As Trump takes power, scientists scramble to secure wildlife data

Jimmy Tobias writes: In recent weeks, archivists, academics, and other ardent information activists have frantically sought to preserve and protect federal climate science before Donald Trump takes power in Washington. Leading the way is the University of Pennsylvania’s DataRefuge project, which is conducting a nationwide campaign to save and copy massive government data sets that contain critical information about our changing climate. Leaders of this effort fear that such data could disappear from federal websites when the president-elect’s administration gains control of government agencies.

But climate science isn’t the only potential victim. DataRefuge organizers, along with allies like the Union of Concerned Scientists, are equally worried about other forms of federal environmental research.

“There is no reason to think its efforts would be restricted to climate data alone,” says Gretchen Goldman, the research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Goldman stresses the vulnerability of wildlife science, particularly research by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that pertains to endangered, threatened, or otherwise imperiled species. [Continue reading…]

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Obama vs Trump — academic journals vs Twitter

The Associated Press reports: President Barack Obama cast the adoption of clean energy in the U.S. as “irreversible,” putting pressure Monday on President-elect Donald Trump not to back away from a core strategy to fight climate change.

Obama, penning an opinion article in the journal Science, sought to frame the argument in a way that might appeal to the president-elect: in economic terms. He said the fact that the cost and polluting power of energy have dropped at the same time proves that fighting climate change and spurring economic growth aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States,” Obama wrote.

He peppered his article with subtle references to Trump, noting that the debate about future climate policy was “very much on display during the current presidential transition.”

As he prepares to transfer power to Trump, Obama has turned to an unusual format to make his case to Trump to preserve his policies: academic journals. In the last week, Obama also published articles under his name in the Harvard Law Review about his efforts on criminal justice reform and in the New England Journal of Medicine defending his health care law, which Republicans are poised to repeal.

The articles reflect an effort by Obama to pre-empt the arguments Trump or Republicans are likely to employ as they work to roll back Obama’s key accomplishments in the coming years. Yet it’s unclear whether Trump or the GOP could be swayed by scholarly arguments in relatively obscure publications. [Continue reading…]

At tomorrow’s press conference, Donald Trump is sure to be asked for clarification on questions raised by his recent tweets.

On the other hand, “Did you read any of President Obama’s recent articles in Science, the Harvard Law Review, or the New England Journal of Medicine, Mr Trump?” is an unlikely question.

But on the off-chance something along those lines does come up, Trump is likely to wave it off with something like this: “I’m happy for President Obama to write for academics while I work for the American people.”

It would be understandable if Obama feels like he’s served his time and is now entitled to a quiet life, but I hope he does the opposite — that he doesn’t withdraw to an ivory tower but instead lends his voice (more than his pen) to active and engaged opposition to what promises to be the worst presidency in American history. Writing for academic journals, however, is preaching to the choir.

Scientific challenges against an anti-science president and an anti-science political party are going to get parried by the same expression of mock humility — “I’m not a scientist, but…” — a line that resonates well in a scientifically illiterate nation.

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As Donald Trump denies climate change, these kids die of it

 

Nicholas Kristof writes: She is just a frightened mom, worrying if her son will survive, and certainly not fretting about American politics — for she has never heard of either President Obama or Donald Trump.

What about America itself? Ranomasy, who lives in an isolated village on this island of Madagascar off southern Africa, shakes her head. It doesn’t ring any bells.

Yet we Americans may be inadvertently killing her infant son. Climate change, disproportionately caused by carbon emissions from America, seems to be behind a severe drought that has led crops to wilt across seven countries in southern Africa. The result is acute malnutrition for 1.3 million children in the region, the United Nations says.

Trump has repeatedly mocked climate change, once even calling it a hoax fabricated by China. But climate change here is as tangible as its victims. Trump should come and feel these children’s ribs and watch them struggle for life. It’s true that the links between our carbon emissions and any particular drought are convoluted, but over all, climate change is as palpable as a wizened, glassy-eyed child dying of starvation. Like Ranomasy’s 18-month-old son, Tsapasoa.

Southern Africa’s drought and food crisis have gone largely unnoticed around the world. The situation has been particularly severe in Madagascar, a lovely island nation known for deserted sandy beaches and playful long-tailed primates called lemurs.

But the southern part of the island doesn’t look anything like the animated movie “Madagascar”: Families are slowly starving because rains and crops have failed for the last few years. They are reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes. The United Nations estimates that nearly one million people in Madagascar alone need emergency food assistance. [Continue reading…]

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The Atlantic Ocean and an actual debate in climate science

Robinson Meyer writes: Many Americans know AMOC [Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation] as the Gulf Stream: the warm, surface-level current in the Atlantic Ocean that hugs the East Coast. You may have seen it in the old map by Ben Franklin, pictured above: It flows up the Carolinas, passes by New England and Nova Scotia, and then veers toward Europe. Eventually it arrives near the British isles and northwestern Europe.

The Gulf Stream is part of a much larger system, however. As that warm water flows northeast, it gradually cools, and in cooling, compresses and sinks. Eventually, in the Labrador and Greenland Seas, it becomes dense enough that it plunges down thousands of meters into the deep ocean. There it becomes a new current, running back south. It can remain in this deep-ocean current for many years until it eventually upwells at the equator or in the Southern Ocean.

This global conveyor belt of water is AMOC, and it is critical to the world’s climate. (Most scientists pronounce it as AY-mock.)

When AMOC is strong, it sends millions of cubic meters of ocean water north every day. A strong AMOC seems to shape the entire planet’s climate systems. It moderates the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, lessens the risk of drought in North America, and assures the health of monsoons in India. AMOC also ferries warm weather from the equator to Western Europe, where it helps bring the region unusually mild winters. (Consider that temperate Berlin is about as far from the equator as the snowy Chilean city of Punta Arenas.)

Crucially, the entire AMOC system depends on cool, dense water “overturning” in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Without cooled water plunging into the deep ocean near Greenland, and turning back south, the entire conveyor belt will stop.

About 30 years ago, climate researchers became concerned that AMOC could suddenly shut down as a result of anthropogenic climate change. The “paleoclimatic record”—that is, what the planet’s geology and fossil record reveal of previous global climates—showed that the AMOC has rapidly collapsed in the past. “Rapidly” here means “within the span of a human lifetime.”

The crumpling of AMOC could potentially cause big problems for the global economy. AMOC’s disappearance would quickly worsen sea-level rise on the U.S. East Coast and subject the Southeast to unusually intense tropical storms. It could upheave agriculture in India, Europe, and the African Sahel.

But as climate models improved, those fears dissipated. “No current comprehensive climate model projects that the AMOC will abruptly weaken or collapse in the 21st century,” wrote a team of NOAA researchers in 2008. “We therefore conclude that such an event is very unlikely.”

Thomas Delworth was the lead author of that report. Delworth is a researcher at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at Princeton University. He says that scientists are now re-examining those old conclusions.

“Some recent work now is challenging that consensus. It suggests that the real climate system may be less stable than [the models] think,” Delworth told me. [Continue reading…]

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The very real threat of Trump’s climate denialism

Paul A. Offit writes: During the past few months, Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry, Trump’s pick to head the Energy Department, and Donald Trump himself have all said that they don’t believe in climate change. The most upsetting part of their statements has been the misuse of the word believe.

Religion is a belief system. You have to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea or that Lazarus was raised from the dead. Because these phenomena violate the laws of nature, they are matters of faith.

Science, on the other hand, isn’t a belief system. It’s an evidence-based system. For example, you don’t have to believe in the theory of evolution. All you have to do is examine 250,000 years of fossil records to know that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. You don’t have to believe in the germ theory. All you have to do is recognize that vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation programs have increased our lifespan by 30 years during the past century. And you don’t have to believe in the theory of gravity. All you have to do is drop your pen. None of these concepts are theories any more. They’re facts supported by evidence. [Continue reading…]

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China aims to spend at least $360 billion on renewable energy by 2020

The New York Times reports: China intends to spend more than $360 billion through 2020 on renewable power sources like solar and wind, the government’s energy agency said on Thursday.

The country’s National Energy Administration laid out a plan to dominate one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, just at a time when the United States is set to take the opposite tack as Donald J. Trump, a climate-change doubter, prepares to assume the presidency.

The agency said in a statement that China would create more than 13 million jobs in the renewable energy sector by 2020, curb the growth of greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming and reduce the amount of soot that in recent days has blanketed Beijing and other Chinese cities in a noxious cloud of smog.

China surpassed the United States a decade ago as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and now discharges about twice as much. For years, its oil and coal industries prospered under powerful political patrons and the growth-above-anything mantra of the ruling Communist Party.

The result was choking pollution and the growing recognition that China, many of whose biggest cities are on the coast, will be threatened by rising sea levels.

But even disregarding the threat of climate change, China’s announcement was a bold claim on leadership in the renewable energy industry, where Chinese companies, buoyed by a huge domestic market, are already among the world’s dominant players. Thanks in part to Chinese manufacturing, costs in the wind and solar industries are plummeting, making them increasingly competitive with power generation from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. [Continue reading…]

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Earth’s oceans are steadily warming

Robinson Meyer writes: It’s sometimes said that modern science spends too much time on the documentation of a new trend and too little time on the replication of old ones. A new paper published Wednesday in the open-access journal Science Advances is important just because it does the latter. In fact, it sheds light on the scientific process in action—and also reveals how climate-change denialists can muddy that process.

Here’s the big takeaway from the new study: Across the planet, the ocean surface has been warming at a relatively steady clip over the past 50 years.

This warming trend shows up whether the ocean is measured by buoy, by satellite, or by autonomous floating drone. It also shows up in the global temperature dataset created and maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In fact, the warming shows up in both datasets in essentially the same way. This is important because it confirms the integrity of the NOAA dataset — and adds further evidence to the argument that ocean temperatures have steadily warmed this century without a significant slowdown.

“Our results essentially confirm that NOAA got it right,” says Zeke Hausfather, a researcher and economist at the University of California Berkeley. “They weren’t cooking the books. They weren’t bowing to any political pressure to find results that show extra warming. They were a bunch of scientists trying their hardest to work with messy data.”

Here’s why the finding matters: In June 2015, NOAA published an update to its long-running dataset of historical global temperatures. Thomas Karl, the director of the National Centers for Environmental Information, and his colleagues at NOAA explained in a paper in Science that the old database had a critical flaw. In trying to merge temperature readings taken by ships and buoys, NOAA had been allowing “cooling bias” to seep into its numbers.

In other words, NOAA’s global temperature estimates had been too low, and its measurement of climate change was too conservative. With this newly updated data in hand, Karl and his colleagues found there had been no slowdown in global warming during the 2000s.

NOAA’s new findings disagreed with those of the U.K. Met Office, whose widely used global temperature dataset does show a slowdown in the 2000s.

So: Was there a slowdown? This is an interesting problem of some scientific interest. Researchers have pointed to El Niño, to multiyear oceanic cycles, and to the post-Soviet reforestation of Russia as possible explanations for the change.

But here’s the thing: The slowdown, or lack thereof, never threw the larger phenomenon of human-caused climate change into question. In fact, even among the most conservative estimates, the globe kept warming right through the slowdown. The overwhelming consensus of Earth scientists is that the planet is harmfully warming due to human industrial activity. What’s more, if a slowdown did occur in the 2000s, it seems to have abated now. The previous three years — 2014, 2015, and 2016 — have all broken the record as the hottest year ever in the modern temperature record.

But this hasn’t seemed to matter in public debate, as climate-change denialists have found enormous success casting doubt on global warming by glomming onto this “slowdown” debate. [Continue reading…]

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Can carbon capture technology prosper under Trump?

The New York Times reports: Can one of the most promising — and troubled — technologies for fighting global warming survive during the administration of Donald J. Trump?

The technology, carbon capture, involves pulling carbon dioxide out of smokestacks and industrial processes before the climate-altering gas can make its way into the atmosphere. Mr. Trump’s denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change, a view shared by many of his cabinet nominees, might appear to doom any such environmental initiatives.

But the new Petra Nova plant about to start running here, about 30 miles southwest of Houston, is a bright spot for the technology’s supporters. It is being completed essentially on time and within its budget, unlike many previous such projects. When it fires up, the plant, which is attached to one of the power company NRG’s hulking coal-burning units, will draw 90 percent of the CO2 from the emissions produced by 240 megawatts of generated power. That is a fraction of the roughly 3,700 megawatts produced at this gargantuan plant, the largest in the Lone Star State. Still, it is enough to capture 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide each year — equivalent to the greenhouse gas produced by driving 3.5 million miles, or the CO2 from generating electricity for 214,338 homes. [Continue reading…]

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NASA’s overlooked duty to look inward

Elisa Gabbert writes: In 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote an essay called “The Image of Victory,” in which he asked what winning the Second World War, the “airman’s war,” would mean for posterity. MacLeish believed that pilots could do more than bring victory; by literally rising above the conflicts on the ground, they could also reshape our very understanding of the planet. “Never in all their history have men been able truly to conceive of the world as one: a single sphere, a globe, having the qualities of a globe, a round earth in which all the directions eventually meet, in which there is no center because every point, or none, is center — an equal earth which all men occupy as equals,” he wrote. The airplane, he felt, was both an engine of perspective and a symbol of unity.

MacLeish could not, perhaps, have imagined the sight of a truly whole Earth. But, twenty-six years after his essay appeared, the three-man crew of Apollo 8 reached the highest vantage point in history, becoming the first humans to witness Earth rising over the surface of the moon. The most iconic photograph of our planet, popularly known as “The Blue Marble,” was taken by their successors on Apollo 17, in 1972. In it, Earth appears in crisp focus, brightly lit, as in studio portraiture, against a black backdrop. The picture clicked with the cultural moment. As the neuroscientist Gregory Petsko observed, in 2011, in an essay on the consciousness-shifting power of images, it became a symbol of the budding environmentalist movement. “Our whole planet suddenly, in this image, seemed tiny, vulnerable, and incredibly lonely against the vast blackness of the cosmos,” Petsko wrote. “Regional conflict and petty differences could be dismissed as trivial compared with environmental dangers that threatened all of humanity.” Apollo 17 marked America’s last mission to the moon, and the last time that humans left Earth’s orbit.

It was always part of NASA’s mission to look inward, not just outward. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which established the agency, claimed as its first objective “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” NASA’s early weather satellites were followed, in the seventies and eighties, by a slew of more advanced instruments, which supplied data on the ozone layer, crops and vegetation, and even insect infestations. They allowed scientists to recognize and measure the symptoms of climate change, and their decades’ worth of data helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclude, in 2007, that global warming is “very likely” anthropogenic. According to a report released last month by NASA’s inspector general, the agency’s Earth Science Division helps commercial, government, and military organizations around the world locate areas at risk for storm-related flooding, predict malaria outbreaks, develop wildfire models, assess air quality, identify remote volcanoes whose toxic emissions contribute to acid rain, and determine the precise length of a day. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and the climate: His hot air on warming is far from the greatest threat

By Andrew Revkin, ProPublica, December 29, 2016

President-elect Donald J. Trump has long pledged to undertake a profound policy shift on climate change from the low-carbon course President Obama made a cornerstone of his eight years in the White House.

“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop,” Trump tweeted a year ago.

In recent weeks, Trump doubled down, nominating champions of fossil fuels to several cabinet positions and peppering his transition team with longtime opponents of environmental regulations.

Both the rhetoric and the actions have provoked despair among many who fear a Trump presidency will tip the planet toward an overheated future, upending recent national and international efforts to stem emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

But will a President Trump noticeably affect the globe’s climate in ways that, say, a President Hillary Clinton would not have?

In recent weeks, a variety of consultants tracking climate and energy policy have used models to help address that question. ProPublica asked Andrew P. Jones at Climate Interactive, a nonprofit hub for such analysis, to run one such comparison.

[Read more…]

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Following carbon dioxide through the atmosphere

 

NASA reports: A new NASA supercomputer project builds on the agency’s satellite measurements of carbon dioxide and combines them with a sophisticated Earth system model to provide one of the most realistic views yet of how this critical greenhouse gas moves through the atmosphere.

Scientists have tracked the rising concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide for decades using ground-based sensors in a few places. A high-resolution visualization of the new combined data product – generated by the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, using data from the agency’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite build and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – provides an entirely different perspective.

The 3-D visualization reveals in startling detail the complex patterns in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, decreases and moves around the globe over the course of September 2014 to September 2015. [Continue reading…]

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Humans have been altering Earth for millennia, but only now are we wise to what we’re doing

David Grinspoon writes: As a planetary astrobiologist, I am focused on the major transitions in planetary evolution and the evolving relationship between planets and life. The scientific community is converging on the idea that we have entered a new epoch of Earth history, one in which the net activity of humans has become an agent of global change as powerful as the great forces of nature that shape continents and propel the evolution of species. This concept has garnered a lot of attention, and justly so. Thinking about the new epoch – often called the Anthropocene, or the age of humanity – challenges us to look at ourselves in the mirror of deep time, measured not in centuries or even in millennia, but over millions and billions of years. And yet much of the recent discussion and debate over the Anthropocene still does not come to terms with its full meaning and importance.

Various markers have been proposed for the starting date of the Anthropocene, such as the rise in CO2, isotopes from nuclear tests, the ‘Columbian exchange’ of species between hemispheres when Europeans colonised the Americas, or more ancient human modifications of the landscape or climate. The question in play here is: when did our world gain a quality that is uniquely human? Many species have had a major influence on the globe, but they don’t each get their own planetary transition in the geologic timescale. When did humans begin changing things in a way that no other species has ever changed Earth before? Making massive changes in landscapes is not unique to us. Beavers do plenty of that, for example, when they build dams, alter streams, cut down forests and create new meadows. Even changing global climate and initiating mass extinction is not a human first. Photosynthetic bacteria did that some 2.5 billion years ago.

What distinguishes humans from other world-changing organisms must be related to our great cleverness and adaptability; the power that comes from communicating, planning and working in social groups; transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next; and applying these skills toward altering our surroundings and expanding our habitable domains. However, people have been engaged in these activities for tens of thousands of years, and have produced many different environmental modifications proposed as markers of the Anthropocene’s beginning. Therefore, those definitions strike me as incomplete. Until now, the people causing the disturbances had no way of recognising or even conceiving of a global change. Yes, humans have been altering our planet for millennia, but there is something going on now that was not happening when we started doing all that world-changing. [Continue reading…]

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