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 (

“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:


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:


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”
“‘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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Climate Change and Federal Government Funding

Last week I looked at four Republican senators’ efforts to terminate government funding for television meteorologists who mention climate change as part of the forecast. I also discussed the issue in light of the global heat wave and the havoc it is wreaking all around the world – namely, how exactly are meteorologists supposed to discuss the destructive and increasingly frequent manifestations of all these deadly extreme events without referencing climate change?

The NYT announced that the Trump administration has finally nominated a Science Adviser: “Kelvin Droegemeier, a well-regarded meteorologist, has a long research record. But his views on climate change are not well known.” Even so, he has made his reputation by investigating extreme weather events and studying computer simulations of weather systems. These are the same tools that most scientists are now using to figure out human attributions to extreme weather events.

The last article I linked to in my last post talked about work taking place in some of the best British universities, where they are using exactly these tools with the goal that, “Weather forecasters will soon provide instant assessments of global warming’s influence on extreme events.” These are the people that the abovementioned four distinguished senators want to deny access to any research on such topics.

It is obvious (at least to me) that the senators’ focus on TV meteorologists is arbitrary; they would prefer to terminate all government efforts to understand and find ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Considering this is (unfortunately) a likely possibility, it might help to get an idea about how the US Federal government is currently involved in activities related to climate change. Figures 1 and 2, taken from the Government Accountability Office site (GAO), summarize the efforts both in terms of involvement of agencies and $ values.

 Figure 1 – Reported Federal Climate Change Funding by Category, 1993-2014

Federal funding for climate change research, technology, international assistance, and adaptation has increased from $2.4 billion in 1993 to $11.6 billion in 2014, with an additional $26.1 billion for climate change programs and activities provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. As shown in figure 1, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has reported federal climate change funding in three main categories since 1993:

  • technology to reduce emissions,

  • science to better understand climate change, and

  • international assistance for developing countries.

Figure 2 – Selected Coordination Mechanisms for Federal Climate Change Activities

As illustrated in figure 2, many federal entities manage programs and activities related to climate change. Each of these federal departments and agencies is operating under its own set of authorities and responsibilities and addresses climate change in ways relevant to its mission. In the context of providing climate-related information, the National Research Council observed that no single government agency or centralized unit could perform all the required functions, and that coordination of agency roles and regional activities is a necessity.

As a result of climate-related risks, fiscal exposure for the federal government has increased in many areas, including federal property and infrastructure, supply chains, disaster aid, and federal insurance programs. Consequently, Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 2013.

Over the past several years, federal agencies have made progress toward better organizing across and within agencies and among the various levels of government. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, for example, is a confederation of the research arms of 13 federal departments and agencies that carry out research and develop the nation’s response to climate change. In 2014, it published the National Climate Assessment report, which reviews observed and projected changes in climate in the United States, the effects of these changes, and options for responding.

These extended efforts don’t even account for the government involvement in education. In a few weeks, my school’s academic year will start (along with most other schools in this country), at which point I will have close to 100 students (registration is still ongoing) in my course on climate change. This summer I dedicated most of my time to original research on some of the issues I’ve been mentioning. Next week I will try to describe my efforts to distinguish between indoctrination and teaching science.

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Science or Indoctrination?

Earlier this month (July 3rd and 10th) I wrote two blogs about a heat wave that was affecting my home of NYC and how it impacted me. The weather here now is lovely (around 85oF, with bearable humidity and no flooding), but thanks to the torrents of available information, I am fully aware that the situations in many other places throughout the world are dire. Yet some of our government representatives are placing their focus on meteorologists. Below is a piece from The New York Times about these concerns:

When Did Talking About the Weather Become Political?

By Lisa Friedman, Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain

Take the battle in Congress over the renewal of a grant to help television meteorologists incorporate climate change into their weather reporting. Four Republican senators have called for an investigation, calling it indoctrination. Democrats last week moved to protect the funding, which is administered through the National Science Foundation.

“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.

The four Republicans — James Inhofe and James Lankford of Oklahoma, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — requested an investigation into whether the grants, which have been in place for almost ten years, violated federal law.

The first part of my morning routine is to read about recent events in the Economist Espresso. It curates and summarizes 5 news items each day under “The World in Brief.” Here’s one that showed up on Thursday:

Too hot to handle: the global heatwave

From the Arctic Circle to Japan, via Europe and America, the northern hemisphere is sizzling. In parts of Finnish Lapland temperatures recently hit 32.1ºC (89.8ºF), some 12ºC warmer than is typical for July. In Japan, where a record 41.1ºC has been reached, at least 65 people have died and a natural disaster has been declared. Wildfires have raged in Sweden and Greece. There looks to be no let-up to the swelter over the coming days—weeks perhaps. That will please sun-seekers. But heatwaves mostly bring problems, especially in the developing world: crops are ravaged, food spoils and workers become less productive. Studies even suggest that violent crime rises. Such extreme weather was a once-a-millennium outlier. But man-made climate change makes it more likely. Humans are getting better at living with heatwaves, from installing air-conditioning to painting shanty-town roofs white. Better to deal with the cause of the problem.

Nothing in that list is new to me – all the events mentioned took place over the span of at least several days and they are all in various stages of development that have been covered throughout – but the piece summarizes them nicely.

After breakfast I scanned my morning paper (NYT). The front section had four major articles on extreme climate events, including some of those mentioned in The Economist. Each of these took up a full print page:

“Yosemite National Park Evacuated Amid Threat From Fire”

“In Japan, Deadly Heat Wave Tests Endurance of Even the Most Stoic”

“In Laos, a Boom, and Then, ‘The Water Is Coming!’”

“In Greece, Wildfires Kill Dozens, Driving Some Into the Sea

The Economist piece and all of the NYT articles above had opening photographs. I chose to copy the one depicting the heat wave in Japan because it addresses people’s attempts to cope with the extreme weather. The picture also demonstrates the issue that facilities for such coping methods are becoming a bit crowded.

It is interesting to try to figure out how Messrs James Inhofe, James Lankford, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul want TV meteorologists to explain the globalization and increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events without invoking climate change. I’d also like to know their definitions of science and indoctrination and their expertise in differentiating between the two.

Following this line of thought, here’s an excerpt from an article in Slate:

“Can We Blame the Summer Heat Wave on Global Warming?” The relationship between weather and climate is complicated.

By Irineo Cabreros

The questions are as important as they are difficult. The long-term effects of climate change–such as the rising sea levels that will eventually displace tens of millions of people–are only a part of the story. Climate change also affects humans through an increased frequency of extreme weather: hurricanes, floods, droughts, and heat waves, some of it occurring right now. At least, it’s likely. A growing field of science is starting to emerge to help us understand the precise relationship between the slowly changing global climate and the variable weather we experience daily: extreme event attribution.

Or as Michael Wehner puts it: “probabilistic” extreme event attribution. Wehner, a senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, seemed careful not to frame his field as a magic bullet for assigning undisputable blame to individual weather events. “It’s not: Climate change flooded my house,” explained Wehner. “It’s: Climate change changed the chances of flooding my house.”

To understand what extreme event attribution does, it’s helpful to think about it through a simplified analogy. There’s a bucket full of balls: Some are blue, and some are red. If we draw a blue ball, the weather will be moderate. If we draw a red ball, the weather will be extreme. Before global warming, the bucket contained almost entirely blue balls with a handful of red ones mixed in. Global warming is slowly swapping a few blue balls for red ones. If today there’s a hurricane, we know that a red ball was drawn. But we don’t know if it was one of the original red balls or one of the new ones contributed by climate change. What extreme event attribution does allow us to do is estimate how many red balls were added to the bucket.

Is that analogy good enough to account for all these climate disasters?

Updates from the weekend:

Continuing coverage of California fires and record heat: “Death toll mounts as wildfires rage across California

‘Furnace Friday:’ Ill-Equipped for Heat, Britain Has a Meltdown

Air-conditioning is a luxury here. Not only do most homes not have it, but they are built to keep the heat in, experts say. As a result, the demand for fans has skyrocketed, leaving most stores in London out of stock.

“Droughts, Heat Waves and Floods: How to Tell When Climate Change Is to Blame”

Be safe and stay tuned!!!

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Location Sensitivities of Other Biota

My last blog ended with a promise that I would look into location sensitivity of other foods and drinks – after all, humans can’t survive on wine alone.

When I Googled “climate change impact,” these were my top results:

  • Marine Ecosystem
  • Real Estate
  • Global Food Security
  • Biodiversity
  • Ecosystem

With the exception of real estate, all of these directly relate to living systems. I have covered the impacts on the flora and fauna of a few habitats in previous blogs, including the repercussions on fisheries. In that blog I emphasized the conflict between fishermen and regulators in Maine regarding how best to address the crisis of fishing in the state. Populations of fish in specific places are thinning out, many migrating to better places – e.g. north to cooler water (January 20 and 27, 2015). Fishermen all over the world use a localized concept similar to the French terroir system I explained last week. In years past, the fishermen of Maine found plenty of fish in their coastal waters and assumed that this would stay true in the future. That is no longer the case.

Nor is the issue specific to Maine. Figure 1 gives a quantitative assessment of the movement of individual fish species in the US, as compiled by NOAA:

Figure 1 – NOAA estimates of movement of individual fish species in the US coastal zones per year

Fish can move quickly so the changes are relatively fast. The population of blackbelly rosefish shifted ~8.53km (more than 5 miles) in one year, which is a significant change. But the migration to cooler water is obviously not a guaranty for successful adaptation. The fish then have to find edible food in their new location or adapt to consume different food. Such adaptation usually takes time and works along the Darwinian principle, i.e. self-selection for species that can best survive the conditions.

Crops (including the vines that produce the right grapes for good wine production) don’t pick up and move but plants have other mechanisms for spreading to new locations – namely, pollinators. The Guardian published an op-ed about the impact of climate change on various garden plants:

From my perspective as caretaker of this little plant community, the problem is also that many of the seasonal understandings that have been basic to gardening in Toronto can no longer be assumed. Lavender might not survive the winter without wrapping. Tomatoes might need to be shaded in order to survive what is forecast to be an especially hot summer. Plants that require specialist pollinators may find their calls unanswered because the short-lived insects on which they rely may now have lives out of sync with the blooms.

Obviously the same issues hold true for growing all the agricultural products (indirectly including the meat that we consume) that make up our sources of food, a process that also constitutes most of the employment in developing countries. The impacts on these vital crops aren’t limited to temperature changes; the main concern is how the changing temperature affects a farm area’s water cycle.

For those of us that sometimes forget, we are all part of the biota. We are feeling the impacts not only via our food and drink supply but also through our ability to survive the changing climate. Since the impacts are even worse within poor nations, many of people are using the same method of adaptation as the fish – trying to migrate to better places. Just type, “environmental refugee” into the search box to find out how often I address this issue.

In an earlier blog I discussed claims that we are in the middle of the Sixth Mass Extinction, according to the quantified decline in population of many species (September 19, 2017). The measurement of declining species is also territorial. We measure where we think that these species are (or have been) most abundant – migration in most cases is difficult to follow.

When I started writing about the impact of climate change on wine I ran across a relevant article in The New York Times:

5 Plants and Animals Utterly Confused by Climate Change: Global warming is causing spring to arrive early and autumn to come late in many places, and not all species are adapting at the same rate.

By Livia Albeck-Ripka and Brad Plumer

The article references a scientific paper from 2010.

Scientists who study the changes in plants and animals triggered by seasons have a term for this: phenological mismatch. And they’re still trying to understand exactly how such mismatches — like the blooming of a flower before its pollinator emerges — might affect ecosystems.

I was unfamiliar with the term, “phenological mismatch,” so I referred to the original paper. Here is the abstract, along with a key figure that explains the impact of climate change on reproduction:

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2010 Oct 12; 365(1555): 3177–3186.

The effects of phenological mismatches on demography

Abraham J. Miller-Rushing,1,2,* Toke Thomas Høye,3 David W. Inouye,4,5 and Eric Post6


Climate change is altering the phenology of species across the world, but what are the consequences of these phenological changes for the demography and population dynamics of species? Time-sensitive relationships, such as migration, breeding and predation, may be disrupted or altered, which may in turn alter the rates of reproduction and survival, leading some populations to decline and others to increase in abundance. However, finding evidence for disrupted relationships, or lack thereof, and their demographic effects, is difficult because the necessary detailed observational data are rare. Moreover, we do not know how sensitive species will generally be to phenological mismatches when they occur. Existing long-term studies provide preliminary data for analysing the phenology and demography of species in several locations. In many instances, though, observational protocols may need to be optimized to characterize timing-based multi-trophic interactions. As a basis for future research, we outline some of the key questions and approaches to improving our understanding of the relationships among phenology, demography and climate in a multi-trophic context. There are many challenges associated with this line of research, not the least of which is the need for detailed, long-term data on many organisms in a single system. However, we identify key questions that can be addressed with data that already exist and propose approaches that could guide future research.

A schematic outline of how climate change may affect reproduction. Changes in the environment at the time of decision-making may affect the timing of reproduction via the response mechanism. For example, changes in temperature might affect the timing of breeding or flowering. However, changes in the environment at the time of selection (e.g. egg hatching or fruit maturation) will affect the fitness consequences of breeding at a particular date. Conditions at the time of decision-making may have historically provided reliable cues of conditions at the time of selection. Changes in climate may change the historical relationship and lead to maladaptive decisions. Adapted from Visser et al. (2004).

Figure 2

Given that the paper itself didn’t give much of a description of “phenology” either, here is Wikipedia’s definition of the term:

Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors (such as elevation)

In other words, a phenological mismatch is when related parts of an ecosystem are no longer in sync. We still don’t know the scope or scale of this climate change-based phenomenon but we’d better get familiar with the terminology and its significance to humans.

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Cheers – Let’s Drink to the Future of Wine!

I am finally getting around to writing the blog I promised about wine. Reuters recently summarized the current state of the wine industry:

Wine production totaled 250 million hectoliters last year, down 8.6 percent from 2016, data from the Paris-based International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) released on Tuesday showed.

It is the lowest level since 1957, when it had fallen to 173.8 million hectoliters, the OIV told Reuters.

A hectoliter represents 100 liters, or the equivalent of just over 133 standard 75 cl wine bottles.

All top wine producers in the EU have been hit by harsh weather last year, which lead to an overall fall in the bloc of 14.6 percent to 141 million hectoliters.

The OIV’s projections, which exclude juice and must (new wine), put Italian wine production down 17 percent at 42.5 million hectoliters, French output down 19 percent at 36.7 million and Spanish production down 20 percent at 32.1 million.

Is this decline connected to climate change or is it just related to normal natural fluctuations? A wine industry publication examined the association with climate change:

The Effects of Climate Change on The Global Wine Industry: A Meta-Analysis for SOMM Journal

Rising global temperatures will ultimately lead to an upward shift of the ideal grape-growing zone throughout the world, markedly changing local wine industries either for the worse in the case of those already teetering on being too hot for grapes, or for the better for those that were historically too cold but now are within that 10oC range for quality wine grape growth. Models also predict that brand new areas could be suitable for wine grape growing that had not been considered in the past.

If no attempts to mitigate climate change are made, by 2100 the US will likely see an 81% reduction in suitable wine grape acreage (White et al, 2006), with upwards of half of the current acreage in Napa and Santa Barbara counties lost by 2040 (Diffenbaugh et al, 2011).

The issue is global but it becomes most transparent and predictable as we focus on French wines. Wikipedia provides some background on the classification of French wines: 

French wine is produced all throughout France, in quantities between 50 and 60 million hectolitres per year, or 7–8 billion bottles. France is one of the largest wine producers in the world.[1] French wine traces its history to the 6th century BC, with many of France’s regions dating their wine-making history to Roman times. The wines produced range from expensive high-end wines sold internationally to more modest wines usually only seen within France such as the Margnat wines were during the post war period.

Two concepts central to higher end French wines are the notion of “terroir“, which links the style of the wines to the specific locations where the grapes are grown and the wine is made, and the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, replaced by the Appellation d’Origin Protégée (AOP) system in 2012. Appellation rules closely define which grape varieties and winemaking practices are approved for classification in each of France’s several hundred geographically defined appellations, which can cover entire regions, individual villages or even specific vineyards.

Terroir is the basis of the French wine appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, which is a model for wine appellation and regulation in France and around the world. The AOC system presumes that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site (the plants’ habitat). The extent of terroir’s significance is debated in the wine industry.[2]

The appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC; French pronunciation: ​[a.pɛ.la.sjɔ̃ dɔ.ʁi.ʒin kɔ̃.tʁo.le]; “protected designation of origin”) is the French certification granted to certain French geographical indications for wines, cheesesbutters, and other agricultural products, all under the auspices of the government bureau Institut national des appellations d’origine, now called Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO). It is based on the concept of terroir.

There are currently over 300 French wines entitled to the designation AOC on their label.

Legislation concerning the way vineyards are identified makes recognizing the various AOCs very challenging for wine drinkers not well-acclimated to the system. Often, distinguishing classifications requires knowledge of esoteric label laws such as “Unless the wine is from a Premier Cru vineyard, the vineyard name must be printed in characters no more than half the height of the ones used for the village name”[4]

On the other hand, while the process of label approval is enforced to the millimetre, the quality control for the wine in the bottle is much less strict. While a blind taster must approve the wine for it to receive AOC classification, this tasting often occurs before the product is even bottled, and by a local expert who may well have ties to the local vintners. Even if the taster is objective, the wine sample may not be representative of the actual product, and there is almost no way to verify that the finished bottled product is the same as the original AOC sample.[4]

Such sensitivity to location is global; Figure 1 shows the distribution of wine-producing regions.

Figure 1 – Global distribution of wine-producing regions

I was confronted with the power of this narrow geographical distribution during my recent visit to New Zealand. I love New Zealand’s white wine, so we went to visit some of the wineries on the South Island, not far from Christchurch. I knew that wine production in New Zealand could be traced to the mid-19th Century when the British were in control. Britain has never been known for its wine production, so I asked the owner how the tradition came about. He smiled and told me to have a look at a map. Many of the residents’ ancestors came from Europe; they knew where Bordeaux was in the northern hemisphere and they figured that since they were in a similar location within the southern hemisphere it was worth a try. Figure 1 is not very high resolution but one can see that he was approximately right. The decision was location-based.

Now that climate change is shifting various regions’ climates, the terroir system will have to be adjusted.

Next week I will try to look at the impact of climate change on the location sensitivities of other foods and drinks.

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I wrote my last blog in the middle of a heat wave that covered the city where I live along with great swaths of the East Coast and other parts of the world. The heat wave lasted almost a week; by Thursday, July 5th, peak temperature here in NYC was still above 90oF. Last time, I promised to examine the impacts of climate change on the global wine industry but I have decided to postpone the topic by another week. When I was writing my last post, I experienced a feeling that many might find familiar – guilt about the way I live.

Last week I included some of the ways I was handling the heat, namely: air conditioning and visiting family who live in the suburbs and have a pool.

I emphasized that these options are available to me but not to billions of people all around the world – including many other New Yorkers and Americans. However, I didn’t mention the ways in which these luxuries that make my life more comfortable actually contribute to the warming of the climate. These aspects include my drive out to the suburbs and the massive amount of power required for my nonstop use of air conditioning at home. There are ways in which I could have done everything I wanted without contributing to climate change, but I didn’t bother to try. I use my classes and my blog to teach and (mostly inadvertently) preach about the dangers of climate change but often forget to listen to my own message. Unfortunately, I am not alone in this dilemma.

On October 4, 2016 I wrote a blog about similar practices by Al Gore – probably the US’s greatest advocate for mitigating our emissions that cause climate change:

Al Gore is now a rich and famous man. A short internet search brings up images of his mansion in California, which puts the Nashville one to shame, but the sheer size of these buildings requires a lot of energy. If the energy use approximately matches the average energy mix in the US, it generates large amount of greenhouse gases. I didn’t follow up on his efforts to cut down on energy usage and replace his energy sources with a more sustainable mix. However, the message from his personal life certainly undermined his message to society and, if nothing else, served as a combustible weapon in the hands of climate deniers who refuse to heed his plea.

I am guilty of the same hypocrisy on a smaller scale.

I showed the following graph in previous blogs (December 10, 2012 and September 26, 2017) to illustrate climate sensitivity (increase in global temperature as a function of the increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide):

IPCC equilibrium global mean temperature increaseFigure 1

The graph shows the expected rise in temperature as a function of possible rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, in the form of a broad band bisected by a dark line. I have already discussed the origin of the band and how it represents the uncertainty in estimating the exact value of the temperature rise. This is because two thirds of the driving forces behind the temperature rise do not come from direct exposure to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide but rather feedback to the direct heating. The feedback comes from physical heat-dependent driving forces such as changes in the atmospheric water vapor, clouds, snow melt, permafrost melt, changes in solubility of carbon dioxide in the ocean, etc. The J. Hansen et. al. manuscript, “Climate Sensitivity: Analysis of Feedback Mechanisms” (1984), is an excellent early paper on many of these feedback mechanisms.

The extent of these feedback mechanisms cannot yet be predicted quantitatively.

To my knowledge, human feedback – as in the repercussions of the actions we take to make our lives a bit more bearable when the impacts strike – has never quantified in comparison to the above-mentioned natural feedback to direct heating. There is no question in my mind that its importance will increase along with the direct impact, thus accelerating the damage.

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