did so because of the agreement’s unwieldy accounting mechanisms and other factors. Later negotiations laid out a framework for enabling wealthy countries to pay poorer tropical countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and to increase carbon in forests. The framework was formalized under the 2015 Paris agreement, which required countries to commit to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; more than 50 nations have pledged to add tree cover or protect existing forests (see ‘Where are the trees?’).
Source: X.-P. Song et al. Nature 560, 639–643 (2018).
Such schemes required firm data on how much carbon is locked up in forests. In the past few decades, scientists have worked to create national estimates of carbon loss and gain from vegetation by studying field plots and by combing through satellite data. In 2011, an international group led by researchers at the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service concluded that forests globally are a large carbon sink, taking more carbon out of the air through photosynthesis and wood production than they release through respiration and decay2.
That doesn’t mean that all forests cool the planet, however. Researchers have known for decades that tree leaves absorb more sunlight than do other types of land cover, such as fields or bare ground. Forests can reduce Earth’s surface albedo, meaning that the planet reflects less incoming sunlight back into space, leading to warming. This effect is especially pronounced at higher latitudes and in mountainous or dry regions, where slower-growing coniferous trees with dark leaves cover light-coloured ground or snow that would otherwise reflect sunlight. Most scientists agree, however, that tropical forests are clear climate coolers: trees there grow relatively fast and transpire massive amounts of water that forms clouds, two effects that help to cool the climate.
More-recent studies have branched out to include other ways in which forests can influence climate. As trees live, grow and die, scientists have learnt, they are in constant conversation with the air, swapping carbon, water, light and a bewildering array of chemicals that can interact with the climate.
Atmospheric chemist Nadine Unger, then at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, conducted one of the first global studies examining one part of this exchange: the influence of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, emitted by trees. These include isoprene, a small hydrocarbon that can warm the globe in several ways. It can react with nitrogen oxides in the air to form ozone — a potent climate-warming gas when it resides in the lower atmosphere. Isoprene can also lengthen the lifetime of atmospheric methane — another greenhouse gas. Yet isoprene can have a cooling influence, too, by helping to produce aerosol particles that block incoming sunlight.
Unger ran an Earth-system model that estimated the effects of chemical emissions from forests. Her results suggest that the conversion of forests to farmland throughout the industrial era might have had little overall impact on climate3. Clearing forests liberated carbon stored in trees, but increased Earth’s albedo (leading to cooling) and decreased emissions of VOCs that can both cool and warm.
As a corollary, Unger suggested that reforestation would also have uncertain climate effects. Trees in tropical and temperate zones emit huge quantities of isoprene that is not accounted for in most forestry schemes. Higher-latitude boreal forests emit mostly terpenes, which help to cool the climate by forming aerosols that can block sunlight and promote the formation of cloud particles — although Unger didn’t attempt to quantify this cloud-seeding effect. She acknowledged that her study was a first step, and called for increased monitoring of forest chemicals and their atmospheric interactions.
She followed up on her research paper by writing an opinion piece in TheNew York Times entitled ‘To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees’, which argued that the large uncertainties around the extent to which forests cool or warm the climate made tree planting a risky strategy for fighting climate change. The article, and especially the headline (which Unger did not write), triggered a tsunami of complaints from researchers, who disputed the science and said the piece threatened to undermine years of research and advocacy. A group of 30 forest scientists wrote a responseon the environmental news website Mongabay, saying, “We strongly disagree with Professor Unger’s core message.”
At 304 metres high, the Zotino Tall Tower Observatory measures gases and aerosols above taiga forest in central Siberia. A similar tall tower in the Amazon makes measurements above the tropical rainforest.Credit: Michael Hielscher/MPI
Unger says she received death threats, and that some colleagues stopped speaking to her. Some scientists, however, agreed that it was important to look at the impacts of forest VOCs. Subsequent studies have both supported and contradicted Unger’s 2014 analysis. A team led by Dominick Spracklen and Catherine Scott, atmospheric chemists at the University of Leeds, UK, ran a model that included how aerosols from forests can seed clouds, which reflect sunlight. They concluded that the net effect of VOCs from forests is to cool the global climate4.
Unger, in turn, questions some of Scott and Spracklen’s assumptions. Unger, who is now at the University of Exeter, UK, and Spracklen are discussing using a common experimental design to try to resolve their differences.
They and other researchers say that such studies are hamstrung by sparse data sets on forest emissions. “In my opinion, we still don’t know enough” to say what effect forest VOCs have, says Alex Guenther, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Irvine.
The latest findings are piling on even more complexity. Ecologist Sunitha Pangala at Lancaster University, UK, spent much of 2013 and 2014 in the Amazon rainforest, where she placed gas-measuring chambers around the trunks of more than 2,300 trees. “What we were really surprised about was the magnitude at which these trees are emitting methane,” says Pangala. She and Vincent Gauci at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and their colleagues reported in 2017 that trees account for around half of the Amazon’s total methane emissions5. Researchers had previously assumed that methane leaked into the air directly from the soil, where it is produced by microbes. The new work suggests that trees could be another conduit for that microbial methane, potentially explaining why more methane has been detected above tropical wetlands than has been measured emanating from soil alone.
In a study first published last October, Gauci and other colleagues added another wrinkle when they found both methane and nitrous oxide, also a greenhouse gas, leaking from trees in upland forests6.
The global significance of these findings is still unclear. Pangala and Gauci both estimate that the cooling effect of trees taking up carbon greatly outstrips the warming from tree emissions of methane and nitrous oxide. But Kristofer Covey, an environmental scientist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, has found methane leaking from non-wetland trees in temperate forests7, and argues that such emissions could, in some places, diminish the climate benefits of trees more than researchers and environmentalists realize. “That’s a really painful message,” he says.
The recent explosion of results underscores the need for a full account of the impacts of forests, says Unger. “As long as we understand that tropical trees are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, we must also accept that they’re putting methane and VOCs into the atmosphere.”
Scientists who champion forests say that although more research is always good, existing results are mature enough to support the use of forests to fight climate change, especially given the urgency of the problem. “We can’t necessarily afford to hold off on those things; we have to begin taking some action,” says Jason Funk, an environmental scientist in Chicago, Illinois, who served as an adviser and observer to the Paris agreement.
Researchers are now turning to sophisticated computer models and using larger and more-comprehensive data sets to nail down exactly what forests in different places do to the climate. In some cases, the results have been sobering. Last October, a team led by ecologist Sebastiaan Luyssaert at the Free University of Amsterdam modelled a variety of European forest-management scenarios8. The researchers concluded that none of the scenarios would yield a significant global climate impact, because the effects of surface darkening and cloud-cover changes from any added forests would roughly eliminate their carbon-storage benefits.
To estimate the climate impact of planting forests in different parts of the United States, ecologist Christopher Williams at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, is combining global satellite data collected over more than a decade with carbon-sequestration figures based on data from the US Forest Service. He has found in preliminary work that adding trees to the US west coast and to regions east of the Mississippi River makes sense, climatically speaking. But albedo changes make forest planting in the Rockies and the southwestern United States a bad deal for the climate in most cases, because the conifers that thrive in those regions are dark and absorb more sunlight than do underlying soils or snow. He hopes to turn this research into a standardized methodology that forest managers can use to assess a project’s climate impact.
Getting planners to adopt such methods could prove challenging, however. Williams has found that some resist considering albedo effects, including representatives of companies hoping to sell carbon credits for forest projects. “Even other scientists sometimes have disbelief in the magnitude of the albedo effect, or even its existence,” he says.
“I have heard scientists say that if we found forest loss cooled the planet, we wouldn’t publish it.”
More data about the climate impacts of forests could come from long-term studies that track the gases and chemicals that trees emit and absorb. Researchers are using a 325-metre tower in the Amazon to monitor carbon, water and other chemical fluxes over a roughly 100-square-kilometre area of intact rainforest northeast of Manaus in Brazil. A companion tower in Siberia does the same.
Teams have erected smaller research towers to collect similar samples at hundreds of sites around the globe amid different types of forest; a tower in Norway, for example, will soon be the first in that country to start taking data in a forest. But many important areas have not yet been covered. Two NASA instruments launched in the past year — the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation and the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — should soon provide a more consistent global picture of forests’ carbon stores.
Scientists who debate the climate impacts of forests are eager to get their hands on these data. And even those who are firmly convinced that forest projects can fight climate change welcome the added rigour of more-comprehensive studies. Ellis, for one, acknowledges that the analysis he co-authored1 considered albedo effects only crudely; the team did not consider VOCs and methane emissions from trees.
“We need to more honestly account for these other effects and be more careful about how we strategize,” says Ellis. “We’re using a blunt tool, when it would be much more preferable to use a sharper one.”
Back in 2010, Nadia El-Hage Scialabba and Maria Müller-Lindenlauf, of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), took an in-depth look at the climate impacts of organic agriculture. F.A.O.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission defines organic agriculture as:
a holistic production management system that avoids use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people.
Organic agriculture still uses fertilizers and pesticides, but not synthetic ones. And when it comes to climate, the F.A.O study suggests, the fertilizer issue is key.
Conventional agriculture relies on nitrogen fertilizers, produced through a process involving copious amounts of ammonia and methane. Nitrogen fertilizers in turn, release some degree of nitrous oxide, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, with a much greater warming potential per unit released than carbon.
Organic farms bypass the need for chemical fertilizers by planting legumes. Organic farms also tend to store more carbon in the soil, slightly offsetting other greenhouse gas emissions, though, as the F.A.O. study notes, the carbon storage is likely not permanent. Plus, organic farms may burn more fossil fuels through machinery when weeds are removed mechanically.
As for the suggestion that organic agriculture requires slightly more land for the same yield, it depends on the crop. Conventional dairy production, for example, produces much more milk per cow. But there is hardly any yield difference when it comes to organic vs. conventional rice. In some cases, the same crop may have different yields-per-area in the developing world vs. the developed world—organic yields are often higher in developing countries. This is because, as the F.A.O. report notes, some of the ecologically sound practices are difficult to scale up to industrial levels, and work better at smaller scales.
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On the other hand, grass-fed livestock requires a lot more space than feedlots, often leading to deforestation.
Many conscious consumers want a definitive answer about whether conventional or organic farming is better, when in fact, both have effects on the climate. There are also other concerns that go into consumer choices, such as animal welfare. And, as Stefan Wirsenius, one of the authors of the international study, says, “The type of food is often much more important. Eating organic beans or organic chicken is much better for the climate than to eat conventionally produced beef.”
ScienceThe Universe is out there, waiting for you to discover it.
Earth energy budget diagram, with incoming and outgoing radiation (values are shown in W/m^2). Satellite instruments (CERES) measure the reflected solar, and emitted infrared radiation fluxes. The energy balance determines Earth’s climate.
Let’s play pretend for a moment. Pretend, if you can, that you’ve never heard about the idea of global warming before. Pretend you’ve never heard anyone else’s opinions on the matter, including from politicians, scientists, friends or relatives. Pretend that there are no related concerns, like the economy, our energy needs, or the environment.
If you were going to make a genuine inquiry, there would instead be only two questions to ask and answer:
is the Earth warming or not,
and if so, what’s the main cause?
This is a question that was tailor-made for the enterprise of science to answer. Here’s how we can figure it out for ourselves.
There are really only two things that determine the Earth’s temperature, or the temperature of any object that’s heated by an external source. The first is the energy that goes into it, which is primarily energy produced by the Sun and absorbed by the Earth. The second is the energy that leaves the Earth, which is primarily due to the Earth radiating it away.
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During the day, we absorb energy from the Sun; this is the power inputted into the Earth. During both the day and the night, we radiate energy back into space; that’s the power outputted by the Earth. This is why temperatures heat up during the day and cool off during the night, something that’s pretty much true for every planet that has both a day side and a night side.
The Earth and Moon, to scale, in terms of both size and albedo/reflectivity. Note how much fainter the Moon appears, as it absorbs light much better than Earth does.NASA / APOLLO 17
To know what the temperature of Earth ought to be, we need to first understand the energy that comes into our world. The source of this energy is the Sun, which radiates with a very well-measured power: 3.846 × 1026watts. The closer you are to the Sun, the more of this energy you absorb, while the farther away you are, the less you absorb. Over the timespan that we’ve measured the Sun’s power output, it’s varied by only about ±0.1%.
The anatomy of the Sun, including the inner core, which is the only place where fusion occurs. Even at the incredible temperatures of 15 million K, the maximum achieved in the Sun, the Sun produces less energy-per-unit-volume than a typical human body. The Sun’s volume, however, is large enough to contain over 10^28 full-grown humans, which is why even a low rate of energy production can lead to such an astronomical total energy output.NASA/JENNY MOTTAR
Sunlight spreads out in a sphere the farther away you are from it, meaning that if you’re twice as far away from the Sun, you only absorb one-quarter the radiation. At Earth’s distance from the Sun, we encounter a power of around 1,361 watts-per-square-meter; that’s how much hits the top of our atmosphere.
The Earth also orbits in an ellipse around the Sun, meaning that at some points it’s closer to the Sun, absorbing more radiation, while at other times it’s more distant, absorbing less. The variation from this effect is more like ±1.7%, with the largest amount of energy absorbed occurring in early January, and the least amount occurring in early July.
The way that sunlight spreads out as a function of distance means that the farther away from a power source you are, the energy that you intercept drops off as one over the distance squared.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER BORB
But that’s not the full story. The sunlight that hits us comes in a variety of wavelengths: ultraviolet, visible, and infrared, all of which carry energy. The atmosphere has many layers, some of which absorb that light, some of which allow it to transmit all the way down to the ground, and some of which reflect it back into space.
All told, about 77% of the energy from the Sun makes it down to Earth’s surface when the Sun is directly overhead, with that number dropping significantly when the Sun is lower on the horizon.
The atmosphere of the Earth, although only 5.15 x 10^18 kilograms in mass (just under 0.0001% of the Earth’s mass), plays a tremendous role in defining the properties of our surface.COSMONAUT FYODOR YURCHIKHIN / RUSSIAN SPACE AGENCY PRESS SERVICES
Some of that energy gets absorbed by Earth’s surface, while some of it gets reflected. Clouds reflect sunlight better than average, as do dry sand and icecaps. Other ground conditions are better at absorbing sunlight, including oceans, forests, wet soil, and savannahs. Depending on seasonal conditions on Earth, the individual locations on Earth vary tremendously in how much light they reflect or absorb.
On average, however, the Earth is very consistent: 31% of the incident radiation gets reflected, while 69% gets absorbed. As far as global effects go, this average has changed remarkably little over time, even as human civilization has transformed the landscape of our planet.
Although various components of the Earth’s surface display huge variable ranges in the amount of light they absorb or reflect, the global average reflectance/absorption of Earth, known as albedo, has remained constant at ~31%.KEN GOULD, NEW YORK STATE REGENTS EARTH SCIENCE
When we put in all the factors we know of:
the Sun’s power output,
the Earth’s physical size and distance from the Sun,
the amount of sunlight that Earth absorbs vs. reflects,
and the intrinsic variability in the Sun over time,
we can arrive at a way to calculate the average temperature of the Earth.
We calculate that Earth should be at 255 Kelvin (-18 °C / 0 °F), or well below freezing. And that’s absurd, and completely not reflective of reality.
The Earth as viewed from a composite of NASA satellite images from space in the early 2000s. Note the abundant presence of liquid water on the surface: an indicator of a temperate climate.NASA / BLUE MARBLE PROJECT
Instead, our planet has an average temperature of 288 Kelvin (15 °C / 59 °F), which is much warmer than the naive predictions we just painstakingly calculated. Our world is temperate, not frozen, and there’s one big reason for these predictions and observations to be so thoroughly off from one another: we’ve been ignoring the insulating effects of Earth’s atmosphere.
Sure, the Earth radiates the energy it absorbs back into space. But it doesn’t all go into space straightaway; the same atmosphere that wasn’t 100% transparent to sunlight also isn’t 100% transparent to the infrared light that Earth radiates. The atmosphere is made up of molecules that absorb radiation of varying wavelengths, depending on what the atmosphere is made out of.
The interplay between the atmosphere, clouds, moisture, land processes and the oceans all governs the evolution of Earth’s equilibrium temperature.NASA / SMITHSONIAN AIR & SPACE MUSEUM
For infrared radiation, nitrogen and oxygen — the majority of our atmosphere — act as though they’re virtually transparent. But there are three gases that are part of our atmosphere which aren’t transparent at all to the radiation Earth produces:
water vapor (H2O),
carbon dioxide (CO2),
and methane (CH4).
All three of these gases, when they’re present in any planet’s atmosphere, act the same way a blanket does when you place it over a warm-blooded animal’s body: they prevent the heat from escaping.
An emaciated orphaned elephant calf was rescued from the wild after tourists spotted him struggling. Kenya Wildlife Service and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust responded to reports of the wandering calf on March 18 and dispatched a rescue team to pick up the calf. Here, a blanket was placed over the elephant calf to help it retain its body heat: an extremely effective technique that humans take for granted in our daily lives.THE DSWT / BARCROFT IMAGES / BARCROFT MEDIA VIA GETTY IMAGES
In the case of an animal, they need to generate less of their own heat to maintain a constant temperature when there’s a blanket on them. And if the blanket is thicker, or if there are a greater number of thin blankets, they need to generate even less. This analogy extends to layers of clothing in any conditions; the more insulation you have around you, the less heat escapes, allowing you to maintain higher temperatures.
For a planet like ours, these gases prevent the infrared radiation from escaping, instead absorbing it and re-radiating it back to Earth. The more of these gases that are present, the longer and more efficiently Earth holds onto the Sun’s heat. We can’t change the energy input, so instead, as we add additional amounts of these gases, the temperature of our world simply goes up.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere can be determined from both ice core measurements, which easily go back hundreds of thousands of years, and by atmospheric monitoring stations, like those atop Mauna Loa. The increase in atmospheric CO2 since the mid-1700s is staggering, and continues unabated.NASA / NOAA
The water vapor content is something that’s determined by Earth’s oceans, the local temperature, humidity and dew point. When we add more water vapor to the atmosphere or take water vapor out of it, the overall water vapor content doesn’t change at all. As far as human activity goes, nothing we do has any impact on the net amount of H2O in the atmosphere.
The concentrations of the other two gases (CO2 and CH4), though, are primarily determined by human influence. It’s well-documented, for example, that CO2 has risen by more than 50% of its 1700s-era value due to the burning of fossil fuels coinciding with the start of the industrial revolution. According to NASA scientist Chris Colose:
50% of the 33 K greenhouse effect is due to water vapor, about 25% to clouds, 20% to CO2, and the remaining 5% to the other non-condensable greenhouse gases such as ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, and so forth.
At an average warming rate of 0.07º C per decade for as long as temperature records exist, the Earth’s temperature has not only increased, but continues to increase without any relief in sight.NOAA NATIONAL CENTERS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION, CLIMATE AT A GLANCE: GLOBAL TIME SERIES
All of this leads to a very straightforward conclusion: if we increase the concentrations of infrared-absorbing gases in our atmosphere, like CO2 and CH4, the Earth’s temperature will rise. Given that the temperature record unequivocally shows that the Earth is warming, and we have put these additional proverbial blankets onto our atmosphere, it seems like a slam dunk that this is cause-and-effect at work.
It cannot be proven that human activity is the cause of global warming, of course. That conclusion we drew is still a scientific inference. But based on what we know about planetary science, Earth’s atmosphere, human activity and the warming we’re observing, it seems like a very good one. When we quantify the other effects, it’s unlikely that anything else could be the cause. Not the Sun, not volcanoes, not any natural phenomenon that we know of.
The Earth is warming, and humans are the cause. The next steps — of what to do about it — are 100% up to us.
I am a Ph.D. astrophysicist, author, and science communicator, who professes physics and astronomy at various colleges. I have won numerous awards for science writing since 2008 for my blog, Starts With A Bang, inclu…
Today, as 2018 slips away, I have a new and excruciating awareness of the climate catastrophe that is breaking in slow motion.
So this year, because it’s all I know, I’m just going to keep on writing about veganism, keep on defending our trillions of annual victims, and keep on pleading with my species to wake up and realise what’s happening. I don’t know what it will take to make humanity sit up and take notice, but I have to keep trying.
I usually do a blog at this time of year – it’s an apt time to reflect on the changes that have taken place and a chance to evaluate the slow but steady progress that we’re making towards a vegan world. However this year I found my thoughts being drawn in an altogether different direction from usual; something has irrevocably changed since I last sat down to write my New Year thoughts.
Humans – facing up to what we do
In 2012, I became vegan in recognition of the brutal injustice that we are inflicting on every species on the planet by the unending ways that we ignore their vital interests in favour of our own trivial and frivolous preferences. Today, as 2018 slips away, I have a new and excruciating awareness of the climate catastrophe that is breaking in slow motion like a wave over this beautiful world, and we are running out of time to fix it. Let’s face it, our causative role in the atrocity, and our resulting peril as a species, are not even being acknowledged yet, at a time when we ALL need to be working on – and close to – the solution.
We hack and butcher our vicious way through the gentle and innocent creatures whose world this also is, ‘farming’ and mutilating them, violating, impregnating, breaking up their families and pumping out their breast milk, genetically altering them to increase egg production, slaughtering, sawing, dismembering and flaying the sweet individuals who face our slavering appetite for gore in uncomprehending bewilderment while we kill them by the trillions each year. We devour, excrete, wear, experiment on, and are ‘entertained’ by the pitiful ways that our despairing victims try to please us, their desperate attempts to make us stop hurting them. None of it works, despite the fact that none of what we do is necessary.
We are a species drunk on delusions of grandeur.
It’s real. We’re in big trouble
Be assured, there are charlatans who will say otherwise because the status quo of nonhuman exploitation is making vast sums of money for them, but as the old year slips away, the environmental and health related science against our use of others is continuing to pile up and the clamour for action to save the world grows louder. This year we all must surely be beginning to realise that humanity, and humanity alone, has brought our beloved planet, and all who travel through the black depths of space on this irreplaceable blue green orb, to the very brink of disaster. We are teetering now on the edge of the abyss.
It’s too late to complain about corporations and industries. It’s too late to carry on as before and blame everyone but ourselves for the disasters that afflict our world with increasing severity. We are consumers and it is our cash that is creating the demand that continues to drive vast agricultural industries; it is our cash that funds all the industries and practices that are wrecking our global home and depriving our children and grandchildren of a future. We are depriving them of a habitable world on which to even have a future. It’s time to take responsibility as individuals because if we don’t, we are condemning our loved ones to a world from our nightmares. We may be dead and gone, but our legacy of senseless corruption will remain as long as our species lasts – which isn’t likely to be very long at all as things are.
Global warming – the cosy myth of climate change
I know when I was younger, the term ‘global warming’ was occasionally mentioned, and here in the bitter cold of a Scottish winter, people smiled and nodded and agreed that a wee bit of warmth wouldn’t be a bad thing. How little I understood the mechanisms behind the idea of the ‘warmth’ that we all crave here.
I had no idea about the man-made build-up of greenhouse gasses that in turn was heating the planet, changing climates, bringing extreme weather events with increasing frequency and severity. I didn’t think about indigenous crops and species no longer being able to survive as their environment becomes increasingly hostile; the land, oceans and waterways clogged with effluent and assorted and non-biodegradable waste. I had no concept of melting icecaps raising sea levels and releasing even more greenhouses gas into an already seething atmosphere. To my younger self, the world seemed so unchanging, so unaffected by the life forms who swarm its surface. Earth seemed unbreakable.
Climate change – the consequences
Yet here we are as the year 2019 looms, well on our way to quite literally eating, using, and poisoning our planet to death. We are in it up to our necks, persisting in our brutal use of all other species while the very survival of our own is on the line as a direct result. New scientific reports support this view almost every week. All this devastation has been created in the recent past by a species whose technological burgeoning, enslaving, modifying, despoiling and displacing every other species and every environment to our own ends, while disregarding the tragic consequences of our indulgence.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, we sanctimoniously delude ourselves 1) that we care about other animals and ‘nature’, and 2) that we can claim superiority amongst the millions of other species in the world; millions whose number falls daily as a result of our actions in what is known and recognised as the 6th Mass Extinction event. Google it.
I recently wrote a blog that highlighted a recent report that we had 12 years left to change our ways [Twelve years. Twelve.]. Oh, I know humanity won’t disappear in 12 years; our doomed species is likely to struggle on for a considerable while after that point is reached. But the science is clear that by then – or even earlier according to some – it will be too late for us to avoid the consequences of our desecration of our fellow creatures and the planet we all share. And the effective word that our children and grandchildren will get to know too well for any of us to feel good about, is ‘struggle’. Life will become an increasingly hard struggle for them in ways we find difficult to imagine, and it won’t be just in terms of the occasional storm or flood that they’ll get used to dealing with.
How would I know about this ‘struggle’?
In what feels increasingly like a past life, I worked in the related areas of ‘Disaster Planning’ and ‘Business Continuity’ in local government. Because effective planning made it essential for me to understand the realities of what might be faced, I am only too well aware of the speed with which the veneer of ‘civilisation’ falls away in the event of even a relatively localised catastrophe such as a disease pandemic, or extreme climatic event such as an earthquake or flood.
For the most part, we live in a world where our every daily requirement relies on a largely unrecognised network of interdependent services; people going to work to create supplies, transporting these supplies to where they need to be to keep the population fed, clothed and moving. Supporting the population we have health and emergency services, schools, refuse collection, and such unrecognised essentials as crematoria – all with staff who need transport to get to work. All these services work in an equilibrium.
These systems are more fragile than we suppose and here in the UK we can see just how little it takes to upset that balance. In Scotland, all shops close on New Year’s Day and many on 2 January, and in the days leading up to this planned closure, we see panic buying that strips the shelves of vast supermarkets. That’s for a planned and short-termclosure – imagine an unplanned one.
All it takes is an interruption in any part of the service network and it’s like a house of cards. Once transport links fail, fuel supplies fail and food supplies fail because whatever is available cannot be distributed. Without transport, power stations, hospitals and schools can’t be staffed. Any available medical provision starts to be overwhelmed. Roads and infrastructure are impaired, but there’s no fuel at the filling stations anyway, people have to stay home to look after their children and no one can get to work to earn money. With nothing to eat and no way to feed their families, desperation takes hold. Public services are prioritised in increasingly futile efforts to cover the bare essentials. I could go on.
I have been employed to plan for eventualities such as these but even I can scarcely imagine this sort of scenario on a planetary scale. However I am convinced that our children – that’s yours and mine – may well become aware of it as an everyday reality. Disaster Planning will become a new and vital career choice. My heart breaks to realise that this is the world that my generation is bequeathing to our children; those children we love more than anyone else may find themselves living hand to mouth as they fight for survival on a dying planet.
Plant based consumption – it’s a start
Along with so many self-interested and scathing dismissals of the scientifically proven need for plant based consumption, are the same old calls for yet more laws, yet more regulations, yet more support for small-scale ‘farmers’ of animal-derived substances, the same old calls to penalise large-scale animal substance producers and so on. Now apart from the fact that the concept of penalising large-scale producers for meeting large-scale demand (see the obvious problem there?) demonstrates a woeful lack of a grasp on the basic mechanics of supply and demand, basically here we have a call for the same old, same old. These tired, worn, and desperately weary suggestions have shown no sign of working in the decades that they have been buzzing around, but making a big thing about calling for them to be implemented/enforced seeks to give the appearance of concern while indicating that the individual does not intend to take personal responsibility for their own actions. All the problems arising from those actions are conveniently the fault of ‘someone else’ who now apparently has responsibility for putting things right using the same tried and tested measures that have spectacularly failed animals for hundreds of years.
Without a widespread commitment to action, such pie-in-the-sky measures to regulate animal substance use are now physically impossible to achieve while the human population (currently 7.7 billion) spirals upwards, carrying with it the increased consumer demand for our fellow species to be used as inappropriate ‘food’ on a planet with dwindling resources.
We are out of time. Really.
What do we need? Action! When do we need it? Now!
As pointed out so eloquently by climate activist Greta Thunberg, the climate crisis should be the emergency first priority of every government and every one of us. Despite this, many are still in denial and in this world of sensationalised gossip-mongering that masquerades as journalism, denialists continue to find a ready platform for their anti-science opinions. However any one of us who has lived more than a decade or two can see clearly evidenced in the changing landscape, the disappearance of insect life, and the terrifyingly increasing incidence of extreme events, the torment of a planet entering its death throes.
Some appear to be sitting on the metaphorical fence. Waiting to be convinced. Thinking that ‘there’s time’; thinking it’s all bullshit but hell, if it is real, we can always take steps in the future if we’re absolutely forced into it. Sadly that is not the case. The time to act is now. By the time the doubters and deniers are beginning to wake from their torpor and believe what the scientists have been trying to tell us about for decades, it will be well beyond too late. We couldn’t backtrack, any more than we could stuff a bullet back in a gun once the trigger has been pulled.
Start with veganism
So this year, because it’s all I know, I’m just going to keep on writing about veganism, keep on defending our trillions of annual victims, and keep on pleading with my species to wake up and realise what’s happening. I don’t know what it will take to make humanity sit up and take notice, but I have to keep trying.
But now, as the bells of 2019 begin, the thing we need most is the thing that every single one of us should be working for, day and night, with every fibre of our being. A miracle.
The 20 warmest years ever recorded have been within the last 22 years, and the four warmest of those have been 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The WMO has stated that if these trends continue (and there is no reason to believe they won’t), global temperatures may rise from between 3-5 degrees Celsius (3-5°C) by 2100. The organization warned that if humans exploit all known fossil fuel reserves, “the temperature rise will be considerably higher” than even those catastrophic levels.
“It is worth repeating once again that we are the first generation to fully understand climate change and the last generation to be able to do something about it,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas announced in a recent WMO press release.
Yet even with this stark wake-up call, it may well already be too late, given that we are already living in the Sixth Mass Extinction. A study published earlier this year, conducted by an international team of researchers from 17 countries whose findings were published in Nature Geoscience, showed that global temperatures could eventually double those that have been predicted by climate modeling.
The vast majority of governments around the globe are responding in ways that range from laughable to pathetic, given the consequences that are upon us already.
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2018 has been yet another year of records and alarming developments as runaway climate change continues apace. Here are ten significant climate-related phenomena from 2018.
1. Arctic Sea Ice
The Arctic sea ice is close to historic lows in both extent, volume, and mass. The annual minimum Arctic ice volume, based on observations (not projections), is following a trend that shows we should expect periods of an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer by 2023, and possibly sooner.
Militaries from around the world, particularly from the US and Russia, are racing to stake claims in the region and project their presences there in order to advantage of the fragile Arctic region for exploitation of oil and gas reserves, as well as those countries actively exploring shipping across the increasingly accessible region as the sea ice continues to melt away.
The loss of Arctic Sea ice will lock in several runaway climate feedback loops that will dramatically altar global climate, causing water availability and food-growing capacity to be severely diminished across large swaths of the planet.
2. Increasingly Warm Oceans
Earth’s oceans have already absorbed 93 percent of the warmth humans have generated since just the 1970s.
We continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, 25 percent of whichcontinues to be absorbed by the oceans, along with the heat the CO2 traps in the atmosphere.
2017 was the second warmest year ever recorded for the oceans, and according to NASA, the five hottest years ever recorded for the oceans have occurred since 2010. The oceans are thus becoming increasingly warmer and more acidic with each passing day.
And, according to the WMO, “For each 3-month period until September 2018, ocean heat content was the highest or second highest on record.”
One extremely worrying development in the Arctic came in the form of bubbling lakes. A report showed that large numbers of lakes across the region were leaking methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
In what is perhaps a harbinger of things to come, one lake in particular was found to be bubbling vigorously as methane from below escaped through the lake and into the atmosphere.
These lakes that are bubbling from methane being released from the thawing permafrost beneath them don’t completely freeze during the winters, which causes them release even more methane as the permafrost does not reach the cold temperatures it had prior to this phenomenon. Hence, another runaway climate feedback loop is born.
More bad news about methane came in the form of a report illustrating how large amounts of methane (up to 41 tons daily) were being released from a glacier in Iceland via its meltwater. This is an amount equal to the methane produced by more than 136,000 belching cows.
Wildfires, amped up by climate change, ravaged many regions of the world in 2018.
Insects, and hence the global food web, are in crisis, according to several studies, one of which was published earlier this year.
A study published this October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed how massive the collapse of insects is, and that it is far more widespread that previously known. Climate change is implicated as the leading cause.
This comes on the heels of a study from last year showing a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in nature preserves across Germany. This was a dramatic uptick from a 2014 study by an international team of biologists which estimated in the previous 35 years the abundance of invertebrates like bees and beetles had decreased by 45 percent.
Everywhere long-term data on insects is available, particularly across Europe, the numbers of insects are plummeting.
“This study in PNAS is a real wake-up call — a clarion call — that the phenomenon could be much, much bigger, and across many more ecosystems,” David Wagner, an expert in invertebrate conservation at the University of Connecticut, told the Washington Post. “This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read.” He added, “I’m scared to death.”
Without these pollinators, which are being annihilated, the already beleaguered global food production system is in even greater danger of collapse.
6. A Broken Global Food System
The global food system is already broken, according to the 130 of the world’s science and medicine academies.
Tim Benton, a professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds who was involved in the large report, told the Guardian: “Whether you look at it from a human health, environmental or climate perspective, our food system is currently unsustainable and given the challenges that will come from a rising global population that is a really [serious] thing to say.”
Staggeringly, nearly one billion people went hungry last year. This number is guaranteed to climb, due to worsening climate impacts as atmospheric CO2 content continues to increase and the nutritional value of crops decreases as the result.
As Truthout reported earlier this year, two studies investigating corn and vegetables warned of an increasing risk of food shocks around the world, along with malnutrition, if climate change continues unchecked.
Both studies, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed how climate change will increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures across the planet’s largest corn-growing regions, as well as sapping nutrients from critical vegetables. For example, an increase of 4°C — which is essentially the current mid-range trajectory we are on to reach by 2100 — could cut US corn production nearly in half. Meanwhile, the likelihood of simultaneous crop failures for the four biggest corn exporters (US, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine) suffering yield losses of 10 percent or greater increases from 7 percent at 2°C warming to 86 percent at 4°C.
Another study warned of how climate change already poses a serious threat to the nutritional value of crops, and a lack of action could well have major global implications for both food security and global health. The same study showed that global crop yields could be reduced by nearly one-third with a 4°C temperature increase.
The country has been physically, socially, and psychologically devastated as tens of thousands of people have struggled to survive without electricity, health care or basic services long after the reconstruction of the island should have taken place.
Meanwhile, increasingly intense and extensive heat waves, coupled with broadening drought, and climate change forecasts showing more of all of these, revealed that countries across North Africa and along the Persian Gulf will become literally uninhabitable in the not-so-distant future. Rising seas infiltrating water tables, and thus contaminating many people’s drinking water source, are also going to be a large factor in this equation.
8. Great Barrier Reef
A record heat wave in Queensland, Australia, in November shattered the previous high temperature record by a stunning 5.4°C. The heat wave alarmed scientists, raising fears of another bleaching event that could further weaken the already beleaguered Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world.
The heatwave increased already above-average marine temperatures, driving up the likelihood of the coral once again dying off in the overheated waters.
Marine heatwaves in 2016 and 2017 already killed off and/or damaged large regions of the Great Barrier Reef, as scientists worried about the fact that without breaks in the annual heatwaves, the coral will not have a chance to recover.
The scientific consensus shows that coral reefs typically need a minimum of 10-12 years to recover from bleaching events. However, climate change is causing the bleaching events to occur on nearly an annual basis now.
Hence, a 2011 NOAA report warning that the planet could lose most of its coral reefs by 2050 is looking increasingly like an over-conservative projection.
A landmark UN report released in October served as an imminent warning that if governments fail to act swiftly and dramatically (and within the next dozen years), droughts, flooding, and increasingly extreme heat waves will increase drastically.
In the Paris Climate Change Agreement, global governments pledged to try to keep warming within a limit of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in order to prevent increasingly catastrophic impacts.
In the recent UN report, experts stated that without urgent and unprecedented changes, meeting the 1.5°C limit would be impossible.
The report pointed out several important thresholds: just an extra 0.5°C of warming beyond 1.5°C would essentially completely annihilate corals and dramatically accelerate the loss of what is left of the Arctic sea ice, and the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress would be at least 50 percent higher.
Additionally, at 2°C warming, extremely hot days would become much more common, there would be more forest fires and the number of heat-related deaths would increase. Plants would be nearly twice as likely to lose half their habitat than they would at 1.5°C, and sea level rise would increase by at least 10cm.
10. Nowhere Near Meeting Climate Change Goals
While many world leaders met in Poland for the COP24 climate talks in December, it was already clear that we are nowhere near on track to attain the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
Given we are currently already at 1.1°C, the Paris climate agreement in 2015 was non-binding, and the majority of the planet’s countries are still nowhere near doing what would actually be necessary to curtail emissions radically, we are on track to see at least 3.5°C warming by 2100, and much more after that.
WASHINGTON — Scientists are seeing surprising melting in Earth’s polar regions at times they don’t expect, like winter, and in places they don’t expect, like eastern Antarctica. New studies and reports issued this week at a major Earth sciences conference paint one of the bleakest pictures yet of dramatic warming in the Arctic and Antarctica.
Alaskan scientists described to The Associated Press Tuesday never-before-seen melting and odd winter problems, including permafrost that never refroze this past winter and wildlife die-offs.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Tuesday released its annual Arctic report card, detailing the second warmest year on record in the Arctic and problems, including record low winter sea ice in parts of the region, increased toxic algal blooms, which are normally a warm water phenomenon, and weather changes in the rest of the country attributable to what’s happening in the far North.
“The Arctic is experiencing the most unprecedented transition in human history,” report lead author Emily Osborne, chief of Arctic research for NOAA, said Tuesday.
What’s happening is a big deal, said University of Colorado environmental science program director Waleed Abdalati, NASA’s former chief scientist who was not part of the NOAA report.
“It’s a new Arctic. We’ve gone from white to blue,” said Abdalati, adding that he normally wouldn’t use the word “scary” but it applies. That means other problems.
“Continued warming of the Arctic atmosphere and ocean are driving broad change in the environmental system in predicted, and, also, unexpected ways,” the NOAA report said.
One of the most noticeable problems was a record low sea ice in winter in the Bering Sea in 2017 and 2018, scientists said. In February the Bering Sea “lost an area of ice the area of Idaho,” said Dartmouth College engineering professor Donald Perovich, a report card co-author.
This is a problem because the oldest and thickest sea ice is down 95 percent from 30 years ago. In 1985, about one-sixth of Arctic sea ice was thick multi-year ice, now it is maybe one-hundredth, Perovich said. University of Alaska Fairbanks marine mammal biologist Gay Sheffield not only studies the record low ice, but she lives it daily in Nome, far north on the Bering Sea.
“I left Nome and we had open water in December,” Sheffield said at the American Geophysical Union conference in Washington. “It’s very much impacting us.”
“Having this area ice free is having this massive environmental change,” Sheffield said, adding there’s been a “multi-species die off” of ocean life. She said that includes the first spring mass die off of seals along the Bering Strait.
Ornithologist George Divoky who has been studying the black guillemots ofCooper Island for 45 years noticed something different this year. In the past, 225 nesting pairs of the seabirds would arrive at his island. This past winter it was down to 85 pairs but only 50 laid eggs and only 25 had successful hatches. He blamed the lack of winter sea ice.
“It looked like a ghost town,” Divoky said.
With overall melting, especially in the summer, herds of caribou and wild reindeer have dropped about 55 percent — from 4.7 million to 2.1 million animals — because of the warming and the flies and parasites it brings, said report card co-author Howard Epstein of the University of Virginia.
University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Vladimir Romanovsky said he was alarmed by what happened to the permafrost — ground that stays frozen years on end. This past year, Romanovsky found 25 spots that used to freeze in January, then February, but never froze this year.
Because of warming, the Arctic is “seeing concentrations of algal toxins moving northward” infecting birds, mammals and shellfish to become a public health and economic problem, said report card co-author Karen Frey.
The warmer Arctic and melting sea ice has been connected to shifts in the jet stream that have brought extreme winter storms in the East in the past year, Osborne said. But it’s not just the Arctic. NASA’s newest space-based radar, Icesat 2, in its first couple of months has already found that the Dotson ice shelf in Antarctica has lost more than 390 feet (120 meters) in thickness since 2003, said radar scientist Ben Smith of the University of Washington.
Another study released Monday by NASA found unusual melting in parts of East Antarctica, which scientists had generally thought was stable. Four glaciers at Vincennes Bay lost nine feet of ice thickness since 2008, said NASA scientists Catherine Walker and Alex Gardner.
Loss of ice sheets in Antarctica could lead to massive rise in sea level.
“We’re starting to see change that’s related to the ocean,” Gardner said. “Believe it or not this is the first time we’re seeing it in this place.”
The greenhouse gases driving climate change have reached highs not seen in at least 3 million years, prompting UN scientists to warn the “window of opportunity” to tackle emissions is rapidly closing.
Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane are all still on the rise, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has said, and there has been a resurgence in ozone-depleting CFCs.
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said WMO secretary general, Petteri Taalas.
In its annual bulletin on greenhouse gas levels, the WMO said there is no sign of a reversal in the trend in increasing emissions which are driving climate change, sea level rises, extreme weather and making oceans more acidic.
“The science is clear,” Mr Taalas said. “Without rapid cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth.
“The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”
Average concentrations of carbon dioxide hit new highs of 405.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2017, up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015 – 2.5 times the pre-industrial revolution concentration.
“CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” said WMO deputy secretary-general Elena Manaenkova.
“Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” she said.
Levels of methane have soared to 3.5 times their pre-industrial levels, with emissions largely coming from cattle, rice paddy fields and oil and gas leaks.
Farming methods including use of fertilizers is largely behind the rise in nitrous oxide, which has doubled since the pre-industrial era.
The latest findings come after a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found net emissions of carbon dioxide must reach zero by around 2050 to keep temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and reduce the risks of climate change.
IPCC chairman Hoesung Lee said: “The new IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5C shows that deep and rapid reductions of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will be needed in all sectors of society and the economy.
“The WMO greenhouse gas bulletin, showing a continuing rising trend in concentrations of greenhouse gases, underlines just how urgent these emissions reductions are.”
Professor Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, said she was “not surprised but I am very concerned” the major greenhouse gases are rising unabated.
“It seems the urgency and extent of the actions needed to address climate change have not sunk in.
“Low-carbon technologies like wind, solar, and electric transport need to become mainstream, with old-fashion polluting fossils pushed out rapidly,” she said.
The side event, which featured representatives from the US government and energy industry, saw panellists insist so-called “clean” fossil fuels had a role to play in tackling global warming.
Their presentations suggested innovation and investment in these energy sources would not only make them more competitive, but significantly decrease emissions as well.
Proceedings were interrupted by activists infuriated by the administration’s continued focus on polluting fuels.
The overwhelming majority of qualified experts agree that coal, oil and gas must be rapidly and completely phased out if the world is to stand a chance of meeting its ambitious climate targets and avoid catastrophic environmental consequences.
According to the US State Department, the event was intended to “showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible, as well as the use of emission-free nuclear energy”.
This marks the second year in a row the US government has tried to promote fossil fuels at a UN climate event.
While the event was meant to focus on “clean” fossil fuels, Donald Trump has made clear his enthusiasm for coal, the dirtiest variety available, very clear.
Even as coal consumption has fallen in the US, the president has attempted to reverse this trend by announcing a rollback of Obama-era standards that would make building new plants easier.
“It’s ludicrous for Trump officials to claim that they want to clean up fossil fuels, while dismantling standards that would do just that,” said Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute.
“Since taking office, this administration has proposed to roll back measures to cut methane leaks from oil and gas operations, made it easier for companies to dump coal ash into drinking water, and just days ago proposed easing carbon pollution rules for new coal-fired power plants.
“This sideshow in Poland would be laughable if the consequences of climate change weren’t so deadly serious.”
Rachel Cleetus, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said considering the urgent warnings to cut emissions, the Trump administration’s ongoing promotion of coal “stands in stark contrast with this climate reality”.
“Instead of feeding an addiction to fossil fuels to line the pockets of coal company executives, the US should be leading the world in transitioning towards low-carbon energy sources, driving innovation, prosperity and a healthier future for all,” she said.
Many nations, including the UK, have already committed to phasing out coal completely over the next few years due to its disproportionate contribution to carbon emissions.
The US, on the other hand, has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, but sent a small delegation to Poland since it is still officially a member.
Around 100 activists including Indigenous and youth leaders disrupted the start of the event, chanting “keep it in the ground” in referencing to ending fossil fuel extraction.
Aneesa Khan, a youth delegation leader from campaign group SustainUS who was among the protesters, called the US-sponsored event “a joke”.
“The US elite has profited off fossil fuels for decades. It’s time for them to pay up and support to the world transition away from dirty energy,” she said.
As the controversial event kicked off, global investors managing $32tn (£25tn) in assets called for a total end to coal as a source of energy, and greater action from world leaders on climate change.
World leaders are gathering in Katowice, Poland, to negotiate the world’s response to climate change. The 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) will last from December 3-14 and its primary aim is to reach agreement on how the Paris Agreement of 2015 will be implemented. In a year which saw record weather extremes and an extraordinary announcement from the UN that we have only 12 years to limit catastrophe, the need for meaningful progress has never been greater.
To explain how the COP works and what it means for the fight against climate change, we asked our academic experts to share their views.
Rulebook: this is the conference’s main goal – to establish consensus on how nations should implement the Paris Agreement and report their progress.
Emissions targets: COP24 is expected to resolve how emissions will be regulated, although it’s unlikely that sanctions for countries failing to meet their targets will be agreed on.
Finance: the rich countries need to find US$20 billion to fulfil their pledge of providing US$100 billion a year in funding to help poorer countries adapt to climate change by 2020. Agreeing when this will be paid is likely to be contentious.
Role of “big” states: the international political climate casts a long shadow over the talks. Domestic politics in the US, the UK, Russiaand Brazil threaten to undermine climate change leadership among larger emitters at COP24.
How did we get here?
1997: Creation of Kyoto Protocol, which set binding emissions targets. It failed as the US did not ratify it.
2009: COP15 in Copenhagen failed to yield any agreement on binding commitments.
2013: COP19 in Warsaw failed to finalise any binding treaty.
2015: COP21 in Paris generated considerable optimism with agreement reached on a legally binding action plan. But two years later, US president Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.
Where are we on the road to catastrophic climate change?
The world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are most at risk from the effects of climate change, with many having to migrate from sea level rise, crop failure and pollution. Sahia – a woman from Bangladesh– lost her home and her family’s livelihood.
As global temperatures near 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the limit set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, scientists are increasingly anxious about how changes in the environment could work to accelerate the pace at which the rest of Earth is warming.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and strange recent events here, such as heathland turning brown, could be a sign that previous natural stores of carbon are no longer working properly.
Methane released from Arctic permafrost and other rapid changes could take the matter of limiting greenhouse gas emissions out of our hands in the near future. A paper published in 2018 warned that runaway climate change could lead the planet into a “Hothouse Earth” state:
What does the science demand we do to tackle climate change?
Whatever is agreed at COP24 will be what is politically possible, but experts urge us to bear in mind what the science demands to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and keeping global warming below or at 1.5°C.
We’re failing to cut down our emissions, the technologies for NETs [Negative Emissions Technologies] don’t exist at any meaningful scale yet, and there are no political drivers in place to enforce their deployment. There is also a real risk of a dramatic rise in methane in the near future. COP24 will have to consider emergency plans – Hugh Hunt, reader in engineering, University of Cambridge.
A more radical approach at COP24 could highlight the ample opportunity there is for slowing climate change by restoring habitats. For many countries, reforestation is a more immediate way to slash emissions and make society happier and healthier in the process.
However, while the climate has changed radically since global warming was first declared a man-made phenomenon 30 years ago, international efforts to tackle it haven’t. Many experts argue that the involvement of commercial interests at COP24 limits what is possible for mitigating climate change.
Representatives from pension funds, asset managers and large banks will be lobbying world leaders to favour investments in infrastructure and energy production as part of the transition towards a low-carbon economy.
Finance sector sees this transition as an opportunity to generate profit. If climate change is fought according to the rules of Wall Street, says Ferrando, people and projects will be supported only on the basis of whether they will make money.
To bring about radical action on the environment, many academics believe we need an equally radical social movement. They argue that protesters should seize the initiative to attack the root causes of climate change, such as economic growth.
Debunking the climate change denialists
2018 marks 30 years since climate change was first declared a man-made phenomenon, during a congressional committee in Washington DC. The testimony of NASA climatologist James Hansen was met with both concern and scepticism at the time, but the science is in: anthropogenic climate change is incontrovertible.
Climate change is happening and is being caused by humans. This is the academic consensus, backed by science. But for climate change deniers:
97.5% of scientists who had published peer-reviewed research about climate change agreed with the consensus that global warming is human-caused (2010 study from Princeton University).
97.1% of relevant climate papers published over 21 years affirmed human-caused global warming (2013 study involving multiple institutions).
97% consensus in published climate research found to be robust and consistent with other surveys of climate scientists and peer-reviewed studies (2016 study involving multiple institutions).
What do the other 3% think?
There is no consistent theme among the reasoning of the other 3%. Some say “there is no warming”, others suggest the sun, cosmic rays or the oceans as a reason.
Why do some still not believe in human-caused climate change?
An analysis by American professor Robert Brulle found that from 2003 to 2010, organisations promoting climate misinformation received more than US$900m of corporate funding a year. From 2008, funding through untraceable donor networks (so-called “dark money ATM”) increased. This allowed corporations to fund climate science denial while hiding their support.
In 2016, an analysis of more than 40,000 texts from contrarian sources by Justin Farrell, another American professor, found that organisations who received corporate funding published more climate misinformation.
At an individual level, however, there is considerable evidence that shows that political ideology is the biggest predictor of climate science denial. People who fear the solutions to climate change, such as increased regulation of industry, are more likely to deny that there is a problem in the first place.
Consequently, groups promoting political ideology that opposes market regulation have been prolific sources of misinformation about climate change, as three American academics found.
Five Techniques used by climate change deniers to look out for:
Fake experts: create the general impression of an ongoing debate by casting doubt on scientific consensus.
Logical fallacies: logically false arguments that lead to an invalid conclusion. These usually appear in myths, in the form of science misrepresentation or oversimplification.
Impossible expectations: demand unrealistic standards of proof before acting on the science. Any uncertainty is highlighted to question the consensus.
Cherry-picking: best described as wilfully ignoring a mountain of inconvenient evidence in favour of a small molehill that serves a desired purpose.
Conspiracy theories: if the evidence is against you, then it has to be manipulated by mysterious forces in pursuit of a nefarious agenda. It is central to denial.