Climate Change Driving Our Weather Crazy

flooding of jersey shore
Flooding of New Jersey shoreline

By Stephen Leahy

Helle Thorning-Schmidt came home at 3:30am one night last August to find her home flooded after heavy rains. Ironically the Danish prime minister had been attending European Commission meetings discussing climate change among other topics. As she cleaned up the soggy mess at home, she recalls thinking that “climate change truly affects us all”.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report, there are now more and longer-lasting heat waves, more heavy rainfall events, bigger storm surges, larger wildfires and other extreme events than prior to 1950. Some of these “have been linked to human influences” and such events are “very likely” to get worse in future than they are today, the IPCC report concludes.

For example, Denmark has experienced extensive flooding in recent years. In 2011, one downpour resulted in 5 billion euros in damages to the city of Copenhagen alone. “We’re having lots of floods now and these are badly damaging our infrastructure,” Thorning-Schmidt told 750 attendees at the IARU Sustainability Science Congress in Copenhagen in October. “Climate change is happening now.”

“All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be,” says Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado and an expert on extreme events.

Conditions in the atmosphere have fundamentally changed, he explains, thanks to hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat and as a result there is far more heat energy in the climate system and warmer temperatures. This also means 4-6% more moisture in the air – “fuel” for storms that makes them more destructive, says Trenberth.

“This is the new normal,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to rebuild in some regions – they’ll just be swept away again.”

Changing odds

This new normal is borne out by a ground-breaking series of studies of 16 extreme weather events in 2013, most of which bear the fingerprints of climate change according to a team of researchers from around the world. For the first time, thanks to new data and better computer models, scientists were able attribute the odds of actual extreme events occurring with or without climate change. They found that climate change increased the odds of nine extremes in 2013: heat waves in Australia, Europe, China, Japan and Korea, intense rain in parts of the United States and India, and severe droughts in California and New Zealand. The studies were published in the special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in September.

California’s devastating drought is ongoing and researchers at Stanford University determined that the warming from carbon emissions was three times more likely to create the conditions for drought than with no emissions. “There was a strong link to climate warming,” says Stanford’s Daniel Swain.

Australia’s record breaking heat wave in 2013, meanwhile, would not have happened without climate change, Swain told chinadialogue. Not all extreme events are so clearly connected to global warming, however, in large part because the complex natural variability of weather systems and a lack of data in some cases, he added.Seaside Heights, New Jersey, on October 31, 2012. (AP Photo:Mike Groll)

Forecasting where and when extreme events will occur is even more challenging. However a new mathematical method based on “big data” may help to predict extreme rainfall in the South American Andes. An international team of scientists led by Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) say they can “correctly predict 90% of extreme rainfall events in the Central Andes”.

“The data was there, but nobody joined the dots like this before,” says co-author Jürgen Kurths of PIK.

Rising costs

The insurance industry is getting increasingly worried by the strengthening evidence that climate change is increasing extreme weather since they face rapidly rising bills. In Canada, for example, property damages from extreme weather averaged US$200 to US$500 million a year over 24 consecutive years. In the last six years it shot up to US$1 billion a year and in 2013 it was US$3.4 billion.

“Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity,” explains Blair Feltmate, professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo and chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project Canada, though not every event is caused by climate change.

“It’s like a baseball player on steroids: you can’t say every home run is because of the drug but it does increase the odds of hitting more home runs.”

He adds: “What people need to understand is this is only going to get much worse. A US$35 billion flood is coming to Canada.”

Many countries have contributed relatively little CO2 to the fossil-fuel blanket heating the planet but are, like the Philippines with Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people, already experiencing significant impacts from extreme events. This reality was officially recognised at a contentious United Nations climate treaty meeting last December in Warsaw, Poland.

After 36 straight hours of intense negotiations industrialised nations finally agreed with developing nations that a new climate treaty will have what’s called a “loss and damage mechanism”, or the “Warsaw mechanism”. This recognises that the impacts of climate change will lead to both economic and non-economic losses, including the growing issue of climate refugees.

TXTornadoesDots
Aftermath of an early tornado in Lancaster, Texas. To join thousands of others connecting the dots between climate change and extreme weather, visit ClimateDots.org.

Nearly a year later there has been little progress on fleshing out how the Warsaw Mechanism will work. A leaked internal US State Department document revealed US fears that poor nations will seek “redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts”.

A new climate treaty that effectively phases out carbon emissions entirely was signed by all nations in Paris in December 2015. However difficult issues including financial assistance for adaptation and a functional Warsaw Mechanism were not resolved in Paris.

“From a science perspective there is a good case that climate change contributed substantially to the damage from Haiyan,” says NOAA’s Trenberth. How much damage is hard to determine. In addition perhaps there were too many people living in too vulnerable a region he said. “Who was responsible for that?”

Updated dec 2015. First published on China Dialogue 17.11.2014

Paris Climate Talks – Canada’s “Thrilled”

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during a news conference, in Paris, France, on Nov. 29, 2015. The Climate Action Network International awarded Canada a second place "fossil of the day" award today at the COP21 climate summit, citing the reluctance of Canadian negotiators to have compensation for weather destruction in poor countries included in the final Paris agreement.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

 

I’m really thrilled Canada was able to play an active part of it.

— Catherine McKenna,  Minister of environment and climate change

Years from now, today may very well be the day our children look back to as the beginning of an ambitious global effort to finally fight climate change. I am proud of the role Canada is playing in reaching this historic and balanced agreement, and I am confident that the world will rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.

— Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Canada: What a difference an election can make

cop21 logo smlThe historic Paris Agreement is front page news in most of Canadian media in part because Canada’s new minister of environment and climate change Catherine McKenna was a key player in the final outcome. Moreover McKenna endorsed the 1.5C target, and lobbied to ensure human and indigenous rights were part of the agreement.

In Paris Canada might have won the “most helpful” or “biggest turn around” award if such things existed — 180 degree change from previous COPs.

For eight years under the previous Stephen Harper government, ‘won’ consecutive “Fossil of the Day” awards for being the most unhelpful country. An award Canada’s previous Minister’s of the Environment took pride in. It was a government so intent on supporting the county’s fossil fuel industry it denied the reality that climate change was already impacting the country.

“We see in Canada the impacts of climate change. We have wildfires in B.C.; we have flooding in Alberta; Prince Edward Island is shrinking; and we see in our Arctic the permafrost is melting and hunters have shorter seasons. Canadians know that we need to act, and that’s what we’re going to do,” McKenna told the Toronto Star.

“Now it’s time to do the hard work,” McKenna added. “We’re going to go home and figure out the plan. . . Every Canadian has to do their part.”

Most Canadian media focused on the details of the agreement nearly all considered it a historic shift to a low-carbon economy. Some focused on the huge challenge of doing so calling it daunting.

So far there is little analysis of the implications of the deal for Canada, the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer and the biggest supplier of oil to the US. It is also the third largest producer of natural gas and one of the top ten miners of coal.

For context here is my four part series revealing how Canada became a very wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah.

First published on the Climate News Mosaic Paris Climate Talks Live Blog available here:

Why the Paris Agreement is Historic – In 60 Words

cop21 logo sml

Every country in the world just agreed to:

1. Phase out fossil fuels well before the end of the century

2. Try to keep global warming to less than 1.5C (very difficult since it’s already 1.0C)

3. Rich countries will help poor countries to green their economies, help pay for the damages from climate impacts and help them adapt to future impacts.

[The Paris Agreement is like buying life insurance. It’s for the benefit of our children and grandchildren.]

Paris Climate Talks – Human and Indigenous Rights Removed

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“How can our voices be silenced here?”  Jannie Staffansson – a Sami woman from Northern Europe

 

We are the persons who are dying. My friends, my family are the ones who go through water, they are the ones killed in avalanches. How can the purpose of this negotiation not be people? How can our voices be silenced here?

  • Jannie Staffansson – a Sami woman from Northern Europe

Two environmental activists are killed every week according to Global Witness, and disproportionate number are Indigenous people

  • Kumi Nadioo, Greenpeace International
References to human and Indigenous rights have been removed from Article 2 in the core part of the Paris Agreement draft. They remain in the preamble. More than 240 civil society groups insist the human rights language be re-inserted into Article 2.

Why is this important?

Article 2 is about the purpose of the agreement which surely is to protect people and the climate said María José Veramendi Villa, Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA) of Perú.

“Indigenous peoples are amongst the most impacted by climate change,” she said in a press conference today.

Article 2 also sets out how the agreement is to be implemented. This is crucial because some purported climate actions already in place such as biofuel plantations and carbon sequestration projects have already violated the rights of local people. People have been removed from their ancestral lands and protesters have been killed in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Norway, the European Union, the US and others oppose the inclusion for reasons that are completely unclear said Veramendi.

“It doesn’t change obligations  that are already in the UN Declaration on Human Rights,” she said.

Countries like the US are only acting to protect the interests of a few powerful corporations in these negotiations, said Greenpeace’s Nadioo.

That’s why there is a global movement, a dynamic movement for real climate action that they cannot stop, he said.

Paris Climate Talks – New Text Now, Final On Track for Friday

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.25.06 PM
In a very brief session at 21:00 COP President Fabius says he will lead meetings of negotiators from 11.30 pm and overnight to hash out “compromises” and “landing zones”.

“I think I will be able to present final text tomorrow,” he said.

NEW TEXT HERE

It is slightly longer with about 50 brackets – down from 150 to 200. 

Paris Climate Talks: Cities are 70% of C02 Emissions – Fighting to be Climate Leaders

By Stephen Leahy

National Governments Should Be Helping Green Cities

Cities are responsible for 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions but they can save the planet by greening one community at a time said Vancouver’s David Cadman at the close of the ICLEI World Congress 2015, the triennial sustainability summit of local governments in Seoul, South Korea.

cop21 logo sml“We can do it. We must do it,” Cadman, the retiring president of Local Governments for Sustainability, told some 1,500 delegates from nearly 1,000 cities and local governments in 96 countries on April 11.

The majority of climate actions and most plans to reduce CO2 emissions are happening at the city level, Cadman told DeSmog Canada in Seoul.

Vancouver and 50 other cities have committed to 100 per cent renewable energy and 500 more are part of ICLEI’s Cities Climate Registry that documents verifiable CO2 emission reduction actions and commitments that amounted to 2.8 billion tons a year in 2014.

Cadman, a former City of Vancouver councillor, has been president of ICLEI since 2006. It’s an international organization headquartered in Bonn, Germany, with 280 staff and 23 other offices scattered around the globe. ICLEI, which stands for International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, started 25 years ago in Toronto to help cities become more sustainable. It now goes by the more manageable name of “Local Governments for Sustainability,” but still uses the original acronym.

Canada’s federal and provincial governments were very strong supporters in the early days but the past decade has been very different.

Canada Chained to Fossil Fuel Sector

“We seem to be chained to the fossil energy industry in Canada and it’s pulling us down. Cities and organizations can hardly dare to speak out about this now,” he said.

Germany was only too happy to bring ICLEI to Bonn eight years ago and has been generous with its support, along with the European Union. Now the organization is experiencing what is being called an “Asian pivot,” with the mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon, as the new president.

Park has helped Seoul to become one of the world’s leaders on sustainable development. With 11 million people and growing fast, Seoul will reduce its energy use and increase renewable generation including rolling out 40,000 solar panels to households by 2018 and 15,000 electric vehicles. By 2030, CO2 emissions will be cut 40 per cent.

“Action on climate will be by local governments no matter what national governments decide,” Park Won Soon told DeSmog Canada.

“We need to act quickly, we need to act energetically,” the mayor said.

China’s megacities are also joining ICLEI. At the congress, Hailong Li, deputy secretary general of the China Eco-city Council said the country will have 100 low-carbon eco-cities by 2017. That will drive down the costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy, Li said.

China also intends to become an expert on eco-construction and to market its expertise to the rest of the developing world.

By 2030 another 3.5 billion people will be living in cities so it is absolutely critical that the infrastructure be sustainable said Cadman who will continue to be active as special representative to the new ICLEI President.

Canadian cities could also do more and sooner if they had the support of provincial and federal governments, he said. That may be changing at the provincial level with growing support for various forms of carbon taxes that will help generate funds and financial incentives to reduce emissions.

“The provinces are doing the heavy-lifting on climate while the Harper government sits on the sidelines.”

Fossil fuels are in decline — divestment is taking off and investments are shifting to renewable energy. There’ll be no pipelines to the West Coast and no new investments in the oilsands, Cadman said.

Even in B.C., the hoped-for markets for LNG may not exist with China building gas pipelines to tap reserves in Iran and Russia, he said.

“Canada needs to move away from selling raw resources, but is any political party ready to go there?”

First published April 2015