New York Times: The Year in Climate Change

It was a big year for climate reporting, and not necessarily for the good news.

Wildfires consumed vast parts of the Amazon and Arctic alike. Greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, but President Trump served notice to quit the Paris climate agreement. The latest United Nations climate talks produced one of the worst outcomes in 25 years, with the biggest polluters blocking even the suggestion of more ambitious targets.

Nonetheless, the year’s best climate articles found new ways to inform and surprise readers. In doing so, these articles, from across The New York Times and other publications, offered their own measure of hope: that by exposing some of the specific failures of governments, businesses and citizens, we might do better.

Favorites from The New York Times climate team:

It’s a vast, invisible climate menace. We made it visible.

Using an infrared camera and a tiny airplane crammed with scientific instruments, Jonah M. Kessel and Hiroko Tabuchi made visible the large-scale methane leaks from oil and gas operations in Texas’s vast Permian Basin. Their work illustrated the consequences of the Trump administration’s efforts to further weaken regulations on leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to global warming.

A quarter of humanity faces a looming water crisis

As the Earth warms, the combination of changing rainfall patterns, rising evaporation rates and growing populations has put more places at risk of running out of water. Somini Sengupta and Weiyi Cai used data from the World Resources Institute to show where that threat is most dire, and looked at ways to address it, including recycling wastewater, capturing and storing more rain and helping farmers switch to crops that require less water.

They grew up around fossil fuels. Now, their jobs are in renewables.

Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Critics of cutting carbon emissions often cite concerns about the effect on people who earn their living from fossil fuels. But as John Schwartz wrote, there are now more jobs in renewable energy than in mining or burning coal. And in many cases, those jobs are going to people whose parents or grandparents worked in mines or oil fields. He shared their stories, exploring not just the shift in power generation, but also why it’s a cause for hope.

The most detailed map of auto emissions in America

Transportation now exceeds power generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and the vast majority of those come from driving. Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu mapped those emissions, showing readers how different cities compare. They found that per capita emissions have increased in most metro areas, despite the growing attention to climate change. The Trump administration’s rollback of auto emissions standards threatens to exacerbate the problem.

Your questions about food and climate change, answered

Cari Vander Yacht

Our daily decisions about what to eat have a profound impact on the climate. Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart guided readers through those impacts and explained what to consider when choosing what kinds of food to buy, while offering practical options for reducing carbon footprints. And no, it doesn’t mean you have to stop eating meat.

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James Hansen: The Wheels of Justice

Image result for james Hansen panel presenters

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but they turn.  The judicial branch of government can be agonizingly slow, yet lawsuits form a crucial front in the fight to assure a healthy climate and a bright future for young people and future generations.

Lawsuits against governments receive attention, deservedly so.  Our government is violating Constitutional rights of young people such as equal protection of the law and due process.

Dan Galpern, my legal adviser, and I argued at the recent COP25 meeting in Madrid that it is important to put increased emphasis on lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry.

My reason for such a focus is not to punish the industry, even though they may deserve it.  I am more interested in climate solutions, and the fossil fuel industry has the resources to become a big part of the solutions, if they redirect resources toward clean energy.

We cannot count on the government to do the investment and R&D fast enough.  Better innovation potential exists in the private sector, which the government should encourage.  An example is space launch capability.  NASA, predictably, became a government bureaucracy.  However, there were people in NASA smart enough to foster the private sector.  Result: we have innovative capabilities such as Space X, with launch costs reduced a factor of 10 – we no longer need to rely on Russia to launch our heavy payloads!

In my remarks at COP25, I pointed out that the President of Exxon Research and Engineering in 1982 correctly described the climate threat: the climate system is characterized by a delayed response and amplifying feedbacks.  Together these imply an urgency for anticipatory actions.

The obvious, crucial required action was development of carbon-free energy.  Instead, Exxon chose to invest in ‘fracking’ and continued reliance on fuels of ever greater climate footprint.  They complemented this with a disinformation campaign, including a pretense that they were working hard on clean coal and renewables, as I noted in Fire on Planet Earth, while knowing full well that global fossil fuel emissions would continue to rise.

How can we get industry to become a big part of the solution?  A combination of carrot and stick is needed.  A rising carbon fee will provide the carrot – momentum for that is growing – we even have Presidential candidates in the U.S. who actually understand carbon fee & dividend.

The stick can be lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry, for example as Dan Galpern discussed at COP25.  Dan and I have been working together for several years, via my non-profit CSAS.inc, which is separate from the CSAS (Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions) program that I direct within the Columbia University Earth Institute.  CSAS.inc permits us to pursue legal cases, such as the recent ones listed on the eyechart, and CSAS.inc also allows us to avoid overhead costs.    I will mention some of these cases in upcoming Communications.

Most of these past and ongoing cases tend to be defensive, e.g., efforts to block expansion of coal mining, tar sands development or deforestation.  We need to put more effort into offense.

Given the tremendous public support that we received recently (It’s A Wonderful Life) for CSAS, I am reluctant to seek support again in 2019 – but those who have not given, or who wish to contribute specifically to our litigation efforts, may wish to contribute to CSAS.inc. directly at https://donorbox.org/support-climate-science-awareness-and-solutions. Instructions for gift checks and wire transfers are available here.  Eunbi (ej2347@columbia.edu) can provide additional information if you have any questions on how to contribute.


 

BBC: The big science and environment stories of 2019

This year, millions of people around the world mobilised in protest to highlight the dire emergency facing our planet. Could 2019 prove to be the year when talk turned to action on the climate crisis?

We looked back at some of the biggest stories of the year in science and the environment.

The year the world woke up?

Greta Thunberg joins a climate strike march in VancouverImage copyright REUTERS
Greta Thunberg (centre) is surrounded by demonstrators at a climate strike march in Vancouver, Canada in October 

In 2019, the reaction to the ongoing climate crisis switched up another gear. Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, the climate strike movement exploded this year. Millions took part in mass protests during the course of the year in countries as diverse as Australia, Uganda, Colombia, Japan, Germany and the UK.

Greta chose to make a statement when she sailed – rather than flew – to a UN climate meeting in New York. Summing up the trajectory for many who have joined popular climate movements, she told chief environment correspondent Justin Rowlatt: “I felt like I was the only one who cared about the climate and ecological crisis… it makes me feel good that I’m not alone in this fight.”

In April, astronomers released the much anticipated first image of a black hole. This is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The picture was taken by a network of eight telescopes across the world and shows what was described as “the heavyweight champion of black holes”.

The 40 billion km-wide, spacetime-warping monster features an intense halo, or “ring of fire”, around the black hole caused by superheated gas falling in.

The image caused a sensation and raised the profile of one computer scientist working on the project. 29-year-old Dr Katie Bouman helped develop an algorithm that allowed the image to be created. A picture of her with hands clasped over her mouth, barely containing her excitement at the astronomical picture on her laptop, quickly went viral.

But her fame led to trolling, with some accusing her of hogging credit for a male colleague’s work. That team member, Dr Andrew Chael, quickly came to her defence. In an interview for the BBC 100 Women series, Dr Bouman said: “At first I was really taken aback by it. But… I do think it is important that we highlight the women in these roles.

“Greta Thunberg: “I feel like what I am doing is meaningful”

The UK’s Extinction Rebellion (XR) was making its point through non-violent direct action in 2019. The group, which aims to compel government action on climate change, occupied five prominent sites across central London in April 2019. Notably, they parked a pink boat in the middle of busy Oxford Circus bearing the phrase “Tell the Truth”.

This year also saw the UK’s Parliament – along with individual councils around the country – declare a climate emergency, granting what had been one of XR’s key demands.

But there were also setbacks to political efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The US – one of the world’s top emitters – began the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement. This deal was conceived in 2015 with the intention of keeping the global average temperature to below 2C. President Donald Trump said the pact was bad for the US economy and jobs.

This year’s UN climate meeting – COP25 – ended in a deal many described as disappointing. The result means that the onus now falls on the UK to resolve many of the most challenging questions at COP26 in Glasgow in 2020.

‘Ring of fire’

Black holeImage copyright EHT COLLABORATION

The first ever picture of a black hole: It’s surrounded by a halo of bright gas pulled in by the hole’s gravity
 

In April, astronomers released the much anticipated first image of a black hole. This is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The picture was taken by a network of eight telescopes across the world and shows what was described as “the heavyweight champion of black holes”.

The 40 billion km-wide, spacetime-warping monster features an intense halo, or “ring of fire”, around the black hole caused by superheated gas falling in.

The image caused a sensation and raised the profile of one computer scientist working on the project. 29-year-old Dr Katie Bouman helped develop an algorithm that allowed the image to be created. A picture of her with hands clasped over her mouth, barely containing her excitement at the astronomical picture on her laptop, quickly went viral.

But her fame led to trolling, with some accusing her of hogging credit for a male colleague’s work. That team member, Dr Andrew Chael, quickly came to her defence. In an interview for the BBC 100 Women series, Dr Bouman said: “At first I was really taken aback by it. But… I do think it is important that we highlight the women in these roles.”

Media Katie Bouman: “I wasn’t expecting the attention I got”

Land and oceans under threat

Two major reports from the UN’s climate science body revealed in sharp relief the extent to which humanity is ravaging Earth’s land surface and her oceans. The first of these documents from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned that we must stop abusing the land if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided.

The report outlined how our actions were degrading soils, expanding deserts, flattening forests and driving other species to the brink of extinction. Scientists involved in the UN process also explained that switching to a plant-based diet could help combat climate change.

Coral bleachingImage copyright GETTY IMAGES

Even 1.5C of warming could devastate coral reefs 

The second report, dealing with the world’s oceans and frozen regions, detailed how waters are rising, ice is melting and species are being forced to move. As co-ordinating lead author Dr Jean-Pierre Gattuso said, “The blue planet is in serious danger right now, suffering many insults from many different directions and it’s our fault.” The authors believe that the changes we’ve set in motion are coming back to haunt us. Sea level rise will have profound consequences for low-lying coastal areas where almost 700 million people live.

Far-out fly-by

ArrokothImage copyright NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ROMAN TKACHENKO

 

On 1 January, Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft made the most distant ever exploration of a Solar System object. Launched all the way back in 2006, it performed its primary task – a flyby study of the Pluto system – in 2015. But with plenty of gas still in the tank, mission scientists directed the spacecraft towards a new target, an object called 2014 MU 69.

MU 69, later dubbed Ultima Thule, and more recently Arrokoth, may be fairly typical of the primitive, icy objects occupying a distant zone of our Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt.

There are hundreds of thousands of objects out there like it, and their frigid state holds clues to how all planetary bodies came into being some 4.6 billion years ago.

Earlier this year, scientists presented details of what they had found at a major conference in Houston. They had determined that Arrokoth’s two lobes formed when distinct objects collided at just 2-3m/s, about the speed you would run into a wall, according to team member Kirby Runyon.

Greenland’s record melt

Steffen Olsen's picture of sea iceImage copyright STEFFEN OLSEN


Climate scientist Steffen Olsen took this picture while travelling across melted sea ice in north-west Greenland

In September, former UK chief scientist Sir David King said he was scared by the faster-than-expected pace of climate-related changes. One of the most shocking examples this year of the extreme events Sir David spoke of was surely the record ice melt in Greenland.

In June, temperatures soared well above normal levels in the Danish territory, causing about half its ice sheet surface to experience some melting. As David Shukman reported on his trip to the region, during 2019 alone, it lost enough ice to raise the average global sea level by more than a millimetre.

Underlining the rapid nature of the change, he returned to a glacier he had filmed in 2004 to find that it had thinned by as much as 100m over the period.

A visit to the Sermilik glacier, which is rapidly melting

Greenland’s ice sheet stores so much frozen water that if the whole of it melted, it would raise sea levels worldwide by up to 7m. Although that would take hundreds or thousands of years, polar scientists told the American Geophysical Union meeting in December that Greenland was losing its ice seven times faster than in the 1990s.

Prof Andy Shepherd, of Leeds University, said: “The simple formula is that around the planet, six million people are brought into a flooding situation for every centimetre of sea-level rise.”

Rocks from space

BennuImage copyright NASA

3D model of the asteroid Bennu, created using data from Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission 

While civilisation-threatening asteroids are a staple of the movies, the probability of a sizeable space rock hitting our planet is very low. But as the dinosaurs found out, the risk does increase with time. Some 19,000 near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) are being monitored, but many lurk undetected by telescopes, so there is always potential for a bolt-from-the-blue.

In March, Nasa scientists told the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) that a big fireball had exploded in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of 2018. The space rock barrelled in without warning and detonated with 10 times the energy released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Then in July, an asteroid the size of a football field buzzed Earth, coming within 65,000km of our planet’s surface – about a fifth the distance to the Moon. The 100m-wide rock was detected just days before it passed Earth.

Meanwhile, two robotic spacecraft have been examining different NEAs close-up. Scientists working on Japan’s Hayabusa mission reported that their asteroid, Ryugu, was made of rubble blasted off a bigger object. And the US Osiris-Rex spacecraft detected plumes of particles erupting from the surface of its target, Bennu.

‘Dirty secret’ boosts warming

SF6Image copyright GETTY IMAGES

Electrical switchgear the world over often uses SF6 to prevent fires 

The gas sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) isn’t a household name. But as the most powerful greenhouse gas known to science, it could play an increasingly important role in discussions about climate change.

As environment correspondent Matt McGrath reported in September, levels are on the rise as an unintended consequence of the boom in green energy. The cheap, non-flammable gas is used to prevent short circuits and fires in electrical switches and circuit breakers known collectively as “switchgear”.

As more wind turbines are built around the world, more of these electrical safety devices are being installed. The vast majority use SF6.

Although overall atmospheric concentrations are small for now, the global installed base of SF6 is expected to grow by 75% by 2030. Worryingly, there’s no natural mechanism that destroys or absorbs the gas once it’s been released.

Reigning supreme

Sycamore processorImage copyright GOOGLE

 

Quantum computers hold huge promise. The “classical” machines we use today compute in much the same way as we do by hand. Quantum computers promise faster speeds and the ability to solve problems that are beyond even the most powerful conventional types. But scientists have struggled to build devices with enough units of information (quantum bits) to make them competitive with classical computers.

A quantum machine had not surpassed a conventional one until this year. In October, Google announced that its advanced quantum processor, Sycamore, had achieved “quantum supremacy” for the first time. Researchers said it had performed a specific task in 200 seconds that would take the world’s best supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.

IBM, which has been working on quantum computers of its own, questioned some of Google’s figures. But the achievement represents an important step towards fulfilling some of the predictions made for

SOURCE

Global warming could be boon for prairie crops

Canada is one of the few regions of the world where crop yields will benefit from global warming, according to a recently published Agriculture Canada research paper.

The benefits will be particularly pronounced for prairie crops like canola and wheat versus Ontario corn.

Yields were simulated by three crop modelling systems using 20 global climate models under different warming scenarios. It is the first study of its kind for Canada.

The four warming scenarios were increases of 1.5 C, 2.0 C, 2.5 C and 3.0 C over the baseline climate of 2006-2015.

“The findings indicate that climate at the global warming levels up to 3 C above the (baseline) could be beneficial for crop production of small grains in Canada,” stated the study published in the July 1, 2019, edition of Environmental Research Letters.

That is counter to what is expected to happen throughout much of the rest of the world, especially tropical climates.

Climate change has already caused an estimated 40 million-tonne reduction in world corn, wheat and barley production between 1981 and 2008. That represents a two-to-three percent hit to global production of those three crops.

Global warming is projected to be far more intense in Canada than the rest of the world. Canada’s mean air surface temperature has warmed by 1.8 C between 1950 and 2016, which is about double the global mean temperature increase.

Canada’s warming rate is projected to continue at a faster pace than the global rate due to polar amplification. That is important since heat stress can reduce crop yields.

However, there is another factor at work that is expected to more than offset the yield losses associated with heat stress in the years to come.

“Due to elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, C3 crops like canola and wheat can have more effective carbon dioxide responses to carbon assimilation than C4 crops such as corn,” study lead author Budong Qian said in an email.

Research has shown the doubling of carbon dioxide concentration increases yields in C3 crops by about 30 percent, while there was effectively no response in C4 crops.

Agriculture Canada’s findings are consistent with previous studies that have shown the largest yield gains will occur in water-stressed regions such as the Canadian Prairies due to improved water-use efficiency with elevated carbon dioxide levels.

Global warming is also expected to boost growing season precipitation levels by about five percent on the Prairies at warming levels of 2 C and 2.5 C, while a slight decrease in precipitation is forecast for Eastern Canada.

“Since the Prairie region is relatively cooler than Eastern Canada and water stress is the major factor limiting the canola and wheat yields, a bigger yield percent change was projected (for the Prairies),” said Qian.

The Agriculture Canada study shows an increase in canola and wheat yields for all four global warming scenarios under all three models.

The highest canola yield increase is 13.4 percent under the 3 C warming level. The biggest wheat yield bump is 22.8 percent under the same warming scenario.

Corn yields vary widely from yield reductions under every warming level for one model to a 19 percent increase under the 3 C scenario for another model.

The projections are based on current crop cultivars. The introduction of extended growing season corn varieties could vastly improve the outlook for corn yields.

Qian said weed and pest pressure might increase with global warming but that wasn’t factored into the crop models. It also didn’t take into account yield damage caused by increased drought, hail and flood events. SOURCE

A Field Guide for the Entire 21st Century

A new project reveals not just where birds live now—but where they’ll live decades from now.

MARIANA BAZO / REUTERS

I’m not a particular fan of birds, but I like the eastern goldfinch. I know one fact about it. At some point in elementary school, probably during a 20-minute “nature walk” on an overgrown farm near home, a counselor-type adult instructed about a dozen of us: “The eastern goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey.” I don’t think an eastern goldfinch was even there that day, but it stuck nonetheless: The eastern goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey. I have since grown up and moved away, but I have retained that declarative sentence. I know what the state bird is.

So it was distressing, this holiday season, to learn that the eastern goldfinch could soon depart the Garden State, at least for half the year. If global temperatures rise 3 degrees Celsius by 2080, the goldfinch’s summer range will no longer include any part of New Jersey, according to the National Audubon Society. So, too, will the goldfinch exit Iowa, where it is also the state bird. In fact, many state birds could soon fly their domiciles: the yellowhammer from Alabama, the purple finch from New Hampshire, the ruffled grouse from Pennsylvania. The official birds of Georgia, Idaho, and Utah will all see their ranges shrink dramatically in those states.

These changes are described in “Survival by Degrees,” a new online project released by Audubon. It was created with one of the country’s most prominent data-visualization firms, Stamen Design.

“Survival by Degrees” is a kind of field guide for the 21st century—the entire 21st century—containing maps of not only where birds live now, but where they’ll live several decades from now. It is also a novel scientific project in its own right. After analyzing how 604 North American bird species will fare, it argues that climate change will push more than two-thirds of the continent’s birds toward extinction in the decades to come.

Go and type in your zip code (if you’re in the United States) or home state or province (if you’re in Canada or Mexico), and the tool will spit out a list of every major local bird species. Each bird is linked to its listing into the Audubon field guide, with descriptions of its plumage, diet, mating habits, and contemporary range—as well as a projection of its range in 2080 under a very optimistic 1.5-degree-Celsius scenario, a 2-degree scenario, and a 3-degree scenario.

Like any good field guide, “Survival by Degrees” will teach everyone something slightly different. New Yorkers might see that piping plovers, a favorite shorebird, will vanish from much of the Atlantic Coast. The Baltimore oriole, meanwhile, will struggle to roost in some places near Camden Yards. And one of the country’s smallest songbirds, the golden-crowned kinglet, will be driven out of nearly its entire range in Oregon. MORE