Burying our Heads in the Sand

clip art of ostrich burying head in sandOstriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand in the belief that it makes their predators unable to see them – but many of us do. Unfortunately many such human ostriches occupy high level positions of our government, putting us all – including our children and grandchildren – in great danger.

In last week’s beautiful blog on Tucson, Sonya Landau wrote:

In addition, while in theory there is a law that mandates all developers must prove that there is a 100-year water supply before starting any large development, the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of developers, effectively gutting this protection.

The majority said the state agency need not consider other potential future claims for the same underground water — in this case, by the federal Bureau of Land Management — or even the possibility that those other claims could end up leaving the development and the people who buy homes there high and, literally, dry.

Arizona is not alone in ignoring the future. North Carolina, which was just starting to rebuild from the devastation that it suffered from Hurricane Florence, also had to endure the remnants of Michael, which had already demolished large swaths of Florida’s Panhandle as well as Georgia, and Alabama. Here’s a bit more about North Carolina’s efforts to rebuild – and whether doing so is feasible in light of future storms:

The privately owned Rodanthe pier has already undergone half a million dollars in renovation in seven years and the owners started a new round of repairs this week. Scientists have warned such rebuilding efforts are futile as sea levels rise and storms chew away the coast line but protests from developers and the tourism industry have led North Carolina to pass laws that disregard the predictions.

The idea of retreating is a tough sell for the people who live there and have invested in property. “You’re asking us to say, ‘Hey, 4,000 or 5,000 people on little Hatteras Island, it’s time for you to pack up and move,’ and that’s not a reasonable expectation,” said Bobby Outten, manager for Dare County on the Outer Banks.

Even though she acknowledges that sea levels are rising, Kelly is also among those who opposed making state policy decisions, including anything affecting home insurance or property values, based on the study’s dire 90-year forecast of sea-level rise. Kelly supported a 2012 state law that banned North Carolina from using the 90-year prediction on rising sea levels to influence coastal development policy.   The CRC released a second report in 2015 predicting sea level rise over a 30-year period, instead of 90 years. The new report was praised by developers as being more realistic and said sea levels would rise 1.9 to 10.6 inches. (bit.ly/2xyGDVr)

Florida is also in reconstruction mode after Michael. A piece in LiveScience describes some of the obstacles:

Florida, one of the States most susceptible to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise, verbally banned state environmental officials from using the term “climate change,” an investigation revealed. But the Sunshine State isn’t the only U.S. state that has attempted to “outlaw” climate science.

North Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee have all passed laws that attempt to cast doubt on established climate science in boardrooms and classrooms.

This sort of denial comes from the very top and continues in spite of  repeated proof of the grave reality of climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) posted its latest report on Saturday, October 6th. The report includes more than 1,300 pages. Here are some highlights from the IPCC’s press release on the 34-page “Summary for Policy Makers” (SPM). The SPM was approved by the governments of each IPCC member nation, including the US:

Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC approved by governments

INCHEON, Republic of Korea, 8 Oct – Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society, the IPCC said in a new assessment. With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said on Monday.

“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2ºC.

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

President Trump’s reaction to the report was as follows:

It was given to me. And I want to look at who drew it … Because I can give you reports that are fabulous, and I can give you reports that aren’t so good. But I will be looking at it, absolutely.

While his quote is somewhat garbled, he seems to be saying that he doesn’t entirely trust the report. It is a bit odd for him to claim he doesn’t know who created it though, given that – as I just mentioned – the US is a party to the IPCC and someone in his administration had to sign off on it.

On a positive note, the new report – for the first time in the IPCC’s history – discusses the transition into the Anthropocene (type Anthropocene into the search box of the blog to see previous coverage). Next week’s blog will explore that addition.

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Guest Blog by Sonya Landau: Unsustainable Desert: People Have Been Living in Tucson for Thousands of Years; How Much Longer Can That Continue?

I have been Micha’s editor and helped run this blog since the beginning. I’m excited to have the chance to contribute to Climate Change Fork.

Tucson is a magical place. Then again, I’m biased – it is my home town after all, and I am prone to bragging of its charms. One of the city’s most astonishing highlights its history: it’s been continuously occupied – and cultivated – for over 4,000 years (longer than anywhere else in the country)! Most people conjure up the Sahara when they think of a desert, i.e. a vast expanse of nothingness inimical to life. Others remember the armed saguaro cacti from the “Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner” cartoons – that’s where I’m from, I tell people. But even in that portrayal, which admittedly needs to be sparse for the whole premise to work, we don’t get an understanding of just how much life the Sonoran Desert holds. There are dozens of kinds of cacti, different trees, shrubs, and grasses, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, geckos, gila monsters, snakes, scorpions, pack rats, kangaroo mice, and yes – roadrunners (sadly, they’re neither 6’ tall nor purple). Overall, it’s been a home to many over the years. Still, it’s a desert, and while admiring the past, we also have to be aware of the future in light of climate change. Given that Tucson already reaches 100° F or more for most of the summer and gets less than a foot of rain every year, it’s hard not to be grim about what’s to come.

Micha has talked about climate refugees before. We are already seeing the effects of rising sea levels and bigger, more frequent hurricanes. Florence decimated North Carolina and Puerto Rico is still in shambles a year after Maria. Many low altitude nations are worried about their shores. Don’t forget, the president of the Maldives held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009 to highlight the problem. Meanwhile, other climate issues threaten populations around the world. As you know from reading this blog, global warming does not necessarily mean that the weather in every place is warmer every day of the year. Instead, it amplifies naturally occurring patterns, making extreme weather events both more intense and more likely. In this case, however, we are talking about heat.

You won’t be shocked to hear that it gets hot in the desert – some days in the summer it reaches over 110o F in Tucson (and Phoenix is consistently at least 5o hotter) – but like many places all over the world, that temperature is rising, and so is the associated death. Last year, there were officially 155 heat-related deaths in Arizona, five more than the previous record set in 2016. The desert proves especially dangerous for undocumented immigrants. The US’s increasingly vigilant stance at the border with Mexico has not stopped people from crossing outright. Instead, it has pushed many into crossing at incredibly treacherous stretches of the border. Some of these people are hoping for a better life for themselves and their families; most are fleeing violence in their home countries. I imagine it won’t be that long before residents of Arizona become equally desperate to permanently escape the heat.

Water is literally life in the desert. Given the state’s finite resources and record temperatures, it’s both surprising and somewhat alarming how many people keep moving to Arizona. The Tucson metropolitan area has an estimated population of 994,000, while the Phoenix metropolitan area is believed to have surpassed 4.5 million in 2015.

It makes sense to be worried – according to the University of Arizona, “as recently as 1993 Tucson was the largest city in the U.S. — and perhaps globally — to be 100 percent dependent on groundwater.” Since then, the state has diversified its water portfolio, reducing that to 40%, supplemented by 40% from the Colorado River and 4% reclaimed water, with the rest from other surface sources. But with the ongoing drought, there are major doubts about how much longer the Colorado River can continue to support multiple states. In addition, while in theory there is a law that mandates all developers must prove that there is a 100-year water supply before starting any large development, the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of developers, effectively gutting this protection.

The majority said the state agency need not consider other potential future claims for the same underground water — in this case, by the federal Bureau of Land Management — or even the possibility that those other claims could end up leaving the development and the people who buy homes there high and, literally, dry.

Don’t get me wrong – people are working to mitigate some of these issues. They’re making advances in reclaimed water treatment and “banking” unused Colorado River water in aquifers. It’s also gratifying to see that the bevvy of golf courses incongruent with the climate are now required to use reclaimed water instead of potable water. And Arizona’s making great strides with solar energy, providing rebates and tax incentives for both businesses and homeowners, though there is still the expected pushback from nonrenewable energy proponents and those worried about the economics of the energy transition. There are more solar panels every time I go back to visit Tucson – all of the public school playgrounds use them for shade cover, and they make up the roofs of many parking lots – including the one at the airport!

But can these small changes completely forestall the exodus that will become necessary once we run out of water and the heat is consistently higher than people can handle? It is always impossible to predict the future but I wonder how long my beloved Tucson, and the Sonoran Desert as a whole can remain a home and haven for people.

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Insanity at the Helm: Are We Steering the Wrong Way to the Future?

The last two weeks have seen a great deal of heavy breathing and crying. I summarized much of it in last week’s blog. The climax in this week’s news was probably Thursday’s testimonies of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford; the aftermath is still unfolding. As expected, without further investigation it was reduced to a “he said, she said” situation and devolved into an ugly mix of facts and politics. We shall see if the new FBI investigation changes anything. Whatever the final result, the US and the world will survive the presidency of Donald Trump and the effects of Judge Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. The greater existential threat worldwide has to do with what happened two days earlier: President Trump gave his speech to the UN General Assembly, summarizing his administration’s philosophy as to the relationship between the US and the world.

Before getting into his speech, we need some background. Greg Myre gave an interesting perspective on this mindset last year on NPR: “‘America First’: From Charles Lindbergh to President Trump.” For those of you not familiar with Charles Lindbergh, he was an American hero whose 1927 flight from New York to Paris was the first ever solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He moved to England in the late 1930s. In 1941, he returned to the US to advocate against our country getting involved in the war in Europe. He was the leading voice of the America First Committee, which fought to isolate the US from the war. Contrary to some opinions, he was not a Nazi sympathizer; he just didn’t believe that the US, or anybody else, could save England from the Nazi juggernaut. Shortly after his return to the States, however, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Suddenly, not joining the war was no longer an option for the US. After that, Lindbergh actually joined the fight against Japan. Before the Pearl Harbor attack, Lindbergh and his followers were isolationists. According to Mr. Myre, that term does not apply to President Trump. He quotes Trump’s inauguration speech:

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” Trump said at his inaugural on Jan. 20.

Mr. Myre instead defines the president’s philosophy in the following way:

Trump is more commonly described as a unilateralist — someone who thinks the U.S. can be engaged around the world, but on its own terms, unconstrained by alliances or multinational groups like the United Nations.

The world was a different place during Lindbergh’s time. Table 1 shows some of the indicators.

Table 1 – Yardsticks for the global transition

Indicators Then Now
Population 2.4*109 (1945) 7.5*109 (2017)
GDP/Capita (1990 US$) $2030 (1945) $5950 (2017)
Global life expectancy 44 (1945) 71 (2017)
Urbanization (% of population) 28% (1950) 55% (2017)
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (ppmv) 310 (1945) 409 (2018)
Energy use (kg oil equivalent per capita) 1336 (1971) 1921 (2014)

In modern times, globalization isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. We face global dangers that can be mitigated only through cooperative global efforts. These dangers include nuclear holocaust, climate change, pandemics, and massive refugee crises.

Many of our economic activities are global and critically depend on links in the chains that are located in different countries.

Unilateralism is not only a philosophy under this administration; it’s a policy. Below are the international partnerships and agreements from which the US is withdrawing or has expressed an intention to do so, as of January 2016:

  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran treaty)
    • Iran denuclearization for reversal of economic sanctions
    • Signatories: Russia, China, France, Germany, and England
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership
    • Trade agreement
    • Parties: Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia, Brunei, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand
  • Paris Climate Accord
    • Parties & Signatories: all the countries in the world
  • UN Commission on Human Rights
    • UN organization
  • Threats to leave or break:
    • NAFTA (Canada and Mexico) *a new agreement was finalized on Sunday, September 30th; crisis averted!
    • WTO (World Trade Organization)
    • G-7
    • International Criminal Court

This list comprises a significant fraction of our global infrastructure.

Below are the relevant paragraphs from President Trump’s most recent UN speech:

America chooses independence and cooperation over global government, each must pursue its own customs. The U.S. won’t tell you how to live, work, or worship. We ask you to honor our sovereignty in return. My highest honor is to represent the U.S. abroad. I forged strong alliances with the leaders of many nations.

… So the U.S. took the only possible course, withdrew from the human rights council, and we will not return till reform is enacted. And will not give recognition to the International Criminal Court. The ICC has no legitimacy and no authority. It claims universal jurisdiction while violating due process, violating justice, we will never surrender to this unaccountable global bureaucracy. We reject globalism and embrace patriotism, around the world responsible nations must resist the threats to sovereignty. In America we believe strongly in energy security for ourselves and our allies.

… Illegal immigration finances criminal networks, and the flow of deadly drugs. It produces a vicious circle of crime and poverty. Only by upholding national borders, can we break the cycle, we recognize the right of every nation to have own immigration policy according to its national interest. This must be respected. US will not participate in the new Global compact of migration, it is a global body unaccountable to our own people. People should build more hopeful future in the own country. Make their countries great again.

… The U.N. is the world’s largest giver of foreign aid. But few aid is given to us, that’s why we are looking into our assistance. We will examine what is working and not working and whether countries that receive our dollars and protection have our interest at heart. Only to those who are our friends we will continue.  We expect countries to pay a fair share for their own defense. The UN must become more effective and accountable. The UN has unlimited potential. As part of reform efforts we said we won’t pay more than 25 percent of peacekeeping budget, sharing in this large burden.

… We believe in the majesty of freedom and dignity of individual, self-government and rule of law, culture built on strong families, fierce independence. We celebrate our heroes, love our country. Inside this great chamber each patriot feels the same powerful love for his own nation, the same loyalty to your homeland. Passion has inspired reform and revolution, sacrifice, scientific breakthrough and magnificent works of art. We must not erase it, but embrace it, draw on its wisdom, find a way to make our nations greater, the regions safer, and the world better. To unleash potential of our people, sovereignty and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom succeeds. We must protect sovereignty and independence above all. When we do we will find new avenues for cooperation unfolding before us, new ways of peace making, new purpose, and new spirit flourishing more around us. Making this a more beautiful world. Let us choose the future of patriotism, let us come here to stand for our people and for their nations, forever strong, sovereign, just, thankful for the grace and the glory of God, God bless the nations of the globe.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton summarized the philosophy in his own speech to the Federalist Society:

This Administration will fight back to protect American constitutionalism, our sovereignty, and our citizens. No committee of foreign nations will tell us how to govern ourselves and defend our freedom. We will stand up for the U.S. Constitution abroad, just as we do at home. And, as always, in every decision we make, we will put the interests of the American People FIRST.

In Polish we call such a philosophy, “Zosia samosia.” The phrase refers to someone independent who doesn’t need (or want) help or assistance from anybody. It’s usually used to describe a spoiled kid. This is a dangerous attitude for the most powerful nation in the world to espouse.

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Blurred Lines: Balance, Bias, Kavanaugh, and Fox News on Climate Change

cartoon of Trump - "These Google searches are rigged to make me look bad!" ... "That's not Google, it's today's schedule."My original plan for this week was to focus on President Trump’s complaints that Google’s search engines are biased against him, and his demand that the Justice Department investigate. I found a fitting cartoon by Walt Handelsman. The Justice Department is already following his wishes, conducting anti-trust investigations of Google and Facebook. I don’t know of anyone raising the issue of the First Amendment here, or to what extent it would apply to the issue at hand. But the next step being threatened is to investigate schools for biased teaching. This could easily result in the elimination of any traces of current events from the curriculum, leaving students completely unprepared for the reality that they will face once asked to think for themselves.

Speaking of bias and balance, I came across a new paper published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) written by three sociologists (Douglas Guilbeault, Joshua Becker, and Damon Centola): “Social learning and partisan bias in the interpretation of climate trends.” The paper provides data to show that exposure to social media is effective in eliminating bias in the interpretation of climate change, although it warns that, “social learning can be reduced, and belief polarization maintained, as a result of partisan priming.” I wanted to look into why social media doesn’t seem to be protected by the First Amendment even if it is not “balanced.”

As I was working on writing about that, two new issues surfaced: one had to do with the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court; the other, which got far less attention, was a story about climate change from Fox News. My interest in the Fox News piece is consistent with the focus of this blog and I will expand upon it in a minute. My focus on the Kavanaugh confirmation is less obvious. So let me start with this:

For those of you who live on a different planet (or just under a rock) and don’t know what I am talking about, I am including two short blurbs from the Economist’s Espresso from Friday, September 21st to give you some background:

Family matters: Value Voters Summit
Today the annual gathering of social conservatives kicks off in Washington, DC. The movement has a curious and fervid attachment to President Donald Trump—who, as a thrice-married man who just had his anatomical peculiarities revealed by a porn actress, is not a poster child for family values. But Value Voter Christians, who once believed in a vindictive Old Testament God, discovered the redemption of sinners when Donald Trump came along. In 2011 only 30% of white evangelicals thought an immoral man could be a virtuous elected official; on the eve of Mr Trump’s election, 72% did. Their professed rationale is simple: to fill the Supreme Court with conservatives who would overturn Roe v Wade , the 1973 decision granting abortion rights. Like Mr Trump, the Republicans’ Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, stands accused of sexual assault (which he denies). His accuser could soon testify, but expect social conservatives to overlook whatever trespass may emerge.

Christine Blasey Ford’s lawyer said she cannot testify about Brett Kavanaugh by Monday, the date set by Republican senators, but she would next week under terms “which ensure her safety”. Ms Blasey says Donald Trump’s nominee to America’s Supreme Court sexually assaulted her in 1982. She has asked for an FBI investigation, which Republicans oppose. Mr Kavanaugh denies the allegations.

Two things from above pain me given my desire for rationality in my political system and – perhaps naively, my fellow Americans:

The first one is the Evangelical voter bloc’s desire to confirm Judge Kavanaugh regardless of what he did to Dr. Ford when he was 17 and she was 15. They desperately want him to overturn Roe v. Wade, which makes abortion legal throughout the US, and they are willing to compromise on other moral issues along the way. What is not obvious from the Espresso piece but was published by other papers was that these same Evangelicals are threatening to abstain en mass from the November election if the confirmation does not go through. This sounds to me like shooting yourself in the foot. If they do so, there is a much better chance that control of the Senate will shift to Democrats, who are unlikely to approve any Supreme Court candidate that would put Roe v. Wade in danger.

The second aspect of this that insults both my senses of rationality and justice has to do with Dr. Ford’s insistence upon an objective investigation of her claim of attempted rape. This has less to do with her quite understandable demand and much more to do with due process. Without such an investigation, the two testimonies (hers and that of Judge Kavanaugh) become a “he said, she said” issue (he completely denies the charge) and the confirmation vote becomes an apparent verdict of the matter that holds the potential to ruin the life of the “loser.” The lack of such an investigation leaves us with no mechanism to separate the facts from the politics. Both are legitimate considerations here but there’s no doubt that they need to be separated.

Meanwhile, I was busy this week following climate change-related developments. The climate change issues that dominated the headlines were the aftermath of Florence and new estimates for sea level rise. The latter specifically focused on attempts to understand the mechanisms of the ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica and their direct global impacts on sea level. On Saturday, September 22nd, this emphasis peaked with proposals to build big walls to isolate the Polar Regions from the rest of the ocean. I also read a great Reuters piece that thoroughly explained NASA’s efforts to understand the various mechanisms that contribute to the accelerated melting of the Greenland ice cover – the second largest ground-based global ice cover (after Antarctica). This report had access to the as yet unpublished new IPCC report that is scheduled to come out in September 2019. The piece is so detailed and consequential that I immediately added it to the list of required reading for my climate change class. I will come back to it in future blogs. Here I want to focus on a different but related piece – one that shocked me and perhaps did the same for others:

Ice sheet 60 times the size of England could melt, causing 4m sea-level rise – and plunging UK coasts into ocean

An enormous ice sheet is at risk of melting even if temperatures rise by just 2°C, potentially sparking major climate chaos. Scientists say that if the East Antarctic Ice Sheet –which is 60 times the size of England – melts, sea levels could rise by four meters, putting areas of the UK at risk of disappearing entirely. Melting ice can have a devastating effect on the world, causing the planet to heat up more quickly, changing ocean circulation systems that regulate global weather, and increasing the risk of flooding and tsunamis damage.

A study into historical ice loss suggests even “moderate warming” of Earth could melt the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Now a study in Nature suggests that 2°C of warming over “a couple of millennia” could cause significant melting of the EAIS. “Antarctica is around twice the size of Australia, with ice sheets several kilometers thick and containing around half of the world’s fresh water,” said Dr Kevin Welsh, at the University of Queensland, a co-author on the study. “The East Antarctic Ice Sheet covers about two thirds of the area, and because its base is largely above sea level it was generally thought to be less sensitive to warming climates than the adjacent West Antarctic Ice Sheet. “However, some areas – like the Wilkes Land Subglacial Basin, directly south of Australia – are below sea level and contain enough ice to raise global sea levels by several meters.       “The evidence we have suggests that with the predicted 2°C warming in Antarctica – if sustained over a couple of millennia – the sheet would start melting in these locations.”

I am not a dedicated viewer or reader of Fox News. It is, in my view and that of many others, the mouthpiece of climate deniers. But President Trump and his administration are avid fans so there is a chance that they might have read this piece and started thinking, “My God – this is happening on our watch – shouldn’t we do something about it?” Maybe it’s wishful thinking but the possibility is there. I already know that the lines between publications – and therefore their values – are blurring because I am a subscriber to National Geographic, which is now owned partially by 21st Century Fox – a huge company controlled by Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch. But the nature of National Geographic has not shifted with its change in ownership. As these lines blur, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify trustworthy sources. In order to believe, we need to investigate – and top-down investigations (such as Senate committees) are not always much help. If we can’t trust anyone else, we need to be comfortable with conducting our own investigations. To be able to do that we have to follow the issues closely.

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Naming Seasons and Weather Events

Thursday, September 6th in New York City was really hot and humid with temperatures well above 90oF. The next day the temperatures plunged to mid-70s and stayed there for several days, with almost constant rain. Today (Saturday, September 15th), while I am writing this, the weather here is fine but Hurricane Florence is flooding the Carolinas and Typhoon Mangkhut is doing the same to the Philippines as it makes its way to China. We still haven’t estimated the number of deaths and the full economic damages these storms will inflict.

Was the NYC heat wave on September 6th the last one of this year? Who knows? Why don’t we give names to heat waves the way we do with hurricanes and typhoons? I grew up in Israel, which is in the Eastern Mediterranean and experiences wet winters and dry summers. Israelis give names to the first rain (Hayorre) and the last one (Malkosh). There are first rain celebrations that sometimes include songs. I am not familiar with any celebrations of the last rain, but then it would be harder to pin down – how do you know that this rain is the last one? You could speculate with the help of recent history and an almanac but you might be wrong.

My fall semester started at the end of August. We distinguish it from the spring semester that starts around the end of January – but how do we come up with dates for the seasons? Does the weather repeat itself so exactly in corresponding years? Are the designations of seasons the same all around the world? I ask these sorts of classical questions at the beginning of my Cosmology class and usually get mixed answers. Students hearing these questions for the first time almost always say that summer comes when we are closest to the sun while winter happens when we are farthest away. I pose these questions in the middle of a brief survey of the history of astronomy. We discuss Kepler’s laws – especially Kepler’s First Law, which states that the planets orbit the sun in an elliptical orbit rather than a circular orbit as was taught previously. With the sun being at one of the two foci ellipse (there’s nothing at the other), their answers make perfect sense – until we then ask why in that case do we have summer in NYC while the Australians have winter in Melbourne, and vise versa?

The correct answer rests in Figure 1, with an explanation given below:

The Earth’s axis is slightly tilted in relation to its orbit around the sun. This is why we have seasons

Since the year has 12 months, each season lasts about three months. However, the dates when the seasons begin and end vary depending on whom you ask. Two methods are most commonly used to define the dates of the seasons: the astronomical definition and the meteorological definition

The astronomical definition uses the dates of equinoxes and solstices to mark the beginning and end of the seasons.
Spring begins on the spring equinox;
Summer begins on the summer solstice;
Fall (autumn) begins on the fall equinox; and
Winter begins on the winter solstice.

Figure of Earth's rotation around the sun, equinoxes and solsticesFigure 1 Earth’s orbit around the sun.

According to the meteorological definition, the seasons begin on the first day of the months that include the equinoxes and solstices:

Spring runs from March 1 to May 31;
Summer runs from June 1 to August 31;
Fall (autumn) runs from September 1 to November 30; and
Winter runs from December 1 to February 28 (February 29 in a leap year).

The question which definition to use divides countries and regions around the world. For example, Australia and New Zealand use the meteorological definition, so spring begins on September 1 each year. In many other countries, both definitions are used, depending on the context.

Ireland uses an ancient Celtic calendar system to determine the seasons, so spring begins on St Brigid’s Day on February 1. Some cultures, especially those in South Asia have calendars that divide the year into six seasons, instead of the four that most of us are familiar with.

In Finland and Sweden, the dates of the seasons are not based on the calendar at all, but on temperatures. Here, spring officially begins when the average temperature rises above 0 °C

(32 °F). This means that the seasons within each county start and end on different dates, depending on the regions and their climate.

Solstice in Figure 1 is defined as the point in the Earth’s orbit at which the sun is at the greatest distance from the celestial equator while the equinox is defined as the shortest distance (when the Earth actually sits on the equator). The ellipse in Figure 1 is exaggerated for clarity. The difference between the elliptical orbit and a circle is defined by the ratio of the long axis to the short axis. In a circle both axes are the same. In the Earth’s orbit the ratio deviates from a circle by about 3%.

As you can see, the dates of the seasons are approximately defined by the position of the Earth relative to the sun but the corresponding weather is not. The weather in the seasons is instead determined by the tilt of the Earth’s axis in relation to the path defined by the solar orbit. This tilt means that the northern and southern hemispheres are alternately exposed to the direct power of the sun, so summer in the northern hemisphere corresponds to winter in the southern hemisphere.

Focusing on a particular spot in the northern hemisphere, the definitions of the seasons in Sweden and Finland are interesting. The Finnish seasons are as follows:

Winter – Less than 0oC (32oF)

Spring – between 0o and 10oC (50oF)

Summer – more than 10oC

Fall – between 0o and 10oC

The listed temperatures are for averages from the middle of the country.

There is a similar quandary here to the Israeli naming of the last rain: how do you calculate averages ahead of the events?

This unique specificity in Finland and Sweden piqued my interest especially because I will be visiting Lapland in January to observe the Northern Lights among other things. More importantly though, can we use the start and end dates of these seasons as another measure of the impact of climate change? Given what we’ve seen so far and our projections for the future, their timing should shift as the temperature changes. I tried to find the recent history of the timing of the seasons there but didn’t have any success. Once I get there I will try to consult my local guides for data.

Back to naming individual weather events:
Officially, the science community only names tropical cyclones. However, in the US, the National Weather Service assigns names to hurricanes due to their immense impacts on life and property; there is a general belief that naming them garners more attention and gives governments and residents more time to prepare.

Heat waves don’t get names. In most cases, their geographical distribution is similar to that of hurricanes but as of yet they have not inflicted as much damage. Also, there is less that people can do in terms of last-minute preparations. However, naming them in the summer might be fun. We are open to suggestions. Heat wave Hades, anyone?

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John McCain’s Vision

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

According to family and friends, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was Senator John McCain’s favorite book. Both his daughter and President Obama mentioned the novel in their eulogies for the senator in the memorial that took place Saturday (September 1st) at the Washington National Cathedral.

President Obama included the quote above twice in his speech. Many credit it for Senator McCain’s vision of our main obligation in life: to ensure a better future for our children and the generations that follow. Such a goal can only be accomplished making actions in the present to mitigate future disasters.

The popular motto, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” is thought to stem from a quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”  Be that as it may, preparing inherently implies immediate action in the face of future threats; likewise, hope is an emotion that applies to one’s vision of the future. There is conviction and usually some degree of sacrifice in present actions involved, while the future payback is uncertain. But if we are not willing to pay the price now, the future could be much worse.

Economists dismiss the stress between sacrificing in the present and preventing future damage by discounting the value of the future (July 7, 2015 and December 5, 2017 blogs). This becomes a highly subjective “quantification” of long-term impact. There is probably no better example of this problematic dismissal than anthropogenic climate change.

John McCain embodied this conflict in his impact on our management of the climate change threat.

Reading about McCain’s handling of the climate change issue during the first decade of the 21st century is vital for every student interested in the topic. I used a similar description for a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine that was fully dedicated to the conflict between the science of and the political impediments to our attempts to mitigate the possible impacts. This clash took place between 1979 and 1989 (see August 14, 2018 blog). I posted links to the magazine issue here and urged my students to read it. Apple actually had a similar thought and bought the rights to the content, with the plan to make a TV program that will be available to a much wider audience.

Marianne Lavelle aptly summarized Senator McCain’s role in a piece called, “John McCain’s Climate Change Legacy,” which was published on the website, InsideClimate News:

InsideClimate News logo

The site describes itself this way:

InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit, non-partisan news organization that provides essential reporting and analysis on climate, energy and the environment for the public and decision makers. We serve as watchdogs of government, industry and advocacy groups and hold them accountable for their policies and actions.

It’s a long article, which describes in some detail this historic moment in which the United States decided its collective political attitude to climate change. Senator McCain stood at the center of this effort. In that sense it is similar, albeit with different players, to the NYT Magazine piece, though I haven’t heard about any offers to use it as the basis for a TV show or movie. That aside, this article is just as crucial for anybody interested in the politic of future threats. I am recommending it just as highly to my students.

I could have made everybody’s life easier and satisfied myself by just posting the link and directing my readers to the piece on its original site. However, having some experience in this business, I know the general result is that most readers will just skip the link. The alternative I have chosen is to include key excerpts here, given that I already have your eyes on this blog. I would be delighted if you went to the original article and checked whether my selection of highlights corresponds to yours. I would be even more delighted if you added such a comparison in the comments section here. In any case, here are some parts of the article:

He wrote legislation that failed. He built a bipartisan coalition that crumbled. And when Congress came closest to passing a bill that embraced his central idea—a market-based cap-and-trade system—McCain turned his back.

And yet, McCain’s nearly decade-long drive on global warming had an impact that reverberates in today’s efforts to revive the U.S. role in the climate fight. In the Senate chamber and on the campaign trail, the Arizona Republican did more than any other U.S. politician has done before or since to advance the conservative argument for climate action.

Today’s efforts to recruit GOP members into the climate movement—appeals to conservative and religious values, the framing of climate change as a national security threat, efforts to stress market-based solutions and the role business leaders can play—all owe a debt to McCain.

At the same time, McCain’s climate journey and its abrupt end serve as a cautionary tale of how far the Republican Party has moved from a mainstream conservatism that is receptive to such appeals.

“What McCain did on climate is a really great reminder of where we need to get back to,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of NRDC Action. As an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill in the 2000s, Curtis watched close-up as McCain crafted the first economy-wide climate legislation in the U.S. with one of his closest friends in the chamber, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat who would later turn Independent.

“Lieberman and McCain were really good examples of a Democrat and Republican intentionally, consciously and thoughtfully trying to work across the aisle to build a 60-vote coalition in the Senate on climate,” said Curtis. “The point of looking at McCain’s legacy, I think, is not to just look back to the ‘good old days,’ but to look at what we need to get back to.”

Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund and one of the political fathers of cap-and-trade, said McCain’s work on climate change was ahead of its time and laid the groundwork for the battle that continues.

“The McCain-Lieberman bill was the most substantial bipartisan effort our country has ever made to address the threat of climate change,” Krupp said. “The Senator will be remembered as being on the right side of this issue. He fought courageously in Congress to get them to take action on this problem long before we even understood how serious and urgent it is.”

“It was tough politics for him,” said former Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado, who worked on international climate negotiations as undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration and for 15 years as president of the UN Foundation. “It was not easy in Arizona, and it was not easy as the conservative wing of the party was getting more vocal. But he kept hammering away at it, which from the perspective of today seems even more impressive.”

McCain began to focus intently on climate change soon after ending his roller-coaster 2000 presidential run …

McCain had co-sponsored the 1990 bill that established a federal Global Change Research Program—legislation that passed the Senate unanimously—but the students’ question gnawed at him. “I do not have a plan,” McCain acknowledged in May 2000, at the first of three hearings on climate change he would convene that year as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “I am sorry to say that I do not have a plan because I do not have, nor do the American people have, sufficient information and knowledge.

“But I do believe that Americans, and we who are policymakers in all branches of government, should be concerned about mounting evidence that indicates that something is happening,” McCain said.

… McCain and Lieberman unveiled their plan—an economy-wide cap-and-trade program based on the successful 1990 program for curbing acid rain pollution—in a colloquy they inserted into the Congressional record for August 3, 2001. “Deploying the power of a marketplace to pursue the least expensive answers is a unique and powerful American approach to the threat of climate change,” McCain said.

… On July 31, Frist announced that the McCain-Lieberman bill would not need to go through Inhofe’s committee, but would move directly to the floor. There would be six hours of debate, with no amendments allowed except McCain and Lieberman’s own revisions to the bill.

… McCain opened the session with a pre-emptive swipe at Inhofe’s plan to lead opposition to the bill by attacking the validity of climate science. “There are some scientists who will … say that pigs fly and up is down and black is white, but the majority opinion is that of the most respected body in America, the National Academy of Sciences, and they are the ones who come forward with the views that are corroborated by thousands of scientists all over America and the world,” McCain said.

… Although McCain-Lieberman failed, 55-43, with 10 Democrats voting in opposition and two Democrats absent, the vote sent a ripple of hope through the community of climate activists. Five Republicans in addition to McCain—Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Richard Lugar of Indiana—had supported the bill. And members of both parties who voted in opposition said they accepted climate science and pledged to work for a climate bill they could support—including the two who led the Senate vote in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

… McCain and Lieberman made clear they planned to reintroduce the measure and seize what they saw as an opportunity to win converts. Des Champs recalls, “That vote in 2003 surprised a lot of people. At that point, it really hit the radar screen: ‘This could actually happen’.”

But that realization also brought out the opposition to climate legislation in full force. Business and fossil fuel interests joined in a new lobbying coalition focused on beating back environmental legislation, with McCain-Lieberman their primary focus. United for Jobs, led by Frontiers of Freedom, a nonprofit funded in part by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers, included the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a slew of interest groups ostensibly dedicated to the aging population, workers and racial equality, but in fact funded by other Koch groups, Exxon and other fossil fuel interests.

Inhofe and others quoted studies they commissioned on how the climate legislation would wreck the economy. “A lot of Republicans, basically aided by the Chamber of Commerce, ran a very effective campaign in which they turned ‘cap and trade’ into ‘tax and trade’ and it got harder for people to support it,” Lieberman recalls. He and McCain reworked their bill and re-introduced it in the next Congress, but 2003 proved to be their high-water mark. In a 2005 vote, the measure failed 60-38.

… But McCain, the presidential candidate, was calling for less ambitious cap-and-trade legislation than the bill that McCain, the senator, had co-sponsored with Lieberman. His new goal was 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, instead of 70 percent. And he signaled a further retreat at a news conference a few weeks later, when he suggested—in contradiction of his previous stand—that his plan was for emissions targets, not required cuts. “I would not … impose a mandatory cap at this time,” he said. He could see that the run-up in global oil prices would dominate political debate throughout the summer.

Over the next few weeks, U.S. gasoline prices climbed above $4 a gallon for the first time ever—even in inflation-adjusted terms, the hit to consumers surpassed the previous peak during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. McCain sounded more and more in step with Republican party leaders who saw a ramp-up in oil and gas production as the solution to the nation’s energy woes. Chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill” would reverberate at their convention.

… McCain even refused to support the revamped cap-and-trade bill that Lieberman, by now an Independent, brought to the floor with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) as co-sponsor. McCain, who complained the bill had insufficient nuclear energy incentives, was one of 16 senators (along with Obama, Clinton and Biden) absent for the 48-36 vote, The measure fell 12 votes short of the 60 needed for passage.

… McCain never renounced his belief in climate science or the need for action, but after he lost the presidency, he never resumed his role as a leader in the drive for climate legislation. When climate change legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) passed the House in 2009, McCain called it a “farce” in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “They bought every industry off—steel mills, agriculture, utilities,” he said. “I would not only not vote for it. I am opposed to it entirely, because it does damage to those of us who believe that we need to act in a rational fashion about climate change.”

We already miss him!

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Balanced Arguments or False Equivalence?

In the July 31st blog and several of the ones following it, I focused on an effort by four Republican senators to investigate federal grant making as it pertains to climate change:

“Research designed to sway individuals of a various group, be they meteorologists or engineers, to a politically contentious viewpoint is not science — it’s propagandizing,” the senators wrote to the foundation’s inspector general.

A few days ago, my editor (Sonya Landau) sent me an email linking to an op-ed by a group of 60 writers, politicians, and academics, published in The Guardian:

There’s a great piece from yesterday in The Guardian about the same matter (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/26/climate-change-is-real-we-must-not-offer-credibility-to-those-who-deny-it):

“We are no longer willing to lend our credibility to debates over whether or not climate change is real. It is real. We need to act now or the consequences will be catastrophic. In the interests of “balance”, the media often feels the need to include those who outright deny the reality of human-triggered climate change.

Balance implies equal weight. But this then creates a false equivalence between an overwhelming scientific consensus and a lobby, heavily funded by vested interests, that exists simply to sow doubt to serve those interests. Yes, of course scientific consensus should be open to challenge – but with better science, not with spin and nonsense. We urgently need to move the debate on to how we address the causes and effects of dangerous climate change – because that’s where common sense demands our attention and efforts should be”.

In 2015, John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Adviser, asked the National Academy of Sciences to assemble a workshop of experts to discuss how best to characterize climate change risks. They did so:

OPENING REMARKS

Planning committee chair Joseph Arvai noted in opening the workshop that uncertainty cannot be eliminated from scientific projections but that the NCA4 is an “opportunity to address risk even in a climate of uncertainty.” John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Thomas Karl of the USGCRP provided an overview of the primary objectives they hoped the workshop would accomplish, which was followed by discussion of some of the most important challenges for the NCA4. The assessment and characterization of risk, in Holdren’s view, should address the needs of those who will use the information: the makers and implementers of policy, firms and businesses, and individuals who make decisions about mitigation and adaptation, as well as voters. Up to now, he suggested, risk has been defined in terms of physical and biological events that can follow from climate change as “the sum over all possible events of probability times consequences.” Less attention has been given to the consequences of these events for human well-being, that is, to characterizing the probabilities of their occurrence, as well as the character and quality of the consequences. To prepare for the future, he said, it is critical that people have a much clearer picture of how likely different possible consequences are, understand the strength of the available evidence, and have a realistic understanding of what it will mean for society if “the worst is true.” Many people assume that the uncertainty in climate change projections means it is just as likely that the outcomes could turn out to be favorable as not, Holdren noted. In his view, it is actually the case that “there is a larger chance that things will be worse than we currently expect than better.” Because of this gap in understanding of the risks, he said, it is critical that the NCA4 be very clear not only about what is known, but also about how it is known, and that it clearly explains the implications of what is known for mitigation and adaptation. He suggested that the NCA4 could move in this direction by providing the following: 

USGCRP stands for The US Global Change Research Program and NCA4 is the 4th National Climate Assessment. I added the emphasis on one sentence because it summarizes one of the biggest problems climate scientists face. In essence, Holdren agrees with the op-ed in The Guardian that excluding deniers from future media exposure will help. The rest of the paragraph is background.

I teach climate change to 100 students and my semester just started last Monday (August 27th). From Tuesday – Thursday we had peak temperatures around 95oF with high humidity. The people in charge of Brooklyn College’s facilities sent this notice on Thursday, following a similar, slightly less alarming one from Wednesday:

ONE MORE TIME…

A heat advisory is again in effect for Brooklyn today. Our power supplier has asked us to cut energy use between 3 pm – 4 pm to avoid blackouts and other power disruptions. The Facilities Department takes steps to cut our power use during these times at our central chilling plant.  We try to meet our energy saving goal without causing any noticeable decrease in service to the campus, however we need your help to meet our goal by taking the following steps:

– Turn off unnecessary lighting.
– Turn off computers and other equipment when not in use. Unplug small electronics, such as coffee makers.
– Lower shades to block heat from the sun.
– If you have a window a/c, turn it off at the end of the day.
– If you have central a/c, make sure all windows are closed.

There were strong voices on campus asking to cancel classes but since we couldn’t do so unilaterally, it ended up not happening. My two classrooms are relatively new and well equipped with air conditioners. Some of the buildings’ corridors were nice and cool with centralized air conditioning, while some were very hot and uncomfortable. I have no idea if working air conditioners were available in all classrooms.

Should I have started my climate change course with a “balanced” view, telling the students that some people think climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to destroy the American economy, while others, like myself, strongly believe that it is a reality caused by our energy use and that future summers (and springs) are likely to be even worse?

Should I try to explain the science with the risk that some might view my efforts as propagandizing? How exactly should I teach the science without connecting the burning of fossil fuels with the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The science is clear that this increase of carbon dioxide changes the planet’s energy balance and results in the impacts that we now feel on an almost daily basis.

This political insistence on false balance is now expanding well beyond topics such as climate change. This week, President Trump started a series of tweets complaining that Google Search is purposefully biased against him and that Google is censoring out all the pro-Trump searches:

In a pair of tweets, Trump said Google search results for “Trump News” showed only the reporting of what he terms fake news media.

“They have it RIGGED, for me & others,” he said, blaming Google, part of Alphabet Inc, for what he said was dangerous action that promoted mainstream media outlets such as CNN and suppressed conservative political voices.

“This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Trump added. He did not offer any details.

The president promised that the government would look into the practice and take “appropriate actions.” Google is already familiar with this kind of governmental censorship. It’s exactly what kept the search engine out of China for many years, but now the company is trying to regain its market there by cooperating with the Chinese government to create a separate search engine with built-in censorship. At the same time, it is also gathering tools with which to deal with our president.

Over this last weekend (Thursday – Sunday) we all witnessed the sad yet inspiring memorial/funeral events mourning the death of Senator John McCain. There was no escaping the repeated comparison between the version of the US that Senator McCain was fighting for and the state of the country under our current government. Next week’s blog will focus on the late senator’s attempts to mediate our efforts to confront climate change.

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Just Hot Air?

Cartoon about climate change

Cartoon by Rex A. Jones

A few days ago I got a message on Facebook from my friend who edits this blog. She sent me the cartoon above by Rex A. Jones with the caveat that it seemed reductionist and inaccurate. I was a bit surprised to receive the message on two grounds: I rarely use social media because I am not comfortable with limiting my opinions to one or two sentences. Also, my friends are familiar with many aspects of climate change and don’t usually label the discussion “hot air.”

My interpretation was that the artist is desperate because of how antagonistic our governments have become toward progress in the field of mediating climate change. Within the US, that includes our withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, the conversion of the EPA into an agency that promotes poisoning, and the disappearance of the Department of Energy from the public purview. Up until now, these toxic measures were confined to the United States but Australia has just joined the parade. Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coal, has given up on mitigating its effects. But the country’s government and accompanying attitude about climate change changes as often as I change my socks (just kidding – don’t run away).

Basically, Australia has decided to join the US in fighting against climate change mitigation for the sake of political expediency. Australia’s newest government promises to deregulate the coal and oil industries at a faster rate than even the US could dream of – but as I said, governments and regulations are subject to change.

Industry leaders and consumers all around the world are striving toward sustainability; they realize that in the long term, such a thing requires serious consideration of the environmental impact of our energy use. In other words, the world is making progress not because of environmental regulations but in spite of them.

*(Two days after I started writing this, the prime minister of Australia was deposed again. I have no idea about the impact this latest upheaval will have on the government’s climate change policy).

I took a look at the world’s progress via the ten most populated nations in a series earlier this year (February 20March 20, 2018) but by the time that this blog is posted, my students will already be in session, so it seems like a great time to renew the discussion. I’m including 7 charts, which (in my scientific mind) is a good way to demonstrate the progress that we are making globally in the face of this spate of governmental reversals.

Figure 1 shows the global annual changes in energy production by fuel, comparing recent distribution to averages of the last 43 years. We see a sharp decline in coal, nuclear energy, and natural gas, while oil and alternative energy are on the rise. The last entry on the right side of the graph also indicates that we are becoming more energy efficient in producing our GDP.
Global annual change in energy production by fuelFigure 1 – Global energy production by fuel

Figure 2 shows that our GDP throughout most of this period has increased at a steady pace, when adjusted for inflation.

Changes in GDP/Capita for World 1960-2020Figure 2 – Constant GDP/Capita for the world, in US$

This trend is best seen in Figures 3 and 4 in terms of two important quantities that I described in earlier blogs: carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) and energy intensity (energy used per unit of GDP).

CO2 intensity of energy useFigure 3 – World carbon intensity

Figure 3 is interesting because it measures different groups of countries’ changes in carbon intensity – i.e. the burning of fossil fuels that directly causes climate change. Within the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries, the decline in carbon intensity is steady. Globally, the same is true if one excludes China. China is the main agent that undermines this steady progress. Its leadership does believe in the impact of climate change but its relatively sharp economic growth makes reducing emissions a more challenging task.

World energy intensity Figure 4 – World energy intensity

Meanwhile, we are experiencing a shift in the personal transportation sphere. The global popularity of smart phones makes communication easier and thus facilitates the sharing of all kind of items, including cars. Correspondingly, demands for private car ownership are decreasing. Services such as Uber and Lyft, and most car companies are now working on autonomous private vehicles that aim to make owning and using personal cars unnecessary. Bloomberg published a piece that summarizes the trend: “Peak Car – the end of the car industry.” Figures 5, 6, and 7 are taken from this article.

new drivers licenses for 17-25-year-old Germans, 2007-2017Figure 5 – New licenses for 17-25-year-old Germans

Fewer young people in Germany are getting driver’s licenses, indicating less interest in driving.

sale of Traditional US passenger cars vs. shared, private autonomous vehiclesFigure 6 – Black: Traditional US passenger car sales; Red: shared, private autonomous vehicles.

Similarly, passenger car sales in the US are declining as shared and autonomous vehicles are projected to gain momentum.

Number of vehicles in car-sharing fleetsFigure 7 – Number of vehicles in ride-sharing fleets

It is also indicative that ride-sharing fleets are beefing up their numbers, responding to demand as well as anticipating future passengers.

Cars aside, the progress that we are making toward fully sustainable energy is too slow but it’s not just hot air. There’s no call for desperation just yet.

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The Domino Effect

By Louise (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week’s title was resolutely optimistic, drawing inspiration from the game of bridge and summing up the philosophy behind my teaching. After this summer, however, this attitude is a bit difficult to maintain.

One thing I am constantly learning from my students is that they hate and do not believe doomsday predictions in any form, regarding almost any topic. That means that trying to use such ideas to incentivize change among them is a no-go. At the same time, I firmly believe that if we continue business as usual practices, we are driving the planet to dire scenarios, so I often use terminologies such as “self-inflicted genocide,” and collective suicide. It’s a tough balancing act.

Recently two other obstacles came up:

The Court of Justice of the European Union made a ruling that could make public discussion, teaching, and doing research on climate change much more difficult, given how integral the internet has become to all of these activities:

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Users who publish content freely available on the internet should get consent from the person behind it, Europe’s top court ruled on Tuesday in a boost to the bloc’s creative industries.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruling came after a secondary school student in Germany downloaded a photograph of Cordoba from a travel website to illustrate a presentation which was then published on the school website.

Meanwhile, a paper appeared in one of the most prestigious scientific publications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), predicting doomsday. The avalanche of publications that directly quoted or copied significant parts of the paper (listed toward the end of the blog) reveals how the decision of the European court will impact the discussion of climate change. The paper, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” was written by 16 coauthors. The lead author, Will Steffen, is from the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre and the “closing” co-author, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The Potsdam Institute is one of the leading global research organizations on climate change. The front page of its site includes significant parts of the paper:

Planet at risk of heading towards irreversible “Hothouse Earth” state

Keeping global warming to within 1.5-2°C may be more difficult than previously assessed. An international team of scientists has published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showing that even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of the planet entering what the scientists call “Hothouse Earth” conditions. A “Hothouse Earth” climate will in the long term stabilize at a global average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60 m higher than today, the paper says. The authors conclude it is now urgent to greatly accelerate the transition towards an emission-free world economy.
“Human emissions of greenhouse gas are not the sole determinant of temperature on Earth. Our study suggests that human-induced global warming of 2°C may trigger other Earth system processes, often called “feedbacks”, that can drive further warming – even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases”, says lead author Will Steffen from the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre. “Avoiding this scenario requires a redirection of human actions from exploitation to stewardship of the Earth system.”

Currently, global average temperatures are just over 1°C above pre-industrial and rising at 0.17°C per decade.

The authors of the study consider ten natural feedback processes, some of which are “tipping elements” that lead to abrupt change if a critical threshold is crossed. These feedbacks could turn from being a “friend” that stores carbon to a “foe” that emits it uncontrollably in a warmer world. These feedbacks are: permafrost thaw, loss of methane hydrates from the ocean floor, weakening land and ocean carbon sinks, increasing bacterial respiration in the oceans, Amazon rainforest dieback, boreal forest dieback, reduction of northern hemisphere snow cover, loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and reduction of Antarctic sea ice and polar ice sheets.

“These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominoes. Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another. It may be very difficult or impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over. Places on Earth will become uninhabitable if “Hothouse Earth” becomes the reality,” adds co-author Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and incoming co-Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

What brought the authors and the journal to publish this kind of paper is not absolutely clear to me. The only reasoning that I can think of is desperation. It’s a cry for humanity to finally start to take the issue seriously. Most of the physics and some of the key words such as positive and negative feedback and tipping points have been used before. The only new expression (to me at least) is “Hothouse Earth,” and it is not a new concept either. “Committed warming,” the warming that will continue after we stop burning carbon dioxide, is an idea that the IPCC reports described in some detail, and which I have covered here (December 5, 2017 and earlier).

The irreversibility of the “Hothouse Earth” – the point of uninhabitability caused by the positive feedbacks to the impact of global warming is in a sense the inverse of a concept sometimes called the Gaia hypothesis, i.e. the conditions that made the climate habitable in the first place (See Jai Pei’s guest blog, September 15, 2015):

… organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Topics of interest include how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms affect the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.

What caught the media’s attention almost immediately is the prediction of the uninhabitable “Hothouse Earth” caused by the positive feedback of the heating impact. The term, “domino effect,” as in the spiraling impacts of the positive feedback is a bit more difficult to find in the original paper but it is there and has been seized upon by the media.

To his credit, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, used the concept in the context of climate change long before the PNAS paper came out.

Here is an incomplete list of some of the other mainstream publications that covered the PNAS paper:

Reuters: “Domino effect may make climate change goals moot
EIA: ” Could the domino effect of climate change impacts knock us into ‘Hothouse Earth’?”
The Guardian: “Domino-effect of climate events could move Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state”
Newsweek
:
“‘Hothouse Earth’: Climate Domino Effect Could Lead to Runaway Global Warming”
Huffington Post: “The Domino Effect Between Climate Change and Women Farmers”
CBS Sacramento: “Earth At Risk Of Becoming ‘Hothouse’ If Tipping Point Reached, Report Warns”
ThinkProgress: “We’re getting dangerously close to a climate death spiral, new study warns”

The PNAS paper doesn’t require a paid subscription to read. It is available to everybody. So I assume that neither the authors nor the journal object to the republishing. They are probably delighted with the readership and the thought that the publicity (and the fear?) might lead to some possible mitigating action. But the practice is clearly not in compliance with the verdict of the European Court.

About six years ago, not long after I started this blog, I wrote an entry about, “Three shades of Deniers” (September 3, 2012). One of the “shades” is described below:

(2) The fatalists. This group fully agrees with both the science and its predicted impact, but believes that since the task of preventing it is so enormous as to be practically undoable, they might as well enjoy life for as long as it lasts. Unfortunately, many in this group are good scientists.

Papers such as the recent one in PNAS are manna from heaven to the fatalists.

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Giving Up is Not an Option: Let’s Focus on What We Still Can Do

KoeppiKderivative work: Newwhist (Bridge_played_cards_after_game.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Bridge used to be one of my favorite social activities (when my free time was a bit more abundant). To those not familiar with the rules, the basic structure is simple: one deck of cards, two teams of two. Wikipedia gives a pretty good explanation:

The game consists of several deals,[b] each progressing through four phases. The cards are dealt to the players, and then the players auction or bid to take the contract, specifying how many tricks the partnership receiving the contract (the declaring side) needs to take to receive points for the deal. During the auction, partners communicate information about their hand, including its overall strength and the length of its suits, although conventions for use during play also exist. The cards are then played, the declaring side trying to fulfill the contract, and the defenders trying to stop the declaring side from achieving its goal. The deal is scored based on the number of tricks taken, the contract, and various other factors which depend to some extent on the variation of the game being played.[4]

The player who wins the auction knows the exact cards that he and his partner were holding (his partners card are laid on the table for everybody to see) but the only information that he has about the holdings of his opponents’ cards is what he could deduce during the bidding. Naturally it is not a complete knowledge. A “golden” rule of bridge (as conveyed to me) is to play based only on information that can help you immediately and ignore everything else, even if it might impact your ultimate success.

I came to realize that such a strategy is essential for survival in this age of climate change and there is no better time to start implementing it than now.

The academic year starts in less than three weeks. I will teach close to 100 students (in two sessions) in my course on climate change (see the July 18, 2017 blog). My teaching philosophy is as follows:

In a global epoch dominated by humans (Anthropocene) politics cannot be left out of the classroom. I have touched on this topic many times [Politics (May 3 and May 17, 2016) and Education (May 24June 14, 2016) in the Anthropocene]. I firmly believe, however, that this teaching should be balanced, anchored on first principles, and not used as a recruitment opportunity for a particular party or dogma.

This clearly should satisfy the concerns of Messrs. James Inhofe, James Lankford, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul (July 31, 2018 blog) who want to make sure that federal funding directed at science will not go to indoctrinating poor students in the hearsay of climate change.

However, I cannot expect to retain credibility with my students without referring to what has been taking place this summer. The reality is indeed bleak on a number of fronts and my students need to be familiar with it. Hopefully that knowledge will incentivize them to learn the science and be receptive to how they can contribute to a better world – i.e. help us survive.

Courses will start with a set of reading assignments documenting some of this summer’s climate events. We will begin with The New York Times Magazine article, “Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change” by Nathan Rich with photographs by George Steinmetz.

CUNY students get free subscriptions to The New York Times, so this should not constitute a hardship. The magazine piece sheds light on the debate in the US that took place between 1979 and 1989 on what to do about the sharp rise in carbon dioxide concentrations recorded in the atmosphere that resulted from the increased global use of fossil fuels. The piece has a strong message (should we say it’s trying to indoctrinate?) and was written to impart a sense of missed opportunity. Obviously, Al Gore is a major player in this history. At that time he was a young congressman who was given a small subcommittee to manage:

Gore was granted his first leadership position, albeit a modest one: chairman of an oversight subcommittee within the Committee on Science and Technology — a subcommittee that he had lobbied to create. Most in Congress considered the science committee a legislative backwater, if they considered it at all; this made Gore’s subcommittee, which had no legislative authority, an afterthought to an afterthought. That, Gore vowed, would change. Environmental and health stories had all the elements of narrative drama: villains, victims and heroes. In a hearing, you could summon all three, with the chairman serving as narrator, chorus and moral authority. He told his staff director that he wanted to hold a hearing every week.

Mr. Rich decided to adapt Mr. Gore’s strategy in his writing. In his own “narrative drama,” the heroes are Rafe Pomerance (environmental activist) and Jim Hansen (a physicist with NASA), the villain is John Sunumu (Chief of Staff of President H. W. Bush), and the rest of us are the victims. The result is a readable piece that invariably asks the question of what went wrong and how things could have come out better. It also puts the political debate on the same footing as the scientific one.

The piece is accompanied by a somewhat frightening collection of images – two full pages worth of aerial photographs of major devastation caused recently by extreme climate events, including:

  • The Western Greenland ice-sheet melting
  • The algae cover of Lake Tai in China
  • Windswept desert sand covering Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania
  • The dwindling penguin populations on the rocky shores of Deception Island off the coast of Antarctica
  • Environmental refugees looking for shelter in flooded Bangladesh
  • Fire devastation in California
  • Shark Bay in Western Australia where sea grass is disappearing because of extreme heat
  • Texas after hurricane Harvey
  • The disappearing snow on the Swiss Alps

These images immediately raise the questions: can it happen here? and can it happen to me?

This is a decent background for us to start discussing the science.

The history in the NYT Magazine piece is more than 35 years old, meaning that these events took place before any of my students were born. That means it is vital to also compile what happened globally this summer because that makes it more personal. Horror stories are still coming out on a daily basis. The Economist counted up some of them:

EARTH is smouldering. From Seattle to Siberia this summer, flames have consumed swathes of the northern hemisphere. One of 18 wildfires sweeping through California, among the worst in the state’s history, is generating such heat that it created its own weather. Fires that raged through a coastal area near Athens last week killed 91 (see article). Elsewhere people are suffocating in the heat. Roughly 125 have died in Japan as the result of a heatwave that pushed temperatures in Tokyo above 40°C for the first time.

Yet as the impact of climate change becomes more evident, so too does the scale of the challenge ahead. Three years after countries vowed in Paris to keep warming “well below” 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels, greenhouse-gas emissions are up again. So are investments in oil and gas. In 2017, for the first time in four years, demand for coal rose. Subsidies for renewables, such as wind and solar power, are dwindling in many places and investment has stalled; climate-friendly nuclear power is expensive and unpopular. It is tempting to think these are temporary setbacks and that mankind, with its instinct for self-preservation, will muddle through to a victory over global warming. In fact, it is losing the war.

Two weeks ago, I did a similar compilation of recent disasters but I haven’t been able to keep up with the ongoing spate here while also discussing other topics. It’s not too difficult though, for students to follow up and ask their own questions as to attribution.

Next week I will focus on an article published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) that describes an Armageddon. Almost immediately, newspapers from all over the world duplicated it almost verbatim, with one main goal: to scare us all. I will discuss the paper and my view that the more we scare people, the more likely it is that they will view the issue as hopeless and give up on trying to mitigate or even adapt to the situations.

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