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 Agreement – Historic Plan for 3.0C of Warming

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World hopes to improve the Master Plan to keep warming to 1.5C

The best the Paris Agreement can do to control climate change is to keep the warming to 2.7C according to the international Climate Action Tracker. That is assuming every country meets their individual CO2 emission reduction target does and no natural feedbacks will speed the heating of the planet.

Other analysis find the Agreement will result in global temperatures rising to 3.0C or more. Even 2.7C is far too dangerous for humanity and most natural ecosystems we all depend on. Coral reefs will not survive scientists have warned.

Keeping warming below 2.0 will be more challenging – 1.5 even more so. This something humanity has yet to fully understand.

Here’s some things that will have to change:

* No more exploration for more oil, gas, coal

* The current $650 billion to $1 trillion/a year in fossil fuel subsides shift to alternative energy

* No new oil or gas wells, no new coal mines

* Sharply reduce the manufacture of anything that requires fossil fuel or convert them to run on renewable energy including cars and trucks, buildings, power plants and so on. See Study: Stop Building Carbon Infrastructure by 2018

That’s just for starters.

Climate science uses hard numbers. Those numbers say Fossil fuel use has to go to net zero sometime between 2060 and 2070. There is no negotiation.

Why the Paris Agreement is Historic – In 60 Words

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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 – What Does “Emissions Neutrality” Mean?

cop21 logo smlWhat Does “Emissions Neutrality” Really Mean?

Explainer:
Negotiators have deleted specific emission reduction targets for the long-term goal i.e. +2050. Thursday night in Paris a new proposal surfaced for “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions neutrality in the second half of the century, on the basis of equity and guided by science in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

This should mean zero GHG emissions from all sectors by first reducing emissions to near zero and then using negative emissions (taking CO2 etc out of the atmosphere) to achieve net zero.

Defining it as GHG neutrality vs carbon neutrality is very important from climate science perspective. In 2012, 23% of emissions were non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

Bottom line:

There is no way to get to 1.5C or 2.0C without GHG neutrality before 2100. What’s missing in the agreement is a specific time table – “second half of the century” is pretty vague. Expect this to change at some future COP (yes there will be many more) when the science catches up with figuring out what is needed to achieve it.

Paris Climate Talks – Reactions to New Dec 10 Text

Things are moving faster than expected, debate continues overnight with hopes of a final agreement ready to be voted on late Friday. We’ll see. Remember this is a consensus process, one country can hold up the rest. 

NEW TEXT HEREcop21 logo sml

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

Some reactions in the order they were made:

“The standard of any effective climate policy is clear: does it keep fossil fuels in the ground and accelerate a just transition to 100% renewable energy?

The commitments we are seeing in the text are a start, but they won’t get the job done, so activists are already mobilizing to close the gap between rhetoric and reality.”
— Payal Parekh, 350.org Global Managing Director

At first glance happy with new COP21 draft – target ‘well below 2C’ and ’emissions neutrality’ in 2050-2100 both ambitious but achievable
— Corinne Le Quéré (@clequere)

$100bn confirmed as rich nations’ floor in new draft Paris #COP21 text. Left – today Right – yesterday
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans)

#Oceans #biodiversity & “Mother Earth” out of #brackets in Preamble #update #UNFCCC #COP21
— Paris Agreement News (@ParisAgreement)

Binding part of new #climate agreement draft no longer includes #humanrights – that is going to upset a lot of people
— Megan Rowling ‏@meganrowlin

I see “people in vulnerable situations and under occupation” remains… here’s why that’s a little tricky: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2015/12/07/israel-palestine-conflict-seeps-into-paris-climate-talks-in-human-rights-row/
— Edward King

As I’ve been saying, addition of 1.5C wording is about recognizing harm to small islands and other countries #COP21 pic.twitter.com/Cw4Di5dtGz
Simon Donner (@simondonner)

3rd draft is out. No liability/compensation. Adriano Campolina of @ActionAid called it “draft deal that denies the world justice”
— Stella Paul (@stellasglobe)

By including a clause for no future claim of compensation and liability, the US has ensured people suffering from the disastrous impacts of climate change will never be able to seek the justice owed to them.

This unfair and unjust draft deal won’t face up to the realities of climate change and will only serve to widen the chasm between rich and poor.Rich countries have a responsibility to ensure a fair global deal for everyone, not just themselves, and as we move into these final hours of negotiations poorer countries must not settle for anything less.
— Adriano Campolina, ActionAid Chief Executive

New #COP21 text is remarkably streamlined. But big issues on target, differentiation (funding) & transparency still open. Important progress
— Simon Lewis (@SimonLLewis)

First published on the Climate News Mosaic Paris Climate Talks Live Blog available here:
Inter Press Service News Agency (International)
DeSmog Blog (Seattle)
Philippine EnviroNews (Philippines)
Earth Journalism (International)
Watson (Switzerland)
Skeptical Science (International)

Paris Climate Talks – Science Behind Need for 1.5C

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No climate scientist thinks two degrees C will be “safe”. Many countries, especially least-developed countries and small island states, have been calling for global target to be less than 1.5C of heating in 2009 at COP 15 in Copenhagen. Before that some countries launched  ‘1.5 to stay alive’ campaign at the UN in September 2009.

Humans have enjoyed 10,000 years of climate stability, in which the global average temperature varied less than one degree C – even during the Little Ice Age.

This heating will be wildly uneven with the Arctic warming 2-3 times faster. In 1.5C world much of the far north will be 4.0C. Canada is already 1.6 to 1.8 C warmer today.

Large parts of Africa including the African Sahel, including the Horn of Africa, are very vulnerable to any increase in temperatures. Even with 1.5C large portions of the Arctic and Antarctic will continue to melt raising sea levels, albeit at a slower rate threatening the very existence of some small islands states.

Delay in making the shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources will be very costly. Waiting until 2020 to curb global emissions will cost twice as much compared with peaking emissions by 2015 various analysis have shown.

At least 65% of Existing Coal Plants Must be Shuttered by 2030
Serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions means 65 percent of current coal power plants will have to be shut down in the next decade or two, a 2012 study concludes.

There are enormous benefits if global emissions decline before 2020. Failure to do so will mean we will need to use more nuclear, massive amounts of bioenergy, large-scale carbon capture and storage

  • Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist at Switzerland’s Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science

Paris Climate Talks – Fossil Fuel Subsidies Called “Absurd”

 

 

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“A price on carbon and fossil fuel subsidies are two opposing forces.”  — Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency  Credit: IISD

At the “Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Climate Change” side event last evening a range of energy experts said continuing to pour  hundreds of billions of dollars of public money into subsidizing fossil fuels was “absurd”, “incoherent”, “unacceptable” and more.

Only 3% of Fossil Fuel Subsidies reaches the poorest 20% of households, said Felipe Calderón, Chair, Global Commission on Economy and Climate.  As often claimed these subsidies do not help poor families nor improve energy access he said.

A few more comments and some startling facts:

The carbon price in Europe is approximately US$10, yet incentives for fossil fuel use, equate to a global average of US$110 per tonne of carbon…an “absurd situation” …

— Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Association (IEA)

Each hour, US$8 million is spent on Fossil Fuel Subsidies

–Scott Vaughan, President, IISD

 Fossil Fuel Subsidies amount to five times the global annual climate finance commitment of US$100 billion.

— Børge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway

…partial phase out of Fossil Fuel Subsidies would generate 12 percent of the global abatement needed by 2020 to achieve a 2ºC pathway.

— Doris Leuthard, Head, Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, Switzerland

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

Paris Climate Talks – Peak CO2 Already?

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Have We Reached the Crucial Peak in Global CO2 Emissions?
New report released today says CO2 emissions will likely decline this year for the first time after growing 2-3% per year for last 15 years.

“Whether a slower growth in global emissions will be sustained depends on the use of coal in China and elsewhere, and where new energy will come from. In 2014, more than half of new energy needs in China were met from renewable sources such as hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar power.” — Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre

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Paris Climate Talks: Three Major Issues

The main issue in Copenhagen in 2009 was determining each country’s fair share of CO2 emission reductions cuts and by when. If a flag could be attached to every CO2 molecule humanity has put into the atmosphere over the last 150 years, about 70 percent would be the flags of wealthy countries: the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany and so on.

Those rich nations agreed to make some CO2 cuts by 2020 but they were mostly small and voluntary. In exchange poor countries were promised $100 billion a year by 2020.

How much has changed at COP 21?cop21 logo sml

#1 Most countries have filed their plans for emissions reductions but they aren’t big enough to keep temperatures below 2C, never mind 1.5C. There is agreement more cuts are needed but the big issue is when. Europe and small countries want to see another round of cuts every 5 years starting as soon as 2020. Other countries like India want longer time frames.

 #2 Money has always been issue. In Copenhagen rich countries promised $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with climate impacts and  to green their economies. The money was supposed to ramp up from about $10 billion a year in 2010. Instead it’s been a fight to get any funds. Now developing countries want  guaranteed amounts from 2015 to 2020.

#3 Legally binding agreement. For the first time the US is saying it will agree to this for parts of an eventual Paris Climate Agreement. The US will not sign a legal-binding emission reduction target, Todd Stern, the chief negotiator said today.

First posted on Climate News Mosaic Live Blog available at Inter Press Service  news

Paris Climate Talks: Global Warming Explained in 60 Seconds or Less

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One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says:  “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.

“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.

“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).

“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.

Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:

“The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.

Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm. The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

That’s it.

After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.

I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.

One additional thing to know is that CO2 is forever. Every little CO2 molecule we add to the atmosphere will continue to trap the sun’s heat for hundreds and thousands of years.

First published Aug 2015