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Crisis: Climate Change











While some people still think global warming is just a fairy tale the reality is that global warming is a fact of life acknowledged by all mainstream scientists. 

It is irrefutable.  

Not too long ago there was considerable argument over whether the measured rise in temperature over the last hundred years is a normal cycle of nature, or a human-caused phenomenon.  But in 2001 a panel representing virtually all the world’s governments and climate scientists agreed that Earth’s atmosphere was warming at a rate without precedent during at least the last 10 thousand years.  They also agreed: this warming was not merely a natural cycle within nature, but rather it was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases from human activities as car exhaust and the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity. 

But skeptics continued to dismiss this learned consensus with a wave of the hand and an assortment of rabid, often conflicting remarks.   Now the landmark announcement by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (February 17, 2005) provides scientific evidence tantamount to the legal trial’s  “smoking gun” — it really is happening, it really is man-made.  But there is good news in this too –  changes in human actionsshould make a difference in the future of the global warming trend.

For some time scientist have predicted that global warming will cause rising sea levels, permanently submerging current coastal areas, islands, and some other low-lying regions.  The cause is simple:  the polar ice packs will begin melting.  Secondly we have all realized that global warming means hotter temperatures generally, and more severe summer heat waves.  This may in turn lead to water shortages and even power shortages as air conditioners and refrigeration systems work over time.

But now scientists are finding evidence that shows that not only are the polar ice packs melting, but the snow packs atop the world’s major mountain chains are also melting earlier in the season and building up in lesser volume.   This latter finding means increased water run-off during the rainy season leading to flooding, extreme erosion and mud slides, followed by droughts in late spring and summer (when melting snow run-off would normally feed streams).  The higher level of summer temperatures may also cause more moisture to evaporate from the land, as well as from streams and reservoirs — meaning yet more threat of drought.  The incidence of heat induced deaths is also expected to rise.

Naturally these kinds of changes will cause harm to animal habitats, threaten the survival of rare and endangered plant species, disrupt agriculture (heightening the threat of famine), and endanger human homes.  Many animals, rodents and insects that carry infectious diseases, may be forced to migrate from their present homes in search of food and water, as well as more comfortable or more stable living conditions.  As the news of these developments spread, children have already been asking us if they will one day have to explain to their grandchildren… what a polar bear was.

Facts: Happening NOW

As you read the facts and figures below, you will notice that some of them seem pretty small and unimportant.  But what you will notice, before you are through, is that the Earth changes created by a small rise in temperature are already accelerating in size and frequency of occurrence.  Keep this in mind when you hear people repeating the same old myths about global warming.  Don’t be afraid to speak up and set them straight!

  • Since the beginning of the 20th century, the mean surface temperature of the earth has increased by about 1.1º F (0.6°Celsius)

  • Over the last 40 years, which is the period with most reliable data, the temperature increased by about 0.5 º F (0.2-0.3°Celsius).

  • Warming in the 20th century is greater than at any time during the past 400-600 years.

  • Seven of the ten warmest years in the 20th century occurred in the 1990s. 1998, with global temperatures spiking due to one of the strongest El Niños on record, was the hottest year since reliable instrumental temperature measurements began.

  • Scientists report that mountain glaciers the world over are receding.

  • The Arctic ice pack has lost about 40% of its thickness over the past four decades.

  • The global sea level is rising about three times faster over the past 100 years compared to the previous 3,000 years.

  • There are a growing number of studies that show plants and animals changing their range and behavior in response to shifts in climate.

  • The Top Ten Myths About Global Warming

  • Read these popular myths about global warming, then read the accompanying science fact that shows the real situation.  Now you’ll know what to say the next time you hear someone repeating one these myths!

Myth: It isn’t really happening

Fact:   Documented science overwhelmingly shows temperatures   rising rapidly.

Myth: It’s natural  

 Fact:  Temperature increases, especially since the 1970′s, are far above natural variations.

Myth: Any effects well be very gradual 

Fact:  not only are severe storms getting stronger, but climate history shows sharp climate changes can occur  abruptly, in only a few years.

Myth: It does not affect the U.S.

Fact:  The U.S. is experiencing rising sea levels, more severe storms and droughts, die-off of forests, altered animal migrations, and loss of glaciers such as those in Glacier National Park.

Myth: It will be good for us 

Fact:  Some areas may become more pleasantly warm, but the cost of negative effects will far outweigh any benefits; disease and heat deaths are increasing.

Myth: Agriculture will benefit 

Fact:  CO2 may make some crops grow faster, but also will accelerate weeds, pests and droughts; crops may not grow well  where they once did as climate zones shift.

Myth:  It’s being handled by our government

Fact:  The current U.S. Administration advocates studying, not dealing with, global warming;  its energy policy completely based on burning more coal &  oil.  Most state and local governments are unprepared for major changes.

Myth:  It’s not a big deal compared to national security

Fact:  Global warming is actually the most serious threat to the widest range of human  concerns.  Our national and world security is directly threatened by negative climate effects on weather, water supply, disease, agriculture, marine resources, and health.

Myth:  Technology will solve the problem for us 

Fact:  Massive “fixes” like burying greenhouse gases are very unlikely, but many smaller changes can make a difference AND are available now.

Myth:  There’s nothing to be done anyway

Fact:  Everyone can make a difference today!  Check out the solutions in the next section…

We reported above that the Arctic has lost 40% of its thickness in the past 40 years.  But here are a few facts relating developments at our Earth’s other pole, the Antarctic:



The Antarctic Peninsula is particularly sensitive to small rises in the annual average temperature.

Over the last 20 years there has been a steady  decline in the Antarctic Peninsula’s Adélie penguin population.

Antarctic Krill populations, which feed baleen whales and other species, have fallen off  by as much as 80% in the last 30 years – a development which may be rippling through the entire food chain.


Scientists have captured actual photographic evidence showing the dissolution of a significant Antarctic ice shelf:

Although mainstream scientists are cautious about jumping to conclusions, they fear it is unlikely that these developments in Antarctica can be dismissed as “a fluke” or as unrelated to the fate of the rest of the world’s climate.



Global Warming

Thai summary

Summary website,-New-Climate-Change-Strategies.html

2011 alarming update

Kids read this…..

Planning for 2018

Science of Climate Change


In this next link, Joe Fromm writes a blob on think progress in September 2011. Joe is an acclaimed futurist and author and the original article has a deep resource of links and further reading, and is highly recommended.

An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces

By Joe Romm on Sep 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm


Humanity’s Choice (via M.I.T.):  Inaction (“No Policy”) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether or not future warming will be catastrophic.  Aggressive emissions reductions dramatically improves humanity’s chances.

In this post, I will summarize what the recent scientific literature says are the key impacts we face in the coming decades if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.  These include:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 10°F over much of the United States

  • Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest and many other heavily populated regions around the globe

  • Sea level rise of around 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter

  • Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity

  • Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”

  • Much more extreme weather

  • Food insecurity — the increasingly difficulty task of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, and then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.

  • Myriad direct health impacts

Remember, these will all be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade.  Equally tragic, a 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts would be largely irreversible for 1000 years.

The single biggest failure of messaging by climate scientists (until very recently) has been the failure to explain to the public, opinion makers, and the media that business-as-usual warming results in simultaneous, ever-worsening impacts that,  individually, are each beyond catastrophic, but combined are unimaginablly horrific.  For these impacts, terms like “global warming” and “climate change” are essentially euphemisms. That is why I have prefered the term “Hell and High Water.”

By virtue of their success in promoting doubt and inaction, the climate science deniers and disinformers have, tragically and ironically, turned the worst-case scenario into business as usual.

Business-as-usual typically means continuing at recent growth rates of carbon dioxide emissions, which we now know would likely take us to atmospheric concentrations of CO2 greater than 850 ppm if not above 1000 ppm (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories are being realised”). We are at about 8.5 billion metric tons of carbon a year (31 billions metric tons of CO2) and, until the recent global economic recession, were rising about 3% per year.

What is less well understood is that even a very strong mitigation effort that kept carbon emissions this century to 11 billion tons a year on average would still probably take us to 1000 ppm (A1FI scenario) — a little noted conclusion of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (see “Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution“).

Until recently, the scientific community has spent little time modeling the impacts of a tripling (~830 ppm) or quadrupling (~1100 ppm) carbon dioxide concentrations from preindustrial levels. In part, I think, that’s because they never believed humanity would be so stupid as to ignore the warnings and simply continue on its self-destructive path. In part, they lowballed the difficult-to-model amplifying feedbacks in the carbon cycle.

So I pieced together those impacts from available studies and from discussions with leading climate scientists for my 2006 book, Hell and High Water.   But now as climate scientists have sobered up to their painful role as modern-day Cassandra’s, the scientific literature on what we face is much richer.

In a AAAS presentation last year, the late William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge“: New scientific findings since the 2007 IPCC report are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected.”

This post will review the latest findings.  It will be a cornerstone of the Climate Progress archive I promised.  Please add links to more studies in the comments.



Three of the best recent analyses of what we are headed towards can be found here:

As Dr. Vicky Pope, Head of Climate Change Advice for the Met Office’s Hadley Centre hasexplained:

… where no action is taken to check the rise in Greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures would most likely rise by more than 5 °C by the end of the century. This would lead to significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts.

That likely rise corresponds to roughly 9°F globally and typically 40% higher than that over inland mid-latitudes (i.e. much of this country) — or well over 10°F.

[Note: The MIT rise is compared to 1980-1999 levels see study here). So you can add at least 0.5 C and 1.0°F for comparison with pre-industrial temperatures.]

Based on two studies in the last few years:

By century’s end, extreme temperatures of up to 122°F would threaten most of the central, southern, and western U.S. Even worse, Houston and Washington, DC could experience temperatures exceeding 98°F for some 60 days a year.Much of Arizona would be subjected to temperatures of 105°F or more for 98 days out of the year–14 full weeks.

Yet that conclusion is based on studies of only 700 ppm and 850 ppm, so it could get much hotter than that.

And the Hadley Center adds, “By the 2090s close to one-fifth of the world’s population will be exposed to ozone levels well above the World Health Organization recommended safe-health level.”

The MIT press release calls for “rapid and massive” action to avoid this.  Study co-author Ronald Prinn, the co-director of the Joint Program and director of MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, says, it is important “to base our opinions and policies on the peer-reviewed science….  There’s no way the world can or should take these risks.”   Duh!

MIT put together a good figure that compares the temperatures we risk on our current do-nothing path with  those we might expect if we took serious action [see figure above].  Note that in the “no policy case” there is an extremely high probability of more than 4°C (7°F) global warming, an  about a 25% chance of more than 6°C (11°F) global warming.

In a terrific March 2010  presentation, Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has a figure of what 1000 ppm would mean (derived from the 2010 NOAA-led report):

For more of the literature on U.S. warming, see “Mother Nature is Just Getting Warmed Up.”

The Hadley Center has a huge but useful figure which I will reproduce here:

Note again that this is not the worst-case scenario.  It’s just business as usual out to 2100.

In the worst case, we get both continuing high levels of emissions and high carbon-cycle feedbacks.  That possibility was discussed here:

This would be the worst-case for the 2060s, but is in any case, close to business as usual for 2090s:

This is indeed 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic.

And there is every reason to believe that the earth would just keep getting hotter and hotter:

UPDATE:  Steve Easterbrook’s post “A first glimpse at model results for the next IPCC assessment” shows that for the scenario where there is 9°F warming by 2100, you get another 7°F warming by 2300.  Of course, folks that aren’t motivated to avoid the civilization-destroying 9°F by 2100 won’t be moved by whatever happens after that.


Dust-bowlification — and its impact on food security –  may well be the impact that harms the most number of people over the next few decades.

As far back as 1990, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then happening every 20 years, could become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century [Rind et al., 1990].

A number of major recent studies have confirmed those early findings.  They warn that the Southwest, parts of the Midwest, and many other highly populated parts of the globe are likely headed toward sustained — if not near permanent — drought and Dust Bowl-like conditions if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path (see “USGS on Dust-Bowlification“).


  • Back in October 2010, the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a complete literature review, “Drought under global warming: a review,” (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path). That study makes clear that Dust-Bowlification may be the impact of human-caused climate change that hits the most people by mid-century, as the figure below suggests (click to enlarge, “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”):

drought map 3 2060-2069

The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part]appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

For the record, the NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario — atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100.  We’re currently headed much higher by century’s end, but I’m sure with an aggressive program of energy R&D we could keep that to, say 800 ppm.

  • The UK Met Office came to a similar view four years ago in their analysis, projecting severe drought over 40% of the Earth’s habited landmass by century’s end (see “The Century of Drought“).

The projection of extended if not endless drought for the US Southwest has been studied a great deal:

The serious hydrological changes and impacts known to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times over North America reflect large-scale changes in the climate system that can develop in a matter of years and, in the case of the more severe past megadroughts, persist for decades. Such hydrological changes fit the definition of abrupt change because they occur faster than the time scales needed for human and natural systems to adapt, leading to substantial disruptions in those systems. In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.

An unprecedented combination of heat plus decades of drought could be in store for the Southwest sometime this century, suggests new research from a University of Arizona-led team”….

“The bottom line is, we could have a Medieval-style drought with even warmer temperatures,” [lead author Connie] Woodhouse said.

The literature makes clear future droughts will be fundamentally different from all previous droughts that humanity has experienced because they will be very hot weather droughts (seeMust-have PPT: The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather).

  • A 2011 Environmental Research Letters article, “Characterizing changes in drought risk for the United States from climate change,” comes to a similar conclusion as the NCAR study, “Drought frequencies and uncertainties in their projection tend to increase considerably over time and show a strong worsening trend along higher greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, suggesting substantial benefits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”  See especially Figure 4C.

Another 2011 study, “The Last Drop: Climate Change and the Southwest Water Crisis,” that actually looks in some detail at the scientific literature for just one region, finds that drought and reduced precipitation in the U.S. SW alone could cost up to $1 trillion by century’s end.

Finally, while the Dust Bowl lasted under a decade, the NOAA-led study found permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe on our current emissions trajectory would be irreversible for 1000 years.

Again, this is all just business as usual.

From a worst-case perspective, Princeton has done an analysis on “Century-scale change in water availability: CO2-quadrupling experiment,” which is to say 1100 ppm. The grim result:Most of the South and Southwest ultimately sees a 20% to 50% (!) decline in soil moisture.

Finally, the heat and drought drives wildfires.  Here’s a National Academies figure from apresentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren in Oslo last year, about conditions projected for mid-century:


The 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) report ignored dynamic ice-sheet disintegration, which was already happening (see Nature: “Dynamic thinning of Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheet ocean margins is more sensitive, pervasive, enduring and important than previously realized”).  The IPCC therefore low-balled sea level rise estimates, suggesting seas might rise “only” a foot or two this century, greatly delighting the anti-science crowd (see here)

Within a year, even a major report signed off on by the Bush administration itself was forced to concede that the IPCC numbers were simply too out of date to be quoted anymore (see US Geological Survey stunner: Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections).  About half a dozen major studies since the IPCC report concluded that we face much higher sea level rise this century:

Needless to say, a sea level rise of one meter by 2100 would be an unmitigated catastrophe for the planet, even if sea levels didn’t keep rising several inches a decade for centuries, which they inevitably would. The first meter of SLR would flood 17% of Bangladesh, displacing tens of millions of people, and reducing its rice-farming land by 50 percent. Globally, it would create more than 100 million environmental refugees and inundate over 13,000 square miles of this country. Southern Louisiana and South Florida would inevitably be abandoned.


In 2007, the IPCC warned that as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe. That is a temperature rise over pre-industrial levels of a bit more than 4.0°C. So a 5.5°C rise would likely put extinctions beyond the high end of that range.

Many more studies have raised similar concerns:

And, of course, “When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.” There aren’t many studies of what happens to the oceans as we get toward 800 to 1000 ppm, but it appears likely that much of the world’s oceans, especially in the southern hemisphere, become inhospitable to many forms of marine life. A 2005 Nature study concluded these “detrimental” conditions “could develop within decades, not centuries as suggested previously.”

As for the worst-case scenario, we have

Yes, some scientists disputed the analysis, but I have seen no refutation in the scientific literature.


If we go to 800 ppm — let alone 1000 ppm or higher — we are far outside the bounds of simple linear projection. Some of the worst impacts may not be obvious — and there may be unexpected negative synergies. The best evidence that will happen is the fact that it is already happened with even a small amount of warming we have seen to date.

“The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The pests are “projected to kill 80 per cent of merchantable and susceptible lodgepole pine” in parts of British Columbia within 10 years — and that’s why the harvest levels in the region have been “increased significantly.”

As quantified in the journal Nature, “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change,” (subs. req’d), which just looks at the current and future impact from the beetle’s warming-driven devastation in British Columbia:

… the cumulative impact of the beetle outbreak in the affected region during 2000–2020 will be 270 megatonnes (Mt) carbon (or 36 g carbon m-2 yr-1 on average over 374,000 km2 of forest). This impact converted the forest from a small net carbon sink to a large net carbon source.

No wonder the carbon sinks are saturating faster than we thought (see here) — unmodeled impacts of climate change are destroying them:

Insect outbreaks such as this represent an important mechanism by which climate change may undermine the ability of northern forests to take up and store atmospheric carbon, and such impacts should be accounted for in large-scale modelling analyses.

And the bark beetle is slamming the Western U.S. and Alaska, too (see “Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle“).

The key point is this catastrophic climate change impact and its carbon-cycle feedback were not foreseen even a decade ago — which suggests future climate impacts will bring other equally unpleasant surprises, especially as we continue on our path of no resistance.


One of the basic predictions of climate science is that extreme weather will make the hydrological cycle more extreme.  I discussed the extensive literature on how dry areas will get drier.  But wet areas will also get wetter:

1) Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas. These results are based on a comparison of observed and multi-model simulated changes in extreme precipitation over the latter half of the twentieth century analysed with an optimal fingerprinting technique.

Changes in extreme precipitation projected by models, and thus the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming.

2) Occurring during the wettest autumn in England and Wales since records began in 1766 these floods damaged nearly 10,000 properties across that region, disrupted services severely, and caused insured losses estimated at £1.3 billion….

… it is very likely that global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions substantially increased the risk of flood occurrence in England and Wales in autumn 2000.

That post ended with its own review of the literature on the connection between global warming and extreme weather.  Here are a couple more studies:

A new study by a Duke University-led team of climate scientists suggests thatglobal warming is the main cause of a significant intensification in the North Atlantic Subtropical High (NASH) that in recent decades has more than doubled the frequency of abnormally wet or dry summer weather in the southeastern United States….

The models – known as  Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3) models – predict the NASH will continue to intensify and expand as concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase in Earth’s atmosphere in coming decades.”This intensification will further increase the likelihood of extreme summer precipitation variability – periods of drought or deluge – in southeastern states in coming decades,” Li says.

The team calculates that a 1 ºC increase in sea-surface temperatures would result in a 31% increase in the global frequency of category 4 and 5 storms per year: from 13 of those storms to 17. Since 1970, the tropical oceans have warmed on average by around 0.5 ºC. Computer models suggest they may warm by a further 2 ºC by 2100.


In over two decades of tracking world food prices, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization index has never stayed so high for so long.

This represents true suffering for hundreds of millions of people who live on the edge, for whom food is a large fraction of their income like, say, North Africa (see Expert consensus grows on contribution of record high food prices to Middle East unrest).

Population growth, dietary shifts, growing use of crops for biofuels, peaking conventional oil production and increases in extreme weather have all played a part.

As the literature above makes clear, on our current emissions path, we face

One analysis just of the impact of temperature rise on food finds “Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100.”  And this is just a 700 ppm analysis with no discussion of the impact of soil drying up or other well-understood climate impacts.



In April the British Medical Journal warned that climate change “poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill-health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds upon the other.”  The UK’s Hadley Center notes that on our current one related impact, “By the 2090s close to one-fifth of the world’s population will be exposed to ozone levels well above the World Health Organization recommended safe-health level.”

A June 2011 peer-reviewed report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) — “Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution” — shows that the harm to Americans, especially children, from human-caused warming is upon us now.

A just-released September 2011 report by the European Lung Foundation finds:

Climate change set to increase ozone-related deaths over next 60 years

Scientists are warning that death rates linked to climate change will increase in several European countries over the next 60 yrs.

Earlier this year, Climate Progress reported on what the top medical and health groups warn are the health risks Americans face from climate change:

  • More than doubled asthma rates and lengthened asthma season (already 20 days longer)

  • Threatened access to clean drinking water

  • Increases in airborne and insect borne illnesses (e.g. mosquitos, ticks, tapeworm)

  • Increases in diarrheal, respiratory, and heart disease

  • Increased risk of salmonella spread as average temperatures rise

  • Increase in hospital use results in rising health care costs

  • Particular risk among low-income communities, children, the elderly, and the obese

See also The Lancet’s landmark Health Commission: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”


The possibility that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases would not do unimaginable harm to humanity has become vanishingly small.  That’s because we remain near the worst-case emissions pathways, there is little prospect of national or global action any times soon (thank you, deniers), many impacts are coming faster than the models projected, and the overwhelming majority of the scientific literature in the past 5 years has been more dire than the 2007 IPCC report, which itself was more than enough motivation for the overwhelming majority of  climate scientists and countries to call for urgent action to reduce emissions.And I haven’t even discussed the many, many studies that suggest in fact carbon-cycle feedbacks (like the defrosting tundra) are almost all positive (amplifying) and yet largely ignored in most  climate models — see NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100 and links therein.We can’t let this happen.  It is indeed humanity’s self-destruction. We must pay any price or bear any burden to stop it.

Dec 2011

In an article scheduled to be published Dec. 1 in the journalNature, a survey of 41 international experts led by University of Florida ecologist Edward Schuur shows models created to estimate global warming may have underestimated the magnitude of carbon emissions from permafrost over the next century. Its effect on climate change is projected to be 2.5 times greater than models predicted, partly because of the amount of methane released in permafrost, or frozen soil.

“We’re talking about carbon that’s in soil, just like in your garden where there’s compost containing carbon slowly breaking down, but in permafrost it’s almost stopped because the soil is frozen,” Schuur said. “As that soil warms up, that carbon can be broken down by bacteria and fungi, and as they metabolize, they are releasing carbon and methane, greenhouse gases that cause warmer temperatures.”

As a result of plant and animal remains decomposing for thousands of years, organic carbon in the permafrost zone is distributed across 11.7 million square miles of land, an amount that is more than three times larger than previously estimated. The new number is mainly based on evidence the carbon is stored much deeper as the result of observations, soil measurements and experiments.

“We know the models are not yet giving us the right answer — it’s going to take time and development to make those better, and that process is not finished yet,” Schuur said. “It’s an interesting exercise in watching how scientists, who are very cautious in their training, make hypotheses about what our future will look like. The numbers are significant, and they appear like they are plausible and they are large enough for significant concern, because if climate change goes 20 or 30 percent faster that we had predicted already, that’s a pretty big boost.”

The survey, which was completed following a National Science Foundation-funded Permafrost Carbon Network workshop about six months ago, proposed four warming scenarios until 2040, 2100 and 2300. Researchers were asked to predict the amount of permafrost likely to thaw, how much carbon would be released, and what amount would be methane, which has much more warming potential than carbon dioxide.

The occurrence of carbon in northern soils is natural and the chemical does not have an effect on climate if it remains underground, but when released as a greenhouse gas it can add to climate warming. However, humans could slow warming temperatures as the result of greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, which are what speed up the process of permafrost thaw.

“Even though we’re talking about a place that is very far away and seems to be out of our control, we actually have influence over what happens based on the overall trajectory of warming. If we followed a lower trajectory of warming based on controlling emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, it has the effect of slowing the whole process down and keeping a lot more carbon in the ground,” Schuur said. “Just by addressing the source of emissions that are from humans, we have this potential to just keep everything closer to its current state, frozen in permafrost, rather than going into the atmosphere.”

The survey shows that by 2100, experts believe the amount of carbon released will be 1.7 to 5.2 times greater than previous models predict, under scenarios where Arctic temperatures rise 13.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Some predicted effects of global warming include sea level rise, loss of biodiversity as some organisms are unable to migrate as quickly as the climate shifts and more extreme weather events that could affect food supply and water resources.

“This new research shows that the unmanaged part of the biosphere has a major role in determining the future trajectory of climate change,” said Stanford University biology professor Christopher Field, who was not involved in the study. “The implication is sobering. Whatever target we set for atmospheric CO2, this new research means we will need to work harder to reach it. But of course, limiting the amount of climate change also decreases the climate damage from permafrost melting.”

When carbon is released from the ground as a result of thawing permafrost, there is no way of trapping the gases at the source, so action to slow its effect must be taken beforehand.

“If you think about fossil fuel and deforestation, those are things people are doing, so presumably if you had enough will, you could change your laws and adjust your society to slow some of that down,” Schuur said. “But when carbon starts being emitted from the permafrost, you can’t immediately say, ‘OK, we’ve had enough of this, let’s just stop doing it,’ because it’s a natural cycle emitting carbon whether you like it or not. Once we start pushing it, it’s going to be releasing under its own dynamic.”

March 2012

The “Blue Planet” awards are the nobel prizes for the environment and in the face of this “absolutely unprecedented emergency” , the past 18 winners of the award state that “society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways, or they will be changed for us.

Apart from  dire warnings about biodiversity loss and climate change the group challenges governments to think differently about economic “progress”. The perpetual growth myth is the disease that is the root cause of our unsustainable global practices.

A report has been published on the 40th anniversary of the UN environment program UNEP and will feed into RIO +20 earth summit

The paper urges Governments to:

  • Replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, built, human and social capital – and how they intersect

  • Eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture

  • Tackle overconsumption in the rich world

  • Address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible

  • Transform decision making to empower local groups and local changes

  • Conservation needs to be the new consumerism, and economies must fully move to green economies


NEWS: RIO+20  A UN conference on global sustainability is set for June 20 to June 22 in RIO, the IUCN will be running updates on this conference and on twitter

NEWS: Cold King Coal Our civilization, wrote George Orwell over 70 years ago is founded on coal. Today, unlike Europe Asia still is. Coal accounts for 20% of primary energy supply in OECD countries, BUT, between 2000 to 2010 coal accounted for 50% of the energy use increase. Coal is experiencing an historically incredible resurgence and may overtake oil as a primary source by 2025. Over the last two decades Asia has sucked up 2/3rds of global energy growth.

China leads the world in coal production and consumption. It mines 3bn tones a year, 3 x more than America, and yet in 2011 overtook Japan as the worlds biggest coal importer.

80% of Chinese power comes from coal and could consume 4.5bn tones a year by 2030.

The IEA has stated that by 2017, on current projections, new power plants, increased coal usage and new buildings will increase temperatures by more than 2 degrees Celsius, making reversion and slower temperature rises increasingly very difficult.

The economist print edition Feb 25th.

FACT: Subsidized Fossil Fuels transformation of the world to a Green economy can only be made, if Governments stop subsidizing fossil fuels. According to the IEA, 37 governemnts spent US$409BN on artificially lowering the price of fossil fuels in 2010 alone. Renewable energy received only US$66Bn in subsidies or 15%.

A phase out of subsidies would eliminate 750m tones of CO2 a year by 2015 and 2.6 gigatons by 2035, a level sufficient to provide half the emissions cuts that are needed just to limit global warming to 2 degrees… a hypothetical number that is increasingly unlikely, and the warming rate that is already perilously close to a safety level to ensure the planets survival. 


A new report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development paints a grim picture of the world in 2050 based on current global trends. It predicts a world population of 9.2 billion people, generating a global GDP four times the size of today’s, requiring 80 percent more energy. And with a worldwide energy mix still 85 percent reliant on fossil fuels by that time, it will be coal, oil, and gas that make up most of the difference, the OECD predicts.

Should that prove the case, and without new policy, the report warns the result will be the “locking in” of global warming, with a rise of as much as 6° C (about 10.8° F) predicted by the end of the century. Combined with other knock-on effects of population growth on biodiversity, water and health; the report asserts that the ensuing environmental degradation will result in consequences “that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards.”

Ars looked in detail at the 320-page report in order to summarize its key findings.

A brief word on methodology

The OECD report is founded upon both its own ENV-Linkages General Equilibrium model (which derives environmental impacts from economic data, using a database of national economies maintained at Purdue University) and the IMAGE suite of models of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Though the report makes projections for greenhouse gas emissions, it relies on prior research to link these to global temperature change.

Peak anthropocene?

According to the report, urban centers will bear the brunt of the population growth, with 70 percent of the world’s people living in towns and cities by 2050, compared to just over 50 percent today. Unlike recent trends, it will be towns and cities with less than half a million inhabitants today, rather than the largest super-cities, that will grow most rapidly by 2050. The world’s rural population is projected to decrease by 600 million people.

Though economic growth is predicted to be nearly universal, the developed world’s proportionate slice of the global economic pie will shrink markedly, with OECD countries’ share decreasing from 54 percent in 2010 to under 32 percent by 2050—significantly less than the BRIICS nations’ (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, and South Africa) share of more than 40 percent. China’s GDP is set to overtake that of the United States this year, and India is set to do the same by about 2038, according to the report.

Yet the script departs from the predictable narrative of relentless expansion for China and India. GDP growth rates in these countries will slow as drivers of growth such as education converge with those of the developed world.

It’s thought that a quarter of the population of OECD countries will be over 65 by the middle of the century, and the populations of India and China will also age significantly. It’s predicted that China’s workforce will actually shrink. The populations of Japan and Korea, as well as parts of Europe, will decline; though the trend is not expected to be mirrored in the US and Canada, where immigration is projected to keep the populations growing. Russia’s population is predicted to shrink, bucking the trend set by other BRIICS nations.

But the bigger picture is the population growth of non-OECD and non-BRIICS countries (or the Rest of the World, as the report puts it), where the population is expected to grow by an average of 1.3 percent per year. In the period between 2030 and 2050, Sub-Saharan African countries will see the highest economic growth rates in the world, at approximately 6 percent per year. The boom will be spurred in part by rapid growth in Africa’s youthful populations, though the continent will remain the least-wealthy in the world. OECD economies, by contrast, are projected to grow by an average of 2 percent per year.

Energy insatiability

And population growth will spur energy consumption. The 80-percent increase predicted by 2050 translates to a total global energy consumption of 900 exajoules (EJ) per year (in other words 9 x 1020 joules)—65 times the annual energy consumption of the US in 2009. This figure factors in continual improvements in energy efficiency, and energy intensity (the ratio of energy consumption to GDP) is set to drop some 40 percent, the report predicts.

Fossil fuels are projected to remain cheaper than renewable sources of energy. The report predicts a 0.5-percent annual growth in oil consumption, and 1.8 percent for coal and natural gas, though oil and gas production are expected to peak by 2050 due to resource depletion. The same is not true of coal, where coal-rich regions happen to coincide with areas of strong economic growth. Use of nuclear energy, biofuels and renewable energy sources are all projected to increase steadily.

The environment in 2050

The report predicts that, as a direct result of increased energy consumption, there will be a 70-percent increase in energy-oriented carbon dioxide emissions, and an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions of 50 percent. This would correlate to a rise in global average temperature between 3° C and 6° C above preindustrial levels.

Air pollution will overtake contaminated water and lack of sanitation as the prime cause of premature mortality across the globe, potentially rising to 3.6 million deaths per year—mostly in China and India. Death rates caused by ground-level ozone among OECD countries are projected to be among the world’s highest, thanks in part to the aging, urbanized populations.

But population growth has more direct effects upon the environment. The world’s natural resources are set to undergo unprecedented strain. Water demand is projected to grow by 55 percent by 2050 (including a 400-percent rise in manufacturing water demand), when 40 percent of the global population will live in “water-stressed” areas. The report identifies groundwater depletion as the greatest threat to both agricultural and urban water supplies. Nutrient-pollution of water sources is projected to further deplete aquatic biodiversity. And though the number of people with access to an “improved” water source should increase, the report projects that by 2050, 1.4 billion people will be without basic sanitation. “Improved” does not necessarily equate to “good enough,” alas.

With a need to fill more than nine billion bellies, farmland coverage is set to increase worldwide, placing extra pressure on land resources. Though deforestation rates will continue to decline; it’s predicted that Earth’s mature forests will shrink 13 percent, and global biodiversity will diminish by 10 percent. It isn’t all bad news. Thanks in part to slowing global population growth and increasing produce yields, agricultural land coverage is actually predicted to peak before 2030, when deforestation rates should slow further.

Perhaps the least obvious of threats to human health identified in the report is the increasing danger posed by hazardous chemicals, as chemical-production increasingly relocates to developing countries where safety measures are “insufficient.”

A closing window of opportunity

The report argues that immediate action not only makes environmental sense, but also economic sense. If global greenhouse emissions can be made to peak before 2020, a 2° C limit to the increase in world average temperature is possible. This would limit the costs of “adaptation and mitigation,” but requires “ambitious decisions” to be taken more or less immediately.

The report sets a specific target of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at 450ppm. At this level, studies have put the odds of keeping a global temperature rise under 2° C at between 40 and 60 percent. For this level to be achieved, the report calls for putting a “price on carbon” immediately, while implementing a gradual transformation of the energy sector into a low-carbon industry. Finally, the report calls for a wide implementation of “low-cost advanced technologies” that would be stimulated by the higher cost of fossil fuels, giving the example of bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)—a technology which the Royal Society has suggested could decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by between 50 and 150ppm.

The OECD additionally proposes phasing out fossil fuel subsidies which it claims amounts to $45 billion-75 billion per year in OECD countries, and over $400 billion per year in developing and emerging economies.

Beyond climate change, the report also highlights a number of other actions to mitigate environmental impacts of population growth, with the need to protect natural habitats perhaps foremost among them. Though it acknowledges that 13 percent of the world’s land is protected, it claims that grassland, savanna, and marine environments are underrepresented. The report also calls for an end to environmentally harmful subsidies, including those provided to projects or companies which intensify land (or sea) use for agriculture, bioenergy, fishing, forestry, and transport.

The message

The message from the OECD is clear: the status quo is no longer acceptable. “Progress on an incremental, piecemeal, business-as-usual basis in the coming decades will not be enough,” it states, quite categorically. And that’s not coming from an environmental think tank, but an international body (albeit one with a Eurocentric outlook) with 34 members with the remit of stimulating economic growth and trade.



50 months to avoid climate disaster – and a change is in the air

At the halfway point to a climate gamble the Guardian comments on the takeover of democracy by big business and whats at stake.


“One or other of us will have to go,” Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said on his deathbed to the hated wallpaper in his room. The perilous acceleration of Arctic ice loss, and the imminent threat of irreversible climate change poses a similar ultimatum to the economic system that is pushing us over the brink. For society’s sake I hope this time we redecorate.


Monday 1 October marks the halfway point in a 100-month countdown to a game of climate roulette.


On a very conservative estimate, 50 months from now, the dice become loaded against us in terms of keeping under a 2C temperature rise. This level matters because beyond it an environmental “domino effect” is likely to operate. In a volatile and unpredictable dynamic, things like melting ice, and the release of carbon from the planet’s surface are set to feed off each other, accelerating and reinforcing the warming effect.


The time frame follows an estimate of risk of rising greenhouse gas concentrations from the world’s leading authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that passed a certain point, it will no longer be “likely” that we stay the right side of the line. Some consider even a 2C rise too much, but it is the limit that the EU and others have signed up to.


Extraordinarily, however, in spite of the stakes, the issue has receded from the political frontline like a wave shrinking down a beach. This could, though, merely be a prelude to it returning with a vengeance.


Politicians may have turned their backs, others have not.


Here’s what a broad selection of groups and individuals who range from the Women’s Institute to Oxfam and Margaret Thatcher’s former environmental adviser, say in an open letter published in the Guardian today to the coalition government and opposition:


“This year has seen the record loss of sea ice, and greenhouse gas concentrations above the Arctic at their highest point for possibly 800,000 years. Crop-wrecking droughts and record temperatures have scorched the American Mid-West.”


But, to our dismay, climate change and the weather volatility it fuels have fallen far down the political agenda when it needs to be at the top. It remains, however, one of the greatest threats to human progress, and tackling it is a huge economic opportunity


They call on both the coalition and Labour to spell out what they will do differently in the next 50 months to prevent a climate catastrophe.


Individually some go further. James Gustave Speth, the former head of the United Nations Development Programme appeals for mass, non-violent protest.


The climate scientist Prof Kevin Anderson says it is too late for rich countries to “grow” their way out of the problem and must find a new way to run their economies. He says everyone, including climate scientists, must reduce their emissions and he commits to lowering his own.


Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam also says it’s time for lifestyle change in the wealthy world, especially if we are to tackle global poverty.


Sir Crispin Tickell, former UK permanent representative to the UN and the man credited with persuading Margaret Thatcher as prime inister to acknowledge and act on global warming, calls for a World Environment Organisation to simplify and make effective the wide range of international treaties and agreements.


Many more people describe the huge opportunities for economic recovery and better lives that could come from a great transition to a low-carbon, high well-being economy, but which are currently going begging.

Change is in the air, in spite of the current official blind spot and attempt to return to business as usual, or even go “backwards” as today’s joint letter of concern warns. Why, for example, do we encourage the oil industry with tax breaks, when we know that to avoid runaway climate change we can only afford to burn around a fifth of the fossil fuels left in the ground, making it unburnable?


The ideas from our 50 contributors are just a taste of the creativity and innovation available. The failure to act “appears both reckless and short sighted” they write. Yet in the government, the situation appears to be like the old joke about the shopkeeper. When a customer asks for a new product, the shopkeeper replies, “No, sorry mate, people keep asking me for that and I keep telling them, there’s just no call for it.”


Whether it was rebuilding Europe after the second world war, or action to protect the ozone layer, we know it is possible to put aside narrow self-interest. Leadership like that goes down in history.


What we do in the next 50 months is not a choice between what we have done in the past and what we are doing today. It is an invitation to embark on the most extraordinary, exhilarating and challenging adventure our society has yet faced, learning how to thrive without disastrously destabilising the climate on which we depend. Every step matters, and it matters most that we start walking.



REVOLUTION of the Heart


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