March 15 2024

evidence that a major climate tipping point approaches, new nuclear plants generate electricity and higher costs, high ocean temperatures astonish scientists, gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina denies climate science, first large U.S. offshore-wind farm completed

The Guardian reports on a recent study suggesting that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which includes the Gulf Stream and other powerful currents, “is already on track towards an abrupt shift, which has not happened for more than 10,000 years and would have dire implications for large parts of the world.” The AMOC is a key mechanism that distributes energy around the planet, and moderates the impact of global warming. A fundamental physical driver of the AMOC is the relative salinity of different ocean waters, but this is being disrupted by the extreme melting of ice in Greenland and the Arctic. A major shift in the AMOC would have vast global impacts, including more sea level rise in the Atlantic, flipping the wet and dry seasons in the Amazon, a colder and drier Europe and more erratic temperatures worldwide. The paper’s lead author, René van Westen, of Utrecht University, noted that we don’t know when these changes will occur, but they will be irreversible on human timescales. “We are moving towards it. That is kind of scary,” van Westen said. “We need to take climate change much more seriously.”

Inside Climate News has an excellent visualization of the AMOC, and one scientist notes that a large shift in the AMOC “is a going-out-of-business scenario for European agriculture.” The New York Times notes that this shift in the AMOC is one of many “tipping points” that the Earth’s climate system can reach, after which the climate continues to change irrespective of greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities. (I explored this issue, and how we can respond, in a 2021 blog post CODE RED: Time to Tip the Climate Odds in Our Favor).

For the more technically inclined, RealClimate also analyzes the recent study. While it used a model requiring enormous computing power to simulate ocean circulation (it took 6 months to run on 1,024 cores at the Dutch national supercomputing facility), it is based on key observations in the southern ocean that suggest the AMOC is slowing. RealClimate notes that the study (1) confirms the AMOC has a tipping point beyond which it breaks down, (2) the AMOC is on course toward tipping, although how fast is unknown, and (3) confirms past concerns that climate models systematically overestimate the stability of the AMOC. The analysis concludes that we “continue to ignore this risk at our peril.” This appears to be another situation in which we consider the unprecedented to be improbable, and we need to stop doing this…

February 29 2024

global heat continues in 2024, ice loss from Greenland is larger than previously estimated, climate-change denialists continue to confuse the public, Florida legislature considers bill to remove mention of climate change from state statutes, EV sales growth slows

The New York Times reports that January 2024 was the hottest January ever recorded. Given the ongoing strong El Niño, higher temperatures are expected, although scientists are surprised by the intensity of the heating being observed in both the atmosphere and the oceans. The Guardian notes: “Humanity is on a trajectory to experience the hottest February in recorded history, after a record January, December, November, October, September, August, July, June and May.”

While we tend to be focused on the impacts of El Niño in the Northern Hemisphere, The Washington Post reminds us that this oceanic feature impacts weather globally. In South America, the impacts of El Niño this winter have been significant. These impacts include major outbreaks of dengue fever, deaths of dolphins and other wildlife in the Amazon, drought in the normally wet Columbian highlands and devastating fires in Chile.

People are working around the world on methods to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and directly from the air, to reduce the impact of greenhouse gases. These methods are expensive, and so efforts are being made to harness natural carbon-capture processes that could be cheaper. Anthropocene Magazine reports that “researchers have developed a biosynthetic pathway that efficiently captures carbon dioxide from air and converts it into an industrially useful chemical.” The article describes this remarkable feat of bioengineering, in which the genes for the biosynthetic pathway was placed into E. coli cells, allowing them to act as “carbon-sequestration factories.” “The work paves the way towards harnessing bacterial cells to produce biofuels in a sustainable way from carbon dioxide…”

February 15 2024

global process for handling life’s risks is breaking down, time to “buckle up” for hotter droughts in the western U.S., a foot of rain falls on Los Angeles in one day, U.S. world’s largest exporter of natural gas, solar farm replaces coal plant in Minnesota

2023 was the hottest year ever recorded, and The Washington Post notes that some leading scientists are concerned that a feared acceleration of global warming is underway. James Hansen notes: “The proximate cause of the acceleration is an increase of Earth’s energy imbalance, specifically a substantial darkening of the planet (decreased albedo) equivalent to a CO2 increase of more than 100 ppm, although it is difficult to apportion the albedo change between aerosol forcing and cloud feedbacks because of limited global measurements.”

Several agencies that compute global average temperature have reported that, in 2023, the Earth reached 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, and The New York Times reminds us this is a milestone to note. While the global climate goal of keeping average temperatures to 1.5°C or below is a multi-year average, not just a single year, clearly the Earth will be at this temperature level soon. “Based on the current pace of carbon emissions, it will only be a few more years before we have altered the atmosphere’s chemistry so much that even drastic cuts to emissions wouldn’t be enough to stop warming from eventually creeping above 1.5 degrees.”

As Earth’s average temperature approaches 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, Inside Climate News describes the results of social-science research concluding that “the increasing climate shocks could trigger more social unrest and authoritarian, nationalist backlashes.” The article notes that the large number of social crises currently underway are crowding out people’s attention to climate change. This is exacerbated by a new flood of disinformation that seeks to further confound efforts to reduce fossil-fuel use. Some of the resistance arises from those who think they are losing privileged access to resources, funding and subsidies. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus notes that stopping global heating is “a life-or-death task for humanity and the planet, just most people haven’t realized it yet…”

January 31 2024

fires both a product and source of global warming, a large battery under construction in Utah, getting “grid services” from renewables, drought affects operation of Panama Canal, the unintended impacts of sea walls

The Guardian reports that the massive fires in Canada in 2023 tripled that country’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions. This is an example of a possible tipping point related to forests, where ecosystems that traditionally have been carbon sinks turn into sources of carbon (a New York Times article notes that recent satellite measurements confirm the importance of undisturbed lands as carbon sinks). As emissions from major fires further heat the planet, it becomes more likely that forests will continue to burn, resulting in more emissions. The loss of wetlands (including bogs) in the boreal forest, a result of hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change, has also made massive fires more likely.

While fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems, the scale of the fires we are seeing now is unprecedented, driven by climate change and historical forestry practices. The New York Times describes how megafires, such as those last year in Canada, are transforming the landscape. Some are referring to the age in which we now live as the Pyrocene, given the size and frequency of these megafires. The World Resources Institute concludes that, annually, fires now burn twice as much tree cover as they did 20 years ago.

Yale e360 notes that “the boreal forests and unglaciated polar lowlands are Earth’s most lake-rich biome, hosting nearly half of the planet’s lakes by surface area.” Like the forests, the lakes have been a carbon sink as sediments accumulate in their cold waters where there is little decomposition. However, as these regions warm, researchers are finding that decomposition is increasing. The author accompanies researchers to visit several lakes in Greenland where the scientists expected their measurements to reveal the lakes to be sinks, but the field measurements determined all the lakes to be sources during the record heat of 2023…

January 15 2024

2023 temperature records reflect “global boiling”, Antarctic octopus genetics suggests West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse possible, the electrification of the automobile industry is underway, U.S. Treasury Department describes massive costs of climate change, global greenhouse-gas emissions may have peaked in 2023

To those paying even the slightest bit of attention last year, it comes as no surprise that 2023 was the hottest year on record. The Guardian reports that both NASA and NOAA reached this conclusion, as did another analysis by EU scientists. These air temperature records were accompanied by record high ocean temperatures and a new low in Antarctic sea ice extent. NOAA stated that, over the last 40 years, each decade has been warmer than the last and the most recent 10 years are the hottest decade ever recorded. The article quotes climate scientists who are finding it difficult to explain why 2023 was so much hotter than previous years.

The Washington Post quotes UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who called 2023 the year of “global boiling,” as the year saw the hottest single day (July 6), the hottest-ever month (July) and the hottest June, August, September, October, November and probably the hottest December. On November 17, global average temperature was 2°C above preindustrial levels, providing a reminder of where we are headed without a much more ambitious effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The impact of these extremes was visible everywhere. This includes intense drought in Brazil, where some towns are being forced to ration drinking water. The BBC notes that the Amazon has never seen a drought like this. Because the rivers are the major transportation corridor, the drought has major impacts throughout society in the region. There were vast wildfires in Greece and Canada, hot-tub temperatures in the ocean in Florida, quickly intensifying major storm systems and unrelenting heat in Phoenix and other places around the world. The Washington Post notes: “The U.S. alone suffered a record number of extreme weather disasters that caused at least $1bn in damages in 2023…”

December 31 2023

global agreements at COP28 in Dubai, major U.S. decision looms on natural-gas exports, one farming family uses as much Colorado River water as Las Vegas, how sustainable can aviation fuel be?, EV mythbuster

The Washington Post reports that “nearly 200 countries struck a breakthrough climate agreement… calling for a transition away from fossil fuels in an unprecedented deal that targets the greatest contributors to the planet’s warming.” The agreement, reached at COP28 in Dubai, is the first international agreement that aims explicitly to reduce fossil-fuel use due to its impact on the climate. It calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” CNBC notes that the UAE says the agreement represents “a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies.”

While it is not a surprise that the UAE (and other major oil-producing countries) are touting the agreement as a major achievement, and it is the first time the COP has actually addressed fossil-fuel use formally, many are quite skeptical of the document (Elizabeth Kolbert states in The New Yorker that “after twenty-eight COPs, and twenty-eight years of rising emissions, skepticism is clearly justified”). The Guardian notes that, because the agreement does not call for the phaseout of fossil fuels, it allows the continued growth of fossil-fuel production and use. A Washington Post editorial notes that “the effort’s credibility suffers when goals and pledges often require unprecedented efforts and offer little clue about how they will be financed. It doesn’t help either that, so far, the world is failing to hit targets set before.” A review in The Atlantic calls the agreement “a new floor for climate ambition.”

Inside Climate News interviews Alden Meyer, who has been part of the COP process for 30 years (most of the time as a staff member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I got to know him). Alden provides a thoughtful perspective on the agreement, including its weakness in ambition and its place in the history of global climate policy. Alden also notes that the initial $700M contribution obtained at Dubai for the Loss and Damage Fund, which will help developing nations build resilience to the new climate, is dwarfed by the $3.5B a day spent on fossil-fuel subsidies. Alden finds hope in the fact that the agreement includes the historic recognition that we have to come to grips with our addiction to fossil fuels, and that the COP meetings now mobilize all sectors of society, not just scientists and environmentalists, in a call to action…