Climate Change

Consumers really can affect global warming -- particularly if they live in the United States

I've always been just a hair skeptical about all those admonitions to consumers to save the world -- you know, the "Live simply, that others may simply live"-type instructions. They felt a little too much like guilt-tripping to me, with perhaps not enough corresponding actual environmental good being done. It seems like a way for consumers who are feeling guilty about something -- say, those SUVs they drive -- to assuage their guilt by doing something that doesn't really hurt, like turning off the lights when leaving a room. And of course, we've seen how this mindset can backfire:

Climate change's cost in Arctic could chill future economy worldwide, study finds

rm iwest mugIn what its authors admit is almost certainly an underestimate, a new study says the catastrophic climate changes coming to the Arctic will cost at least $2.4 trillion by mid-century. (To put that into perspective, President Obama just proposed a $3.8 trillion federal government budget for next year.)

The true cost is likely to be a whole lot more -- probably in the range of the combined gross domestic products of Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, says the report, which was financed by the Pew Environment Group.

A melting Arctic heats the climate in two basic ways: First, when all the white snow and ice on the land and in the ocean melts, the darker colors underneath absorb more heat instead of reflecting it.

The second thing that happens is that as the permafrost melts, it releases methane -- remember methane, that other greenhouse gas, the one we fingered not long ago for its powerful greenhouse punch?

The researchers came up with estimates of how much both of these effects will have and converted those numbers into carbon dioxide equivalents -- i.e., how much of that better-known greenhouse you'd have to release to create this much climate warming.

Those figures are sobering: The amount of warming to be wrought this year alone by Arctic melting will equal about 42 percent of all the emissions from the United States! That's the equivalent of building 500 new coal-burning power plants.

Yale Study: Earth's climate appears more sensitive to CO2 than previously thought

 rm iwest mugRichard Harris' NPR story this week exploring how global temperatures stayed pretty constant over the last decade even as greenhouse gas concentrations increased reminded me of another important piece of research overlooked during last month's global climate negotiations in Copenhagen:

Yale University researchers studying past warming episodes that didn't get any help from the Industrial Revolution say the climate may be more sensitive to carbon dioxide than we previously understood.

The study by Yale's Climate and Energy Institute found that about 4.5 million years ago, when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was roughly what it is today, global temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Centigrade higher. This is a pretty big deal, recall, because we're talking about global average temps. The extremes are higher and the effects are more far-reaching than, say, a simple bump in the mercury on a summer day of 2 to 3 degrees might suggest.

The big message is sobering.

Obama's State of the Union punts on climate change... but what did you expect?

rm iwest mugWell, President Obama certainly did go on at some length tonight in his just-concluded State of the Union address. But he once again failed to elevate the climate issue to urgency. I have to agree with David Roberts over at Grist.org: "Pretty weak tea." (Hat tip to Roberts for posting the transcript of that part of the speech before Obama was even done talking.)

Now, some of our faithful correspondents and even some friends thought it curious that Dateline Earth faulted Obama for falling short on the climate and energy issue in his inaugural address a year ago, after which we held forth thusly:

 That is not the speech of a man who intends to launch a World War II-style domestic campaign -- think Rosie the Riveter and the Manahattan Project. And that's what scientists are saying we'll need.

He did it again tonight. The president -- wisely -- started out talking about jobs or, as we've put it before, "Fighting climate change = ending the recession." He was clearly aware that Americans are saying in polls now that climate is pretty low on their list of concerns. And just a day before the talk, Republican Lindsey Graham caved on Cap'n Trade, provoking Roberts, for one, to accept that we probably won't be going down that road this year, if ever in Obama's presidency.

But the sheer brevity of what Obama had to say tonight portrays a president so pummeled by problems that on climate, he punted.

The short but interesting (and climate-clobbering) life of methane, that *other* greenhouse gas

rm iwest mugRichard Harris' NPR piece today on methane's climate-clobbering effects jolted me to remember a post I planned but that went by the wayside when I got so busy editing our coverage of last month's big climate conference in Copenhagen.

During the big UNFCCC negotiations, an op-ed of huge import came out but didn't get as much attention as you might think, considering it was co-authored by Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Mohamed El-Ashray, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is important, they acknowledged, but a big focus in the next few years should be methane, because it traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. And methane converts to carbon dioxide after 10 or 12 years -- compared to CO2's residence time in the atmosphere that's measured in hundreds of years.

Methane's quite a bit easier to control, too (for now -- more on that shortly). So, to buy time to invent better ways to reduce CO2 emissions,  focus on methane, Watson and El-Ashray argue:

If we need to suppress temperature quickly in order to preserve glaciers, reducing methane can make an immediate impact. Compared to the massive requirements necessary to reduce CO2, cutting methane requires only modest investment. Where we stop methane emissions, cooling follows within a decade, not centuries. That could make the difference for many fragile systems on the brink.

Both Harris' piece and the op-ed point out that controlling methane also helps fight ground-level ozone, a public health threat.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Seattle Council's vote for a 'Do Not Mail' registry takes a stand for sustainability

Living sustainably means more than recycling. It also means cutting back on all that stuff that lands on those railroad cars that get sent to landfills in central Oregon from Seattle or barged across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii.

rita_hibbardwebStriking a blow for citizens who want to do their part, the Seattle City Council Thursday passed a resolution urging the Legislature to create a Do Not Mail junk mail registry akin to the Do Not Call registry for home phones. Yes, it will probably take federal action to get results. But it's also true that you have to start somewhere. So take a stand, Seattle!

The resolution would keep catalogs, ads, direct mail and other unwanted solicitations out of your mailbox.It claims the "production, distribution, and disposal of unsolicited direct mail contributes to climate change by producing 51 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually - equivalent to that of 10 million automobiles.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Greenhouse gases are amping ocean acidification, 15-year study shows

If there is any doubt that greenhouse gas emissions have extensive, far-reaching effects on our planet, the newly released results of a careful, long-term study should put any remaining confusion to rest. New research shows the Pacific Ocean is becoming more acidic, weakening shellfish and other marine life at a scarily fast clip - resulting in a 6 percent jump in ocean water acidity over the past 15 years in the top 300 feet of the ocean.

rita_hibbardwebOcean acidification is caused by carbon dioxide from cars, factories and power plants that causes global greenhouse effects and also dissolves in the ocean, writes Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton.

The process makes seawater slightly more acidic, and also gobbles up carbonate, a basic building block of seashells. The higher acid environment dissolves shells, and kills plankton, marine snails and other small creatures that supply food for the rest of the marine ecosystem. Highly acidic water also kills fish eggs.

The result:

The most extensive survey of pH levels in the Pacific Ocean confirms what spot measurements have suggested: From Hawaii to Alaska, the upper reaches of the sea are becoming more acidic in concert with rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The fact that we saw this very significant change over the last 15 years is a reminder of how mankind is affecting the oceans at an ever-increasing rate," said report co-author Richard Feely, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

The research teams measured acidity along 2,800 miles of ocean between Oahu and Kodiak in 1991, and returned in 2006 aboard a University of Washington research vessel, analyzing nearly 1,500 water samples over two months.

We'll be back after a word (or several thousand) for our sponsor: In-depth journalism

rm iwest mugFolks, I said when I was starting what turned out to be just a tiny bit of time off over the holidays that Dateline Earth would return in early January. While I still hope that will be true -- early January technically runs through the 15th, right? -- it's going to be a little longer than I'd hoped.

The reason: I'm wrapping up an in-depth story. Remember those? This first major outing for me under the InvestigateWest banner promises to be eye-opening for those interested in environmental health. I need to concentrate on finishing the writing, fact-checking, and so forth.

Then I'll be back with posts about that story; about the topics I mentioned when exiting stage right around Christmas, including one idea about how to start the process of reversing global warming; and reflections from the Multimedia Reporting and Convergence Workshop next week at the University of California at Berkeley, sponsored by the Knight Digital Media Center and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I was selected in a highly competitive process and look forward to the 12-hour days there because I'll learn a lot about multimedia methods to present our in-depth journalism.

Until then...

-- Robert McClure