Climate Letter #1087

An article that spells out the many weaknesses of industrial agriculture, which are increasingly self-destructive, and why it should be replaced by an organic approach that is given the name of “agroecology.”  The author has written 19 books related to this subject matter.  His arguments are powerful, and include references to how climate stabilization would be one of the benefits.  Industrial agriculture, like fossil fuel production, is supported by huge subsidies that somehow need to be switched toward a whole new direction.  That is a problem not easily solved without a strong push from the public.
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The problem of biodiversity destruction, or the “sixth extinction,” is discussed at length in the Guardian.  There are different viewpoints on things like what it means for humanity’s future, what kind of tipping points might come into play, and how extreme the consequences might be.  Regardless of the final outcome the direction we are heading in with ecosystems that have everywhere been weakened is likely to be unfavorable to a degree that moves progressively downward.
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Concentrated solar power with molten salt storage is rapidly becoming competitive (Inside Climate News).  All of the kinks seem to have been worked out, and bid prices for production from new plants are now coming in at around five or six cents per kWh.  That is considerably cheaper than a solar PV farm with lithium-ion batteries can quote and it could go lower.  One company is making plans to build ten of these facilities in Nevada to serve the needs of California.
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Auto makers are rushing to produce electric cars.  Ford now says it will have 40 models in showrooms by 2022.  GM, Toyota and VW are likewise moving aggressively, with Toyota focused on a cheaper battery development.  Tesla’s success has helped to inspire much of this activity.
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Panasonic has a new type of black-backed solar panel ready for market, promising a number of competitive advantages.  It even has a 25-year warranty.
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Part 2 in the Carbon Brief series about climate modelling.  This one has a slide show featuring fifty key events in the historical development of this activity, starting in 1922.  Many of the basic theories of weather and climate science are elaborated along with coverage of vital new sources of data, and much more.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1086

A new report from David Spratt at Climate Code Red.  As a student of climate change David, an Australian, has been around for decades much like Bill McKibben, and like Bill became alarmed early on by what he saw.  Both of these men have written to considerable effect about why we should all be alarmed.  Every couple of months, or whenever his sense of dread has been reinforced by facts on the ground or by comments from top scientists, David puts out a new post that pulls no punches.  This one summarizes his worst findings from 2017, most of which I think have been covered here in one form or another.  I believe the points he makes about how climate sensitivity and climate risk are both widely underestimated are well-founded, which means social policymaking has a long way to go in order to catch up.
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Scientists are studying the way climate change affects flows of refugees.  John Abraham reviews a new report that sets forth general principles that are applicable, linking the rate of flow to temperature increases.
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More content from the draft of the new interim IPCC report, from Inside Climate News.  This adds to comments made in Friday’s Climate Letter.  The report, due in October, will be over 800 pages long and will thus cover a great many items of interest!
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What are climate models and how do they work?  Carbon Brief is offering a highly detailed explanation.  This is the first article in a week-long series, clearly designed to help anyone who has a deep interest in learning about this fascinating tool of science.  Here is the opening statement:  “A global climate model typically contains enough computer code to fill 18,000 pages of printed text; it will have taken hundreds of scientists many years to build and improve; and it can require a supercomputer the size of a tennis court to run.”  Making updates and improvements then becomes a never-ending process, never quite reaching perfection.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1085

Atmospheric CO2 update—what happened in 2017?  For the best perspective use the link below, which opens with the interactive long-term chart.  Move the left cursor to expose everything from 2000 to the present.  Then focus on the blue line, which represents the running 12-month trend.  Get a straightedge and lay it along that line from mid-2003 through mid-1015, which would smooth out into a remarkably steady rise of almost exactly 2 ppm per year for twelve consecutive years.  In 2015-16 the major El Nino added an extra 2 ppm in about eight or nine months.  Since the spring of 2016 the path has reverted back to a rate that looks very much like the old 2 ppm per year.  Keep in mind that every possible kind of source or sink comes into play when determining this outcome, now around 407, not just fossil fuel emissions.  Those emissions on their own would actually measure out at almost 4 ppm per year, before the “normal” sinks come into play.  The reliability of those sinks, unfortunately, is open to question.  The blue line on the chart somehow has to flatten out completely within the next 20-30 years and then start working its way down again.  Some say 350 would be a safe target while others can make a case for going all the way back to below 300 if the goal is to maximize the margin of safety.
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The IPCC is drafting an interim report with a focus on prospects for meeting the 1.5C target.  One key point is that the carbon budget for all human-activated greenhouse gas emissions will be used up in just 12 to 16 years at the current rate of output.  (That’s for only a 50% chance of holding within the target.)  Making reference to the chart in the above story, every year that continues on the 2 ppm trend takes away one full year from the allotted time that has been calculated.  In other words, when being on a limited budget, the magnitude of required effort, as high as it actually is, keeps getting higher every day.
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New York City has announced plans for divestment and other actions against the oil and gas industry that are being praised as significantly helpful.  For one thing it sets an unusually powerful example.
–Bill McKibbin is one of those who are happy about this movement.  “New York and most of the world’s other great cities aren’t viable if the sea keeps rising: they will be destroyed. And New York, for one, isn’t taking it any more. It’s going to use its considerable power to try to hold the oil companies accountable.”
–Naomi Klein makes an equally eloquent statement to the same effect. By attacking the industry at its financial roots, “the politically impossible suddenly seems possible.”
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How does the rise in atmospheric CO2 affect the acidity of freshwater systems (Scientific American)?  There is some effect but the whole situation is different from that of the oceans, and much more varied.  The conclusion: “Over time, lakes are experiencing quite variable CO2 concentrations, and all the biota that live in them are, too. Although still unknown, it may be that living in such complex water chemistry will ultimately help freshwater plants and animals adapt to the planet’s rising CO2 levels.”
Carl
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Climate Letter #1084

A new warning about the danger in store from river flooding.  The authors of this study are all affiliated with the highly respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.  They talk about what needs to be done, and where, and attribution, but not the cost.  Two main points need to be reckoned with—one, “An increase in river flood risks over the next 2-3 decades will be driven by the amount of greenhouse-gases already emitted into the atmosphere, hence it does not depend on whether or not we limit global warming.”  Second, “However, it is clear that without limiting human-caused warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, river flood risks in our century will increase in many regions to a level that we cannot adapt to.”  That sounds eerily familiar to the warnings we often hear about sea level rise.
–Here is a link to the full study (open access), where mapping of the biggest danger zones can be found:
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Stephen Hawking weighs in on Earth’s future.  His views revive the old “Venus syndrome” that James Hansen and others once described but then gave up as too extreme.  Hawking goes on to express his fascination with the need to move humanity to another planet somewhere, which he calls “our only hope.”  This idea generates more excitement among many scientists of the non-climate type than merely fixing the situation we now have.  Once push comes to shove it’s more likely that humanity will do just enough to survive where we are, but it won’t be as nice a place as it has been.
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From Joe Romm, a story about the extraordinary drop in the cost of producing renewable electricity on a grid-size scale, with battery storage included, here in the US.
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Surprisingly large demand for medium and heavy-duty electric trucks.  Orders for the big new Tesla model are opening everyone’s eyes.  Other manufacturers are rushing to bring their own new models to market.  Buyers expect to reap huge savings on operating costs.  Communities will benefit from reduced air pollution.  Bad for the oil business.
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A different kind of revolution is heading toward agricultural fields.  This relatively unpublicized development, quite breathtaking in scope, is covered effectively in this story from Bloomberg Businessweek.  The prospect of success is no less comprehensible than the prospect of streets and highways filled with driverless vehicles, which are now almost sure to be right around the corner.
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From the pages of history, “The Great Snow of winter 1614/1615 in England.”  A detailed picture of one of the greatest extreme weather events on record.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1083

What is China now doing about climate change?  A new analytical report from a large institution details the rapid changes that are occurring, both at home and abroad.  Carbon Brief has the story, which gives an impression of very high ambition on a global scale, clearly favoring renewable energy over fossil fuels.  Economic development, market domination and political leadership all have a role as motivating factors, and are obviously working effectively.
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A new study challenges common perceptions of how clouds affect the Earth’s radiation energy balance.  One main conclusion, based on a close look at all the ways clouds change, and the timing of such changes, is that their overall cooling effect is being underestimated, by an amount that is fairly significant.  That would imply that other factors that make up the radiation balance also contain errors somewhere, enough to make up the difference. This could affect historical estimates of the planet’s warming and likewise introduce errors into the way future estimates are modeled.  Clouds are already recognized for having other kinds of major uncertainties—there was a story in yesterday’s Climate Letter that dealt with one of them—so now things are yet more complicated.  This paper, coming from Princeton University, is likely to draw much attention.  One reviewer said, “I am sure this type of work will offer new perspectives to improve the representation of clouds. I would not be surprised to see this paper highly cited in future IPCC [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports.”
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Denmark used wind turbines to cover 43.6% of its power demand in 2017, aiming for 50% by 2020.  The country sets an example of what can be done wherever wind conditions are of the right type.
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Scientific evidence supports a quest for sustainable lifestyles.  The professor who wrote this piece has a rather “dry” way of communicating, but I believe he is absolutely correct and his message should be heard more often.  Here is a brief example:  “The ways of life in the global North, derived from an increase in wealth, have brought with them intensive consumption of resources that directly affect climate change – and despite the evidence, which shows that materialism imposes a high price on individual welfare, such consumption is still our reference point for what well-being is.”

Carl
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Climate Letter #1082

New light is shed on the consequences of removing aerosols that now reflect sunlight.  A new study tends to confirm common estimates that the sulfate aerosols emitted by burning fossil fuels have a cooling effect equal to at least 0.5C, or up to 1.1C, globally averaged, which will quickly decline if and when we reduce burning the fuels.  The Northern Hemisphere is especially sensitive.  (This is an unavoidable complication that will have to be reckoned with, possibly resolved by injecting sulfates back into the atmosphere by other means, which has its own set of potential problems.)
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Climate change is having a serious impact on Iran (Scientific American).  Severe drought and dust storms, which have become more common in the region, have had a ravaging effect on family farms.  Current government policies have aggravated the problem for the poorest classes. Also, Iran’s temperatures, like those throughout the Persian Gulf, are among the highest in the world and are increasing toward levels that are unbearable when heatwaves occur.
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Effects of climate change are causing outmigration from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.  One of Earth’s most productive agricultural regions, with 18 million inhabitants, has proven vulnerable to a set of changes that frequently result in salt water intrusions that destroy crops.  Periodic drought and flooding events have added to frustrations.
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New revelations about what causes methane to be released from hydrate formations.  Under current conditions the best evidence points to pressure relief rather than warmer temperatures.  Pressure is reduced today in a few spots where the local seafloor is rising for some reason, reducing the weight of the water above.  The coming sea level rise will thus generally favor containment, even if bottom waters grow warmer, which should allay fears of runaway emissions from this source at any time soon.
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How El Nino and La Nina affect Antarctic ice shelves.  It’s mass that counts, not thickness, and the opposing effects are quite interesting.  Expectations favor greater frequency of extreme El Nino events in the future, suggesting a quickening of the rate of sea level rise.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1081

The story of Cambodia’s astonishing Tonle Sap Lake, which feeds millions of people across Southeast Asia.  Not long ago the fishing was incredibly productive.  Now it is being decimated by climate change, drought and development.
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An update on food shortages in South Sudan.  Now 4.8 million people are classified as “currently severely food insecure,” up over 30% in a year, and the outlook for 2018 is poor.  “Climatically, nearly everything went wrong this past year. Floods inundated Aweil’s lowlands while drought afflicted its highlands, spreading desertification further north towards Sudan. Experts are increasingly blaming this deadly combination on the effects of climate change.”  Civil conflicts intensify the problem.
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In the US, the nutritional value of grasses used for feeding cattle has dropped nearly 20% in 25 years.  As a result grass-fed cattle in a wide range of states are not putting on weight like they should be. One professor says, “The more carbon dioxide, the bigger the plant, but the amount of nitrogen, which makes plants nutritious for cattle, doesn’t change.”  Effects of the same type have previously been reported for several kinds of basic human food supplies like rice, wheat and potatoes.
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Sweltering heat in Australia.  A suburb of Sydney reached 117F on Sunday, very close to a record.  Conditions for severe bush fires are ripe.
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Alaskan temperatures have been running ten to twenty degrees above average.  “The river ice in some areas was feet thick in past years. It’s now only inches. In other places, there’s open water.”
–Today’s Weather Maps provide a startling graphic image of how warm air from the Pacific has pushed its way deeply into the frozen Arctic Ocean, cutting across part of Alaska while doing so.  The Atlantic, with its broader northern waterways, does the same kind of intruding more easily, with more regularity.  Also try the Anomaly link for an added  perspective on the current arrangement.
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The stage is set for a critical election later this year.  This is from a British website that deals with political betting.  The writer believes that climate change denial is now defunct.  The problem in the US is that “Most voters, though, are in the middle on climate change. Around half the public have little doubt it’s real and a threat, and want it dealt with, but don’t think about it much.”  Democrats have not yet figured out how to properly frame the issue in order to attract voters without scaring them.  (I would lump it together with other environmental issues that are more understandable where the Republican right wing now in control of the party and government is equally wrongheaded.)
Carl
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Climate Letter #1080

Ocean waters are losing oxygen, in part due to climate change.  “Climate change caused by fossil fuel burning is the cause of the large-scale deoxygenation, as warmer waters hold less oxygen. The coastal dead zones result from fertiliser and sewage running off the land and into the seas.”  These are separate problems, with the latter perhaps more serious at this time.  They both require solutions involving similar types of organized effort on a monumental scale.  Open oceans are capable of losing oxygen to a much greater extent than the atmosphere above, a primary explanation behind many of the great extinctions of ancient history.
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Global warming also threatens the existence of coral reefs exposed to repeated bleaching events.  “Before the 1980s, mass bleaching of corals was unheard of, even during strong El Niño conditions,” said the lead author of a new study.  “Now repeated bouts of regional-scale bleaching and mass mortality of corals has become the new normal around the world as temperatures continue to rise.”  The study also notes the fact that entire ecosystems generally die along with the reefs, thereby threatening the livelihoods of many millions of people.
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The cost of natural disasters to insurance companies, largely weather-related, set a new record in 2017.  As usual, uninsured losses were even greater.  Globally, as often expected, losses from North America dominated, with the US alone accounting for 50% of the total.  Munich RE sees losses of this type as the “new normal,” thanks to climate change.
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Southern Madagascar—a climate hotspot.  “In the south of the island, where many people farm for a living, the rainy season is getting shorter and shorter, they say. Rains that once stretched from October to March now fall only between December and February.”  An expected recovery following the usual El Nino-related dryness has failed to materialize, leaving nearly one million people who live off the land in deep trouble.
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The deforestation of Indonesia for palm oil plantations continues at a strong pace (Mongabay).  Papua New Guinea is now in the line of fire, with the full blessing of the Indonesian government.  Besides the setback for carbon emission controls the wildlife habitat that will be lost is priceless.  Indigenous communities dependent on the forests for their livelihood are opposed but have no say in the matter.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1079

Air pollution may be helping to make the Arctic warmer.  That is the conclusion of a new study that finds a link between particulate air pollution and cloud formation in the Arctic region.  The denser clouds then go on to trap more heat that would otherwise escape into space.  The authors note that clouds in high latitudes have a reduced effect on Earth’s albedo because snow and ice at the surface already provide high albedo when the sun is shining.
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Experiments confirm the potential for extraordinary improvement in performance for lithium-based batteries.  The effect is largely achieved by gaining and controlling an active role for oxygen.  This allows four times more lithium to be employed and also doubles its effectiveness, while usage of cobalt can be replaced by iron.  The work was performed by a collaboration of researchers from Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratories.  For what it’s worth, the team now plans “to explore other compounds where this strategy could work.”  Maybe something cheaper and more plentiful than lithium?
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A huge relatively new source of demand for electricity is in effect right now and will accelerate in the future.  It’s all about communications driven by devices connected to the internet, immensely popular in all parts of the world.  There will be a challenge for renewable power sources to keep up with it in addition to replacing existing high-carbon sources and taking care of several other major new demands for power.
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A story about the science of attribution, linking extreme weather events to climate change.  Scientists are quite confident that they can now accurately determine the difference made by today’s climate conditions compared with what once was considered normal.  It is still not easy for them to show the rest of us how they do the calculations, or how they can be so sure of being right when one half of the comparison is essentially hypothetical.
–Here is an example of what they do, applied to Hurricane Harvey:
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An inspiring story about how one individual, formerly an office worker, turned 70 acres of desert into an oasis.  Farmers in a nearby district have learned much from his efforts and successfully converted much more land.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1078

Global temperature trends follow three separate trails, one for El Nino years, one for La Ninas and one neutral, depending on the relative warmth of each type.  Here they are all nicely charted for comparison by Dana Nuccitelli.  2017, with a neutral rating, was the second warmest on record for all years, beaten by just one El Nino year, in 2016.  The aggregate chart since 1964 shows no sign of any meaningful pause other than those that are common and temporary, and the trend may even be viewed as accelerating.  We need a strong La Nina year or two to clarify the current position of the lower boundary.
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Over 15,000 of the world’s scientists have signed off on a new warning to humanity.  The original statement of this type was published 25 years ago, in 1992.  The new one includes nine charts of what has transpired since then.  Scientists have a unique ability to understand the true magnitude of what is happening to the planet, and to all of life, and what we humans are doing that is damaging to both of these.  Those of us who are not scientists would do well to pursue as much knowledge as we can about what they have to say, for a better glimpse of that magnitude.
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A representative of another group, not limited to scientists, has issued a follow-up statement to the above message.  It’s hard to disagree with his idea that the limits of growth have already been reached, if not breached, but the recommendations that follow are not likely to gain much leverage unless (or until?) signs of disaster become overwhelming.
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Five practical ways to improve global climate mitigation at the policy level.  All of these represent actions that have been seriously talked about but never formalized into concrete plans.  Filling in these gaps would give the Paris Agreement a better chance of making good on its promises.
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How farmers in Nepal are experiencing climate change.  There is a warming trend in the Himalayas similar to that in the Arctic, causing erratic and unmanageable changes for those who have farms on the lower slopes.  It offers another example of what is meant by “abrupt” climate change, of a type that can happen anywhere.
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Wild animals are badly in need of places to live (Yale e360).  Right now there are many that are just barely hanging on.  Conservationists are coming up with a number of helpful ideas that work well even on a small scale.
Carl
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