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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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
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
The 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.”
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 myfour part series revealing how Canada became a very wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah.