Stark conclusions seek to empower young to sue for climate justice

Jim Hansen (bottom left) and his family. For their benefit, and for the next generation as a whole, he is pushing for more urgent action on global warming. Credit: James Hansen

Jim Hansen (bottom left) and his family. For their benefit, and for the next generation as a whole, he is pushing for more urgent action on global warming. Credit: JimHansen

Even limiting human-made global climate warming to 2°C above preindustrial temperatures would subject young people, future generations and nature to irreparable harm, leading scientists said on Tuesday. The team led by pioneering climate researcher Jim Hansen, now at Columbia University in New York, calls aiming for this internationally-recognised threshold ‘foolhardy’. In a paper published in PLOS ONE, they outline a case for aiming for 1°C that supports efforts to sue the US government for not doing enough.

“Governments are blatantly failing to do their job,” Jim told me. “They know that human-caused climate change is beginning and poses a huge risk to young people and future generations, and they understand that we must phase out fossil fuel emissions. Yet they go right ahead encouraging companies to go after every fossil fuel that can be found!”

As one of the first climate modellers, Jim has long warned about the greenhouse effect caused by the CO2 we emit from burning fossil fuels. On a sweltering June 23, 1988, he famously testified to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee of the US Senate on the dangers of global warming. “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” he told reporters at the time.

Yet Jim remains frustrated at the slow pace of action, and regularly voices it. In 2006 Mary Wood from the University of Oregon Law School saw one of his articles in the New York Review of Books and contacted him. Her work inspired the formation of a team of lawyers who are suing the US federal government, highlighting the principle that US citizens, young and old, have ‘equal protection of the laws’. “I agreed specifically to write a paper that would provide the scientific basis for legal actions against governments for not doing their job of protecting the rights of young people,” Jim recalled. Read the rest of this entry »

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If we pass safe climate limits, it’s a long way back

University of Victoria's Andrew MacDougall in Canada's Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

University of Victoria’s Andrew MacDougall in Canada’s Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

If CO2 levels in the air pass the ‘safe’ limit, we’d have to take out up to four-fifths more than we originally emitted to get back under it. That’s the result from seemingly the first study to look at climate change’s reversibility with plausible scenarios, done by Andrew MacDougall from the University of Victoria (UVic), Canada. “With monumental effort and political will climate change is reversible within the millennium,” Andrew told me. “However, more carbon will need to be extracted from the atmosphere than was originally emitted to it. Meanwhile, changes in sea-level are effectively irreversible on the millennial time-scale.”

Andrew started looking at whether climate change could be undone in autumn 2012, after publishing a study showing that melting permafrost will speed up global warming. “The results were pretty grim,” Andrew said. “Combined with the failure of the political classes to implement controls on carbon emissions I began to wonder if there was a way to undo what humanity will do to the climate if we greatly exceeded the 450 parts per million (ppm) target.” That target comes because scientists say temperatures 2°C higher than the ‘pre-industrial’ average from 1850-1899 could become dangerous, and governments have agreed to keep warming below this level. Scientists also calculate that 450 CO2 molecules are allowable in every million air molecules to give us better than a 3/5 chance of temperature rises below 2°C.

After human emissions cease, current evidence suggests that natural processes would take tens of thousands of years to remove all of the fossil carbon from the atmosphere. Most of the warming will remain, even 10,000 years into the future. This sentence could be reduced by taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere, though this would be a huge effort, on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry according to one estimate. One method for doing that involves generating electricity by burning plants or trees that grew by absorbing CO2, and capturing and storing the CO2 from the burning. The other, known as air capture, uses machines to scrub CO2 right out of the air. However, this would need to be powered by clean energy and arguments over its cost are holding back research. Read the rest of this entry »

Cave deposits reveal permafrost concern

University of Oxford's Anton Vaks explores a cave, where he could find stalactites and stalagmites that reveal when the soil above was permafrost. Credit: University of Oxford

University of Oxford’s Anton Vaks explores a cave, where he could find stalactites and stalagmites that reveal when the soil above was permafrost. Credit: University of Oxford

Stalagmite and stalactite deposits in Siberian and Mongolian caves have revealed the most accurate permafrost history yet, suggesting that a global 1.5°C temperature rise could trigger a widespread thaw. “The finding shows how vulnerable the permafrost is,” said Anton Vaks from the University of Oxford. “Russian gas facilities in north-western Siberia are located close to the boundary of the continuous permafrost and rely on it as hard ground. Thawing of the permafrost may cause damage both to Russia, as well as its gas trade partners, like the European Union. The melting permafrost may also release part of the organic carbon currently trapped in it as greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane, enhancing global warming.”

Anton first used cave deposits’ power to study climate history during his PhD to build a 350,000 year record for the northern margin of the Saharan-Arabian Desert. “Stalagmites and stalactites grow only when rain or snowmelt water seep into the cave through the ceiling,” Anton explained. “Therefore each layer of growth of stalagmites and stalactites records a humid event in the desert.” He realised that these deposits’ ability to track water flow could equally measure melting of previously permanently frozen soil known as permafrost. “Cave deposits cannot grow when the rock above the cave is frozen,” Anton said. “Thus, each growth layer in a stalagmite forms during warm periods, whereas growth breaks represent cold periods with permafrost. Past periods that were warmer than now are especially important, because they can show what may happen to the permafrost in the future warmer world.”
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Thick ice decline could advance watery Arctic summers

NASA's shipborne ICESCAPE mission cuts a path through multiyear Arctic ice last year. This thicker form of ice is declining fastest, NASA's Joey Comiso has shown in a separate study. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

NASA's shipborne ICESCAPE mission cuts a path through multiyear Arctic ice last year. This thicker form of ice is declining fastest, NASA's Joey Comiso has shown in a separate study. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is vanishing the fastest, data studied by NASA scientist Joey Comiso and published last month have shown. “This is alarming since it is usually the thick component that would survive the long summer melt period,” Joey told Simple Climate. “Since the thick component is declining more rapidly, the Arctic summer ice cover is more vulnerable to further decline. Assuming that the surface temperature continues to warm up as it has in the last several decades, this makes it more likely that we will have very little or no sea ice cover in the summer sooner than we previously expected.” And when the Arctic is ice-free in summer, dramatic environmental changes could follow that would speed warming further and limit the supply of fish for food.

Having long studied Arctic sea ice cover, Joey previously showed that 2007’s record smallest summer area was around one quarter smaller than the previous minimum in 2005. That “has been regarded as the event that could trigger an irreversible change in the Arctic sea ice cover”, Joey wrote in this latest research paper in the Journal of Climate. But after that low the area of thickest ice that can survive the summer melts, known as perennial ice, recovered slightly before dipping again this winter.

Intrigued by that recovery, Joey wanted to understand it. He therefore turned to data collected by tools called microwave radiometers that have been flying over the Arctic on satellites since 1979. These can collect information on the ability of different objects to emit microwave energy, or their microwave emissivity. Salt content, or salinity, influences this emissivity. As sea ice is initially around one-third as saline as sea water, microwave emissivity can be used to tell one from the other. It can also separate multiyear ice, which has survived at least two summer melt seasons, from thinner second year ice that has only survived one summer. Read the rest of this entry »

Retreating Arctic coasts show need for careful science

A scientist standing in front of an ice-rich permafrost exposure in the coastal zone of Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada. These ice bodies in the permafrost are rapidly eroded by the sea in the coastal zone. Photo: Michael Fritz

A scientist standing in front of an ice-rich permafrost exposure in the coastal zone of Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada. These ice bodies in the permafrost are rapidly eroded by the sea in the coastal zone. Photo: Michael Fritz

A decade-long study into the state of coasts in the Arctic has revealed that climate change is accelerating erosion there. The “State of the Arctic Coast 2010” report says that average erosion rates see coasts retreat half a metre per year, while some areas lose more than eight metres annually. That’s because, as sea-ice melts around the North Pole, larger exposed ocean areas enable the wind to whip up waves that damage the coastline more easily. However Hugues Lantuit, one of the editors of the report, underlines that without this specific scientific effort it would be hard to separate these effects from normal coastline erosion.

“The coast has always eroded, and there were always spectacular features in the coastal zone,” explained Lantuit, who works at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany. “In that sense, it is difficult to grasp the issue of climate change with the human eye. Data is necessary to complement it and to pinpoint to what is truly an impact of the climate and what isn’t. The climate has been warming dramatically in the Arctic, and the sea ice is retreating. The major challenge for us scientists is to quantify and link with precision the processes at work in the area. To do this, the human eye is often not enough.” Read the rest of this entry »

Climate change shifts organisms in space and time

Duke University Biologist Bill Morris. Credit: Duke University

Duke University Biologist Bill Morris. Credit: Duke University

As our climate changes, we might expect to see some familiar plants and animals in our local environment replaced by new ones. That’s according to Bill Morris from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who recently published work studying shifts in where mountain plants live in top science journal Nature. “Species will likely be found in different places than where they are found now, creating new combinations that did not interact in the recent past,” he told Simple Climate. “What the consequences of these new interactions will be are hard to predict, because it is difficult to study interactions that don’t currently exist.”

Together with Daniel Doak at the University of Wyoming, Morris studied two tundra plant species whose habitat extends south from the Arctic. Higher global temperatures are expected to make conditions for the moss campion and alpine bistort better at the northern end of their geographical ranges. By contrast, at the southern end higher temperatures might be expected cause the plants to decline. Consequently their southern range limit should move northwards, but Morris and Doak found that in fact this had not happened – at least not yet.

Morris explained that the question of whether species’ ranges are spreading, or if it’s more common for the range to stay the same size, but move, remains unanswered. “We have much better evidence that species such as butterflies and birds are shifting toward the poles and to higher elevations, because these species are more often noticed by amateur naturalists, and because they likely move faster than do plants,” he said. “But we do know that many plants in Europe, where historical information about plant distributions is better, have moved to higher elevations over the last century.” Read the rest of this entry »

Arctic warming full ahead

It may be plunging towards the depths of its long, dark, cold, winter now, but 2010 has been another hot year for the Arctic. Air temperatures over Greenland reached the highest directly recorded levels, according to the 2010 Arctic Report Card. This meant that ice melted from the island’s huge inland sheet for 1 month longer than the average melt period over the past 30 years.

This summary, compiled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also documents an “exceptional” loss of glaciers around Greenland in 2010. 110 square miles of ice, four times the area of Manhattan Island, entered the ocean in the single largest glacier loss at Petermann glacier. “There is now no doubt that Greenland ice losses have accelerated,” the report underlines. “The implication is that sea level rise projections will again need to be revised upward.”

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