2013 was another watershed year for climate change news. The reality of life on a warmer planet was seen in many different ways. The reality of the inability of U.S. and international efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels was also stark as use continues to rise. Here are some new data points about life on a warming planet.
The year’s biggest news was made last summer when scientists at a Hawaii research station measured 400 ppm (parts per million) of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has famously called the 350 ppm carbon mark the safe zone for avoiding the worst of climate change impacts. Some terrific charts in The Guardian (probably the best news site for tracking climate issues) provides important context to carbon loading to the earth’s atmosphere.
350 ppm became the rallying cry for Bill Mckibben and many other advocates as a target for the planet. Mckibben marked the 400 ppm mark: “Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic.” He wondered “We’ll see what happens in the next 50.”
NASA has an excellent interactive map that shows the loss of the Arctic ice cap 1980-2012. See another good comparison map here. They’re both stunning. Also, a short video of the disappearing glacier on Mount Kilamanjaro is very good.
Various scientists strained to put 400 ppm threshold into perspective. One attempt was: “We are a society that has inadvertently chosen the double-black diamond run without having learned to ski first. It will be a bumpy ride.”
This chart shows that total carbon emissions continue to rise in the U.S.
2013 was the hottest year on record in Australia. South Africa set a new world record for the hottest March temperature ever recorded at 117 F. Many national records were set across Africa in March. Japan saw its warmest day ever on August 12th at 106 F.
In the U.S., Death Valley saw the highest June temperature ever this year at 129 F. Springfield, Illinois broke records for the largest snowfall event in March with an 18-inch dump. It was the warmest Christmas Day ever in Oakland, California at 69 F. New records were set across the Midwest for the warmest December days ever, from Burlington, Colorado (67 F) to Sak City, Iowa (57 F).
Cool study finds a positive correlation between increased nest predation of birds and temperature. A habitat vulnerability assessment highlights precarious future for moose, spruce grouse, and Indiana bat in the Adirondacks. Moose die-off was showcased in 2013. Terrific interview about David Wilcove’s book No Way Home about how climate change has altered wildlife migrations.
The Rutgers University Global Snow Lab ardently documents snowfall and snow cover around the world. The steady decline of spring snowfall across the northeast and northern hemisphere is painful, but coincides with shorter winters.
Some leaked conclusions from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) scientists 5th assessment since 1990 scheduled for release in 2014 links climate change to global food scarcity. Staple crops such as wheat will likely see worldwide reductions by 2% per decade, while overall food demand is projected to increase around the world by 14% per decade as the world moves to 9 billion people by 2050; there are 7.2 billion people on earth today.
The impact of methane gases for accelerating global warming hit the news throughout 2013. Methane leaked into the atmosphere is estimated to have 20-25 times more warming power than carbon dioxide. Methane release is a byproduct of changes to many parts of the warming world. Thawing permafrost provides a major release of methane. Scientists debate methane leakage as a byproduct of hydrofracking and whether this negates any short-term benefits of gas over coal for carbon reduction.
2013 also crystallized the notion that the problem we face is not that we’ll run out of fossil fuels, but that the damage to the planet will be immense if we actually burn a majority of the vast proven fossil fuel reserves. Scientist argue that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay buried in the ground if we are to stay within 3.5 – 4 F average temperature warming range. That means that vast majority of proven fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) reserves need to stay buried. Projects slated in the Canadian tar sands area alone will exceed this limit.
The International Energy Agency concludes that known fossil fuel reserves will push carbon levels well beyond the point of catastrophic change. In other words, we’ll do irreparable damage before fossils fuels run out. It’s simply a question of using less.
Paul Krugman pens an incisive review of economist William D. Nordhaus’s new book The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Economic impacts could be vast.
For a different perspective, here’s an interesting piece on the risks for public pension funds and other investors by investing in fossil fuel companies. If these companies are able to access and burn all the reserves they own, the planet will soar well above 450 ppm carbon in the atmosphere. If somehow, there’s international agreement and regulation to keep these reserved fossil fuels unburned, then many companies, some of which are the biggest in the U.S., will never recoup billions of dollars invested in securing rights to various reserves.
On a final note, Bill Mckibben sums up U.S. national climate politics at the end of 2013 in yet another great piece in Rolling Stone. He writes: “We’re supposed to be thrilled when Obama says something, anything, about global warming â€“ he gave a fine speech this past June. ‘The question,’ he told a Georgetown University audience, is ‘whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.’ Inspiring stuff, but then in October, when activists pressed him about Keystone at a Boston gathering, he said, ‘We had the climate-change rally back in the summer.’ Oh.”