Crisis in the Cryosphere

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The global climate agreement reached in Paris late in 2015, which sets specific targets nations will aim for in limiting emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gas, was widely and justly regarded as a diplomatic triumph.

But the accord never mentions the cryosphere, the frigid regions that include the planet’s polar ice caps; ice fields; mountain glaciers; and permafrost, or perennially frozen soil. Even if the emission-reduction targets are met, it won’t be enough prevent the cryosphere from thawing, tipping us into the sort of climate the world hasn’t seen in 30-50 million years, and certainly not since humans have existed.

A Planetary Freezer

The crucial element in this scenario is permafrost, which is like a giant carbon deep-freeze. If we pull the plug on it by allowing it to thaw, plant matter that has been on ice for ages will decompose, and release carbon dioxide or methane or both into the atmosphere. Those gases will trap extra heat and raise global temperatures beyond what our fossil-fuel-based carbon emissions would do on their own.

The faster these gases emerge from the permafrost, the less carbon human society can release and still keep global temperatures from rising far above the aspirational temperature targets set by the Paris accord. The official goal of the agreement is to limit the increase in global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C …”

But that official goal is unrealistic. Modeling by independent climate research groups has shown that the pledges outlined in the agreement would actually result in global average temperature gains of 2.7 °C to 3.5 °C by 2100, with an ultimate peak of 3.4 °C to 4.2 °C by the time Earth’s temperature stopped rising. And that doesn’t include the extra carbon now expected to be released from thawing permafrost. New calculations about the likely extent of those releases was simply too recent to incorporate into the accord.

What the Freezer Holds

“We know that the permafrost contains an enormous amount of carbon,” said Dr. Max Holmes, a senior climate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, MA. “Twice as much as in the atmosphere and three times as much as all vegetation on Earth.” The more quickly the carbon emerges, the greater the risk of triggering catastrophic climate change.

Models project that 30-70% of the world’s permafrost will thaw this century to a depth of about ten feet. Dr. Sue Natali, a colleague of Dr. Holmes at Woods Hole commented, “It’s going to be a slow release, not an explosion, and it’ll be faster after 2100.” “Once permafrost thaws,” she noted, “there’s no action we can take to stop the release of carbon,” she warned. Unlike temperature changes, cryosphere processes are typically irreversible.

Dr. Natali’s concern is underscored by a recent article in Nature Geoscience showing that the permafrost covering up to two-thirds of the terrestrial Arctic is degrading rapidly, causing major landscape and hydrology changes.

Meanwhile, a new survey of 98 permafrost experts in Environmental Research Letters indicates that we can’t count on the growth of new plants in the Arctic to offset permafrost carbon releases by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, as some researchers had optimistically theorized. Instead, the permafrost region will become a source of extra carbon in the atmosphere by 2100, no matter what warming scenario the world follows.

On the bright side, the survey concluded that up to 85% of the permafrost-region carbon releases associated with a business-as-usual emissions scenario could be avoided, if net global emissions peaked within a decade or so, reached zero by around 2070, and became negative by 2100.

Our Carbon “Headroom”

The world’s permafrost stretches across 24 percent of the Arctic and contains 1.5 trillion tons of carbon. The permafrost could release as much as 130-160 billion tons of carbon just between now and 2100, according to a report from the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICC). That would be roughly 100 times the carbon the U.S. annually emits from all fossil fuel and cement production.

Unlike emissions from fossil fuel combustion, emissions from thawing permafrost, in the form of methane and carbon dioxide, amplify themselves by causing extra warming that leads to even more thawing.  In conjunction with society’s other emissions, the permafrost emissions could therefore lead to an out-of-control, self-reinforcing cycle of warming, thawing, further warming, and so on.

When permafrost emissions are included in the global allowable carbon “headroom” budget that the world can still in theory afford to emit and still stay below 2 °C of warming, then according to ICCI permafrost experts, the headroom for human emissions shrinks to only 115 billion tons of carbon, versus the 275 billion tons once presumed.

This means we have far less time to adjust our collective greenhouse gas emissions because we can now emit less than half as much additional carbon as we thought.  We will have to act faster; transition costs to a clean energy economy will be higher; and our technological options will be fewer.

*This article was published at the Scientific American on April 14, 2016

New Yale Study Finds Public Still Deeply Misinformed About Climate Change Risks

Image from pipeandpiper.co.uk

Credit: pipeandpiper.co.uk

A Yale Study on public perceptions of climate change risk reveals that much of the American public is deeply misinformed about climate change. Researchers with the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication organized their study results into a series of interactive maps that allow viewers to display national polling results by state, congressional district, or county. The study results included the following findings:

  • Only 48 percent of the public agreed that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.
  • Even fewer, only 41 percent, agreed that most scientists think global warming is happening.
  • 48 percent were not worried about global warming.
  • Whereas 42 percent agreed that global warming is already harming people in the U.S., only 34 percent agreed that “global warming will harm me personally” (greatly or moderately).
  • 51 percent agreed global warming will harm people in the US during the next 10 years.
  • 35 percent doubted that global warming will harm people in developing countries.

If only forty-eight percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, current educational efforts need to be greatly intensified.   Furthermore, even though many Americans have already been affected by climate change, the fact that only thirty-four percent believe global warming will harm them personally in the future also indicates profound and widespread misunderstanding about climate change

The good news is, seventy-seven percent of Americans agree that government should be funding research on renewable energy, and seventy-four percent agree that the government should regulate CO2 as a pollutant.  Thus, while many Americans remain ignorant about the causes of global warming and the severity of its impacts, they nonetheless support some policy measures that will help mitigate climate change.  Unfortunately, only forty-four percent of Americans favor a revenue-neutral (fully refunded) carbon tax, suggesting that while they support a shift to clean energy, they are unwilling to support any new taxes, even if rebated, that would accelerate the clean energy shift.

 Source:

Yale Climate Opinion Maps
http://environment.yale.edu/poe/v2014

Largest U.S. Nuclear Power Plant Operator Seeks Carbon Credits to Keep Plants Running

Three Mile Island, one of Exelon’s more famous plants. Image by George D. Lepp

Three Mile Island – one of Exelon’s more well-known nuclear power plants.
Image by George D. Lepp

In a strategic move to obtain carbon credit payments intended for clean energy sources, a major U.S. nuclear power plant operator is asking public officials in Illinois to allow it sell carbon credits to alleviate its financial woes.

Exelon Corp., which operates more nuclear power plants than any other company in the U.S., competes today in its sale of electricity with relatively cheap natural gas. The company says it may have to close three of its plants in Illinois if the state does not change its rules so that Exelon can sell carbon credits to electricity suppliers in the state.

That would enable Exelon to indirectly secure ratepayers funds intended to promote the production of truly clean and renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and small hydro.

By contrast, nuclear power plants cause carbon emissions during the mining, milling, enrichment, and fabrication of uranium fuel, and they produce highly toxic and carcinogenic radioactive waste in their spent fuel.

They also present unique risks of potentially catastrophic core-meltdown accidents from a variety of causes, including equipment malfunctions, operator errors, terrorist sabotage and attack, or natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunami’s. Some of these low-probability, high-consequence events have already occurred on a number of occasions throughout the world.

In a further contrast to truly clean and sustainable power sources like solar and wind, U.S. nuclear power plants use fuel made with uranium-235, a finite fuel that exists in limited quantities. As high-grade ores are depleted, the costs of mining and milling lower grade supplies increases.

Sources:

Nation’s Biggest Nuclear Firm Makes a Play for Green Money
http://news.yahoo.com/nations-biggest-nuclear-firm-makes-play-green-money-135551243.html

Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Power’s Pitfalls (Image)
http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1888119,00.html

Capitalism vs. Climate in Perspective—Thoughts on Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything

lima call to climate action

COP20, The UN global climate talks that recently concluded in Lima, Peru.

This book clearly shows how monumental the challenges are that must be surmounted if we are to protect the climate and insure social justice.

BERKELEY, CA—January 19, 2015 – Naomi Klein’s remarkable book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014) is a deeply insightful and unflinching look at the global threats posed by climate change, environmental devastation, and economic injustice.

Klein offers up a new framework for understanding the economic and political roadblocks preventing progress on climate protection and social justice. She does not, however, offer a “one-size-fits-all” solution that will work everywhere around the world.

Instead, she points to tactics—like building broad domestic coalitions with strong global ties to Progressive forces abroad—that could lead to the creation of diverse global solutions.

Klein’s solutions are best suited to the U.S. and other advanced economies and thus don’t seem to grapple with the problems of burgeoning global population, oil-producing Middle Eastern dictatorships, volatile impoverished nations like Pakistan, and rapidly developing, coal-reliant economic powerhouses like India and China.

Today’s economic and climate challenges represent a unique “climate moment,” Klein says, and we must seize it in order to implement sweeping new economic and environmental policies for reorienting humanity’s relationship to the natural resources that sustain life on Earth.

This Changes Everything is at its core as much about the redistribution of wealth and power on a planetary scale as well as about the ecocide we’re committing in assailing the climate.

Klein thus argues that we must make a revolutionary shift from an unsustainable economic model based on resource extraction and the exploitation of people to a relationship of interconnection and reciprocity with the natural world. Easier said than done.

To bring this about, we have to build a broad social movement, she declares. It needs to be founded on basic moral values and ecological principles, rather than those of unfettered free enterprise, profit maximization, and perpetual economic growth. The steps on the path to creating this movement, however, are never clearly laid out.

False Ideology and The Policies It Vindicates

The current climate impasse, Klein says, stems from acceding to the fundamentalist free-market capitalism paradigm, a false ideology rife with deep contradictions.

It rests on a counterfactual belief in infinite growth and on the tenets of minimalist passive governance, hostility to regulation, and aversion to public sector investment.

That pretty well nails the Tea Party, Libertarians, and today’s Republican Party, many of whom still deny climate science itself, despite overwhelming evidence.

Their free-market worldview, she believes, has brought us over the edge of disaster to the brink of catastrophic climate change.

Commonsense responses to the climate crisis have been blocked, she tells us, by multinational corporations and other vested interests, especially large energy corporations. So, a core battle of ideas must be fought and won to delegitimize them and their policies before effective massive action to take on global warming can succeed.

That means supplanting the free-market paradigm of resource extraction and perpetual growth with a more sustainable model based on resource stewardship and regeneration.

But to do that, you need a broad popular movement to curb the influence of corporate money and oligarchic wealth in politics and to force government to regulate corporations and invest in a far-reaching economic transformation.

Once you postulate a powerful social movement in the service of climate protection and social justice, the rest of Klein’s long-term agenda begins to seem more feasible, although it ultimately requires a major economic restructuring, lifestyle changes, and a political transformation, as well as policies aimed at reducing consumption—a politically taboo subject.

Klein’s solutions also require long-term energy and economic planning with an emphasis on the kind of decentralized renewable energy production that has proven so successful for many farmers and ranchers in Western Europe and the U.S., plus investments in energy efficiency and electric vehicles.

She envisions an expansion of the public safety net, carbon taxes, and greater support for infrastructure, including mass transit with electric trains powered by renewable energy. As Klein understands, entrenched vested interests will fight these reforms tooth and claw.

Building a Mass Movement

Advocacy of job-creating public investment could indeed serve as a nucleus around which a broadly based social movement could begin to coalesce, but whether it could be induced to embrace Klein’s larger agenda is unclear.

naomi klein rally

Naomi Klein addressing a rally.

This movement would likely first be dominated by “bread-and-butter” issues. Then smart leadership would need to weave climate concerns into core demands for jobs, higher wages, less inequality, and a better environment.

The broad movement could flourish through the implementation of a “Marshall Plan for the Earth,” to which Klein makes a couple of references.

Where Power Ultimately Resides

Klein has great faith in the activism of indigenous people to block fossil fuel development and inspire broader public opposition. She evidently sees these and other local “pockets of resistance” to fossil fuel encroachment as the yeast from which the broad social movement will arise. Here her argument may be more a leap of faith.

These local communities trying to block resource extraction projects don’t have the power to change the U.S. tax code or alter national spending priorities or ram big, New Deal-like social programs through a recalcitrant Congress, all of which must eventually be done to protect the climate.

Yet their isolated pitched battles may be like sparks awakening the conscience of a nation, particularly youth and those who live in the urban population centers where political power is concentrated and middle class movements are likely to arise.

In any case, brilliant as it is, This Changes Everything never fully explains the step-wise process by which the seeds of resistance are transformed into that vitally necessary mass climate movement so key to Klein’s vision.

Klein seems to believe that like lightning striking a mixture of amino acids in a beaker, the recurrence of ever-more serious climate-related disasters will catalyze the creation of the movement.

But even huge disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina have not yet done so, though they have already clobbered tens of millions of people. If a truly colossal disaster on a gargantuan scale is required to finally empower such a movement, it may by then be too late.

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John J. Berger, PhD. (http://www.johnjberger.com) is an energy and environmental policy specialist who has produced ten books on climate, energy, and natural resource topics. He is the author of Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.

Follow John J. Berger on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/johnjberger

This article was adapted from two longer articles that appeared recently on Huffington Post and on Communities Digital News.
See http://www.commdiginews.com/entertainment/this-changes-everything-capitalism-vs-the-climate-by-naomi-klein-33411/2/#ymUBgFTOzHuxX8jx.99,

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-j-berger/naomi-klein-climate-and-c_b_6445482.html, and

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-j-berger/naomi-klein-climate-and-c_1_b_6446544.html.

Applying the Public Trust Doctrine to Climate Change Using Atmospheric Trust Litigation

On Bill Moyer’s final broadcast of the show Moyers & Company which aired this past weekend, he interviewed University of Oregon legal scholar Professor Mary Christina Wood, author of Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for an Ecological Age (2013; Cambridge University Press).

In that extraordinary interview, Professor Wood provides a powerful, innovative, intellectually coherent, and legally sound interpretation of the public trust doctrine as applied to climate change and protection of the atmosphere.

Although the courts as yet haven’t embraced her arguments as they pertain to climate change, her pioneering work has led to the filing of several lawsuits on behalf of youth and their right to a habitable planet. These cases have come to be known as The Children’s Climate Crusade.

Woods’s commented in the course of her Moyers interview: “If this nation relies on a stable climate system, and the very habitability of this nation and all of the liberties of young people and their survival interests are at stake, the courts need to force the agencies and the legislatures to simply do their job.”

Woods also provided a gloss on an important climate decision by the Eugene City Council inspired by the testimony of youth organized by Our Children’s Trust demanding a carbon-neutral Eugene. The council responded by passing what Wood calls “the most aggressive city climate ordinance in the country.”

Here’s an excerpt from Professor Wood’s interview with Bill Moyers:

MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: “. . . street democracy is so powerful. I don’t know of any major movement that has succeeded without street democracy. When hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, as they did in New York City, exercise their constitutional rights of free assembly; and then when you see, also, almost 100,000 people signing up and pledging to risk arrest if Keystone, the Keystone Pipeline, that would transport tar sands from Canada, those people are pledging to risk arrest if Obama or Congress approves the Keystone Pipeline.

When you see this kind of uprising, that only reinforces the more formal legal approaches that are put forth in the atmospheric trust litigation. The two go very much hand in hand because what is very important for judges is to sense the moral authority of the people. Judges have a finger on the pulse of the American people in a way that I think we don’t really understand that well. Judges can, if they sense the need, move very rapidly and order swift injunctions to force the legislatures or agencies, or both, to create a carbon reduction plan. And as that awareness becomes more acute, as demonstrated in the streets, courts, I believe, will become more receptive to coming in and ordering the legislatures to do their job.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the one thing you want the reader to take away from “Nature’s Trust”?

MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: Most important thing is for citizens to understand that they are needed to promote environmental democracy at this crucial moment in time, that environmental law held a lot of promise but that it’s not working, and that agencies have basically used it to allow almost unfettered destruction of our natural resources.”

Now that Bill Moyers’ long running shows* are off the air, his website www.BillMoyers.com, which he will be continuing, is now the best way to access his archive and any new commentary and content posted. With his departure from TV screens, America is diminished. Bill Moyers was possibly the most thoughtful, knowledgeable, insightful, principled, eloquent and decent human being ever to appear on TV. He is irreplaceable and his weekly show will be sorely missed.

* The most recent series “Bill Moyers & Company” was preceded for many years by “Bill Moyers’ Journal,” another weekly interview program.

Signs of Climate Change; Portents of Disaster

© Copyright 2014 John J. Berger.  All Rights Reserved.

Below is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis.  The section below summarizes some of the dramatic impacts of climate change that have already appeared in response to an average global temperature increase of 1.4° F (less than 1° C).  One degree centigrade is less than half the average warming that is commonly regarded as the “danger point” by many international policy makers.  As I explain elsewhere in Climate Peril, however, that amount of warming is really not a safety threshold but a transition between dangerous and extremely dangerous temperature increase. FAQ 1.2, Figure 1 Image via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Assessment Report 4 (AR4), Working Group I (WG I): Chapter 1: Historical Overview of Climate Change Science

“By altering temperature, rainfall, wind, and weather patterns, sea levels, ocean chemistry, and ocean currents, a rapidly changing climate affects all natural resources, all species, all people, everywhere.  This chapter provides far-ranging, irrefutable evidence of several major climate changes that are already profoundly affecting the Earth, its ecosystems, and ourselves.  The evidence suggests that a climate catastrophe has already begun. The first decade of the 21st century (2000-2010) is the hottest ever recorded.  The year 2012 now appears to have been the hottest ever recorded in the lower 48 states―three and a half degrees above the long-term average and a degree higher than the previous hottest record year, 1998. Climatologists believe that before industrialization, global mean temperature had not varied as much as 1.8 F within the past 10,000 years.  But in the past 100 years, the world got 1.4 F hotter.  That’s 66 times faster than normal.  So the Earth is not only warming astonishingly quickly by historical standards, but the sizzling pace is itself steeply accelerating.  Many natural processes, societies, and living organisms, are already showing the effects of the temperature increase that has already occurred. Climate change is perhaps most visible in the vanishing of northern polar ice, the melting of the world’s glaciers, and in sea levels that are rising quickly.  Yet we are still in the very early and comparatively mild stages of the first human-induced climate change in history.  A long and sobering litany of climate-related disasters has begun, and more are forecast by climate scientists. * Huge, Powerful “Superstorms.”  Hurricane Mitch in 1998Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 destroyed lives, brought vast coastal flooding, and knocked out power for millions.  Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, damaged, or disrupted. As sea levels rise and storms intensify, many large coastal U.S. cities are increasingly subject to flooding from high tides and storm surges associated with large storms.  New York City was hit by an 11-foot high storm surge in conjunction with Superstorm Sandy.  Even larger storms are likely in the future, as National Geographic points out.  Financial losses from weather-related disasters are up sharply, setting global records. * Heat Waves.  The European heat wave of 2003 killed 35,000 people and did $15 billion in damage to agriculture alone. 3Image via Wired.com Russian Fires Approach Nuclear Plants (2010) The 2010 Russian heat wave killed 55,000 people and produced massive crop damages.  Five hundred wildfires raged over the bone-dry land around Moscow.  While heat waves like the European disaster were formerly expected only once in 500 years, such heat waves may become fairly common in the overheated world we’re now creating.”

Huge Wildfire Erupts in California

Because average global temperatures are greatly exceeded at high latitudes and in continental interiors, some temperate forest regions can get extraordinarily hot and dry even at relatively low average global temperature increases, as in the huge Rim Fire now burning within and around Yosemite National Park illustrates. It is one of the largest wildfires in California’s history and is currently considered the most important wildfire in the country.  Average minimum temperatures in parts of the central Sierra where the park is located have risen 5.4° F in the past 100 years and this may well be contributing to the increased occurrence of large, very hot, and difficult-to-contain wildfires in parts of the U.S.

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A firefighter watches for spot fires during a burnout operation while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013.

Image via AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

“Along with its worst drought in 130-years in 2002, India had a heat wave in May 2002 that killed more than 1,000 people.  The temperature reached nearly 124˚F in one village of Andhra Pradesh where a local official reported that birds fell dead out of the trees from the heat. *  Tropical Diseases.  Lethal insect-borne and waterborne illnesses formerly restricted to the tropics are now spreading to large regions previously free of them.  South Africa, for example, virtually malaria-free in the early 1970s, has nearly 60,000 cases a year.  Malaria has also reached highland regions of Kenya and Tanzania where it was previously unknown. * Melting Glaciers, and Ice Sheets.  Scientists are observing that the Greenland Ice Cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet are melting at an accelerating rate—faster than climate models have predicted.  Glaciers in the Himalayas, the world’s largest mass of ice outside the polar regions, are receding faster than anywhere else in the world.  They are the source of many important rivers, including the Indus and Ganges. The loss of high-altitude glaciers and diminishing snow packs is already starting to bring more frequent droughts and threaten the water supplies of more than two billion people who already live in in parts of India, Nepal, China, and Pakistan and other regions of water scarcity.  The East Asian monsoon has also been unreliable over the past 30 years, reducing rainfall in parts of China. * Sea Level Rise.  Sea level rises on a warming Earth because of ice and snow melt, and due to the expansion of warming sea water.  Significant sea level rise has occurred—about 8 inches in the past century—a much faster rate than forecast.  As seas rise, parts of heavily populated, low-lying coastal regions and major cities around the world will be below sea level.  In the U.S., parts of coastal cities like Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., will be flooded as well as large parts of Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere.  Using Google Earth, anyone with a personal computer can now see what these cities will look like at various expected sea levels. * Sea Ice Melting. Highly reflective summer sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing.  As this highly reflective ice vanishes, it is replaced by darker-colored water that absorbs vastly more of the sun’s heat and acts as another very strong positive feedback that contributes to global warming and climate change. * Melting Permafrost and Frozen Methane.  Permafrost in northern latitudes and frozen methane deposits in the ocean known as clathrates together those contain trillions of tons of stored carbon.  The permafrost and clathrates both have slowly begun to thaw and release methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The more permafrost and clathrates melt, the hotter the earth becomes, and so the more melting occurs.  If continued, at some point, the melting of these vast stocks of carbon would transform the climate beyond recognition and lead to a “runaway” greenhouse effect, transforming the earth into an ice-free planet as it was millions of years ago.  (Methane is 72 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a per molecule basis over a 20-year period.)  According to the geological record, when Earth was ice-free, sea level was about 250 feet higher than at the present. * Extinctions. Plant and animal extinctions are accelerating on land and in the sea.  The Amazon tropical rain forest is already beginning to suffer from repeated severe droughts and increased tree mortality.  Millions of acres of the forest were devastated in 2010; other severe droughts preceded it in 2007 and 2005.  If unchecked, this will destroy the rainforest ecosystem with disastrous consequences for global climate, wildlife, and humanity. ) * HarmfulOcean Changes. Vast harmful oceanic changes (temperature increases, acidification, coral reef death, low-oxygen zones) are already occurring. Coral reef bleaching, a sign of severe and potentially fatal stress caused by ocean warming and other factors, is evident in oceans of the world.  Half the reefs of the Indian Ocean and around South Asia have already lost most of their living coral, and current trends suggest that 95 percent of the reefs will be dead by 2050 if this pace continues. The drastic climate changes that have already occurred after only 1.4° F—less than 1° C—of warming show the climate system has already been gravely destabilized.  This indicates that greatly amplified additional warming and disastrous consequences are likely should warming continue unabated.” © Copyright 2013 John J. Berger.  All RIghts Reserved.

Inertia, Incredulity, and The Psychology of Climate Denial

I’m continuing to make good progress on completing my forthcoming book, Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis, and from time to time, I will include brief excerpts here that I feel may have broad relevance to the ongoing public climate debate, such as this brief psychological exploration of climate science denial.  Please feel free to offer any comments, corrections or other feedback.

distractions copy copy

“It’s worth pondering why, with information on the harsh impacts of climate change so readily available (as in the Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (GCCIUS) report), we seem so unwilling to heed the trenchant warnings.  Maybe it’s because the impacts of climate change are so dire they produce a surreal sense of gloom.  How much easier to focus on mundane daily events over which we have more control.

So we detach psychologically from unremitting bad news, or we deny it.  We deal with pressing immediate concerns, and we welcome distraction.  Our favorite TV shows beckon.  So do movies, sports, music, and the web.  How much more pleasant to escape from seemingly intractable global problems.  So we refrain from getting involved or we embrace the illusion that life can go on as normal if we ignore the gathering climate crisis.

But there must be more to it than that.  Why else might we as a nation be so unwilling to fully face the realities of climate change?  Why do we seem so lethargic at best in responding to the ever more urgent warnings that scientists are delivering about it?  The reasons are intricate and include the inherent complexity of understanding the climate system, and the difficulty of grasping some aspects without scientific training.

The phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance also explains the tendency to deny climate change or its implications.  In cognitive dissonance, one is so heavily invested cognitively or psychologically in an existing belief system that the beliefs are fortified by our (often subconscious) awareness of how damaging acceptance of a new belief or system would be to the older, deep-seated and familiar belief structures.

Cognitive dissonance operates even more powerfully when a new reality not only threatens old beliefs but also threatens to impose unwanted new economic costs, sometimes in the form of inconvenience, investments, or lifestyle changes.  Such changes are likely given the pervasiveness of the carbon energy systems on which our society currently depends.  Cognitive dissonance thus “kicks in” as we each consciously or subconsciously weigh the personal costs of more fully realigning our lives with the low-to-zero-carbon lifestyle that a complete commitment to climate protection requires.

Probably at least as important as cognitive dissonance and the scientific complexity issues combined is the impact of the prolonged campaign waged against climate science by representatives of the fossil fuel industry, a story I recounted in my earlier book, Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.[1]   In essence, our current climate crisis reminds me of the words of the famous seventeenth century French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) who wrote:

“We run carelessly over the precipice after having put something in front of us to prevent us seeing it.”

We also tend to respond to ominous warnings of global heating with fatalism: there’s no point in getting overly concerned; the issue is so enormous it’s beyond any one’s control.  Some people resolve the dissonance between the looming catastrophe and their sense of powerlessness by denying the disturbing evidence.[2]  Instead of heeding warnings, they find it easier and more reassuring to believe: “Nothing this extraordinary and nightmarish can ever happen here—not to me, nor to my loved ones, nor the places I and my family hold dear.”

Paradoxically, the more we seek refuge in illusions, science denial, reality avoidance, and magical thinking, the more self-fulfilling the ominous climate forecasts become.  Yet drastic climate change will happen if we do not change the policies that are producing it.  In fact, it would be a logical and consistent culmination to the broader pattern of environmental destruction that civilization has engaged in since we industrialized.[3]  I will now share some of my own personal experience with you as an example of how rapidly and profoundly ecosystems are changing around us in the U.S., and yet how we have all “normalized” the radical acts against nature that our society is committing.”

Climate vs. Weather: What’s the Difference?

Excerpt adapted from Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis (forthcoming).

I’m making good progress on completing my forthcoming book, Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis, and from time to time, I will include brief excerpts here that I feel may have broad relevance to the ongoing public climate debate, such as the very basic question: what is the difference between climate and weather?  Please feel free to offer any comments, corrections or other feedback.

CliatePeril_FinalCoverDesign_071912-c

“Climate is another word for average long-term weather, an ensemble of conditions marked by temperature, moisture, as well as atmospheric motion and transparency. Weather, by contrast, is a relatively short-term phenomenon, even though individual episodes can last for days, weeks, or even months.

Unfortunately, many people lose sight of these distinctions between climate and weather. They mistakenly allow their judgment about climate change—which can be reliably deduced only from the careful analysis of long-term weather trends—to be clouded by their perceptions of weather. A particularly cold or snowy winter is often enough to convince many folks that the climate is cooling rather than warming. A sudden heat wave or violent storm is then taken as certain evidence of the opposite conclusion.

Of course, weather is notoriously fickle, sometimes placid, sometimes turbulent. Its rapid oscillations can be like noise on an audio channel that makes the main signal—climate change—difficult to hear. Filtering out the noise of weather and random or chaotic climate fluctuations is difficult in the short term. Climate also has normal cyclical and chaotic variations, sometimes getting warmer, sometimes cooler. Moreover, it goes through long-term periods of greater and lesser relative stability. This makes it hard to discern underling trends through casual observation.

Changes in the long-term climate “signal” are also somewhat obscured by large seasonal climate changes in the same geographic location, where temperatures often differ by tens of degrees. Day and night also bring large temperature swings. All these complications make it very hard for the untrained observer to detect small-to-moderate underlying trends.

Without systematic scientific analysis, it can therefore be challenging to make accurate observations about global climate, let alone forecast it.  But by focusing on long-term trends and by synthesizing millions of temperature observations taken across the land, sea, and atmosphere, scientists have developed consistent and reliable measures to track the evolution of global average temperature over time. That then gives us a reliable indicator of climate change.”

© Copyright 2013 by John J. Berger. All Rights Reserved.

Big Tobacco & Big Fossil Fuel: Myths are Business as Usual

Excerpt adapted from Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science (Northbrae Books, 2013)

Blog tobacco mosaic


Grist
 reported last June
 that activists protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline throughout the midwest have been subjected to a vicious and calculating disinformation campaign by the pipeline sponsor, TransCanada.

Completion of the pipeline would be a step backward in the battle to curb global carbon emissions and slow dangerous climate change.  Project opponents have been protesting peacefully and nonviolently. TransCanada, however, is not responding amicably.

According to the report, TransCanada has been characterizing demonstrators as terrorists and has been attempting to persuade the Nebraska State Patrol, FBI and Department of Homeland Security to treat them as such.

Scott Parkin, a Rainforest Action Network spokesperson, was quoted by Grist as saying, “It’s just ‘one of those situations where a corporation is being allowed to frame activists in terms that are really untrue and dishonest: as terrorists.”

This is yet another instance where a fossil fuel company has resorted to disinformation in an effort to build public support for its case.  As the following excerpt from Climate Myths points out, these tactics have been going on for a long time.

From Climate Myths:
“For decades, the oil and coal industries and some of their largest industrial customers have conducted a sophisticated and wildly successful multimillion dollar campaign based in the U.S. to convince the American public that climate change is not a serious threat. The impetus for the campaign has been to protect industry profits by blocking any action designed to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other global heating gases produced in burning fossil fuels.

Policies such as carbon taxes and carbon caps are intended to limit the release of carbon dioxide by restraining demand for fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies, however, have correctly concluded that crimping fuel consumption would reduce revenue and would also erode the multitrillion dollar value of their oil, coal, and gas reserves.1

Fossil fuel industry leaders have long known that as policies to address the dangers of fossil fuel burning and climate change were progressively made into law and policy, they would ultimately affect profits. Anticipating these threats to their income and wealth, large fossil fuel energy companies—and those who have made common cause with them—decades ago mounted a well-funded campaign to discredit climate science. Its architects recognized that, if successful, the campaign would provide the rationale for their political and legislative efforts to obstruct public policy efforts aimed at climate protection. The beginning and expansion of this campaign are the subjects of this book.

While the campaign has served and continues to serve a political and economic purpose for the industries behind it, it also serves the psychological need of reconciling industry’s economic interests with their version of climate science, climate economics, and the economics of climate protection. Thus those in the climate science denial camp believe themselves “on the side of the angels.”

In the political arena, the energy company campaign not only succeeded in confusing facts about climate change but also managed to undermine U.S. participation in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a precedent-setting international climate protection treaty discussed frequently throughout this book (see index for complete listing). The fossil fuel industry achieved this political triumph by providing the arguments that were used in turning Congressional sentiment against the Protocol.

The industrial opposition to climate science and climate-safe energy policies has grown more sophisticated and varied over the past decade. The campaign operates through dozens of industry-funded institutes, policy centers, councils, research foundations, and societies that speak for industry on climate and energy.

The climate “skeptics,” as they like to be called, include anti-government and anti-regulation conservatives and liber- tarians who oppose government action on ideological grounds. Their strategy has often been to hide ideologically based misrepresentations of climate science beneath a mantle of science.

A review of scientific publications on climate, however, reveals that whereas many thousands of high-quality scientific papers validated by peer review have been published docu- menting all phases of global warming, only a trivial number of dissenters who dispute the evidence have published in similar journals.

Moreover, by contrast, the results of climate studies confirming global warming and humanity’s role in it can be found in the most prestigious scientific journals. Almost without exception, the deniers’ reports appear in publications that are not peer reviewed, since their objections to climate science have been repeatedly refuted; thus they are of little interest to responsible, well-respected scientific publications. Finally, the national academies of science of most nations of the world have passed resolutions affirming that we are warming the planet.

Although climate change is a scientific issue, it has been adopted as a Republican “litmus test” issue by certain Republican Party spokesmen and thus public opinion surveys show that more Republicans than Democrats characterize themselves as “climate skeptics.” These individuals today appear less focused on disparaging climate science than in the past, when climate science was less settled. Nowadays they seem to have shifted tactics to focus more attention on defeating the environmental and energy policies implied by climate change concerns.

In the initial stages of the climate debate, industry proxy organizations often flatly contradicted climate science and claimed, variously, that the Earth was cooling or at least wasn’t warming, or that if the Earth was warming, the warming wasn’t due to human activity, or that if the Earth were to warm, it would be mild and beneficial.

Many of these discredited claims have been abandoned by all but diehard opponents of climate science as the global scientific consensus on climate change has strengthened and as the evidence for global warming has become overwhelming. Some deniers still persist in presenting discredited arguments, however.

For example, industrial critics of decisive action on climate change (such as the National Association of Manufacturers) made a case in Congress and with the public in 2009 that effective measures to reduce carbon emissions would bring economic disaster in the form of high taxes, lost jobs, lower productivity, and reduced competitiveness for America in world markets.

Since their arguments weren’t gaining traction in the world of science, industry-funded think tanks then spent millions of dollars making their case against climate science to more gullible media, government officials, opinion leaders, students, and the general public. Climate skeptics and their allies have thus become a major presence on the Internet, over radio, and on TV airwaves, as well as through industry-sponsored books, magazines, articles, reports, and press releases.

An unsuspecting person who uses an Internet search engine and enters terms commonly associated with climate change will be hard pressed to discern the truth amid the plethora of misleading information many of these organizations provide. Since some of the most effective arguments consist of deceptive statements wrapped in layers of truth, it can be very challenging for students and others without advanced scientific training or sophisticated rhetorical and analytical skills to sift truth from falsity without investing lots of time.

To put climate skeptics’ current claims in perspective, it is useful to review the initial 20th century phase of the energy industry’s assault on climate science and its related effort to block Federal laws and policies to combat global warming.”

For a comprehensive list of fossil fuel-industry myths complete with detailed scientific rebuttals, see Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.

___________________________

  1. A wholesale write-down of these reserves will occur when financiers and other investors decide that a portion of these reserves cannot be developed. These reserves contain several times as much carbon dioxide as the atmosphere holds and far more than the 565 gigatons that scientists believe it can contain before global temperatures spike more than 2° C. The complete combustion of these reserves would thus destroy the Earth’s climate. Therefore, much of these assets inevitably will have to be entirely written off for the foreseeable future.

Hot Under the Collar Over Global Warming

Excerpt adapted from Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science (Northbrae Books, 2013)

Global-Warming-3

Originally published in USA Today Magazine in July 2013.  © Copyright 2013 by John J. Berger

Scientists have been warning the world for decades about the climate dangers linked to our continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels.  Why haven’t policymakers heeded their warnings and acted long ago?  The answer lies in the fossil fuel industry’s successful two-decade-long campaign to obfuscate the causes and effects of global climate change, stalemating policymakers.

The campaign was modeled on cigarette companies’ campaign to convince Americans that tobacco was not a health hazard, and how it operated to sow doubt about climate change through a network of prominent proxy organizations.  The leaders included people who had fought pesticide, asbestos, and CFC regulation to protect atmospheric ozone.

From denial of global warming, the industry has now shifted to claiming that― while climate change may be real―it is still controversial, gradual, and above all, far too costly to act on. Such divisive tactics have brought us to an impasse: national and international policy processes have been virtually paralyzed, with significant portions of the American public deeply confused about critical climate issues.  We have thus been left vulnerable to extreme weather, as epitomized by Superstorm Sandy.

The industrial opposition to climate science and climate-safe energy policies has grown more sophisticated over the past decade. The campaign operates through dozens of industry-funded institutes, policy centers, councils, research foundations, and societies that speak for industry on climate and energy.  They are identified, and their myths are rebutted in my recent book, Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.

The climate “skeptics,” as they like to be called, include anti-government and anti-regulation conservatives and libertarians who oppose government action on ideological grounds. Their strategy has often been to hide ideologically based misrepresentations of climate science beneath a mantle of science.

A review of scientific publications on climate, however, reveals that whereas many thousands of high-quality scientific papers validated by peer review have been published documenting all phases of global warming, only a trivial number of dissenters who dispute the evidence have published in similar journals.

Moreover, by contrast, the results of climate studies confirming global warming and humanity’s role in it can be found in the most prestigious scientific journals. Almost without exception, the deniers’ reports appear in publications that are not peer reviewed, since their objections to climate science have been repeatedly refuted; thus they are of little interest to responsible, well-respected scientific publications. Finally, the national academies of science of most nations of the world have passed resolutions affirming that we are warming the planet.

Although climate change is a scientific issue, it has been adopted as a Republican “litmus test” issue by certain Republican Party spokesmen and thus public opinion surveys show that more Republicans than Democrats characterize themselves as “climate skeptics.” These individuals today appear less focused on disparaging climate science than in the past, when climate science was less settled. Nowadays they seem to have shifted tactics to focus more attention on defeating the environmental and energy policies implied by climate change concerns.

For example, industrial critics of decisive action on climate change (such as the National Association of Manufacturers) made a case in Congress and with the public in 2009 that effective measures to reduce carbon emissions would bring economic disaster in the form of high taxes, lost jobs, lower productivity, and reduced competitiveness for America in world markets.

Since their arguments weren’t gaining traction in the world of science, industry-funded think tanks then spent millions of dollars making their case against climate science to more gullible media, government officials, opinion leaders, students, and the general public. Climate skeptics and their allies have thus become a major presence on the Internet, over radio, and on TV airwaves, as well as through industry-sponsored books, magazines, articles, reports, and press releases.

An unsuspecting person who uses an Internet search engine and enters terms commonly associated with climate change will be hard pressed to discern the truth amid the plethora of misleading information many of these organizations provide. Since some of the most effective arguments consist of deceptive statements wrapped in layers of truth, it can be very challenging for students and others without advanced scientific training or sophisticated rhetorical and analytical skills to sift truth from falsity without investing lots of time.

Because of the resulting confusion over now clear-cut scientific issues, much of the public still denies global warming or doesn’t take it seriously.  Thus, for example, they believe industry-sponsored myths that we are in a natural warming cycle that has little or nothing to do with human influence, or that the scientific foundation for concern about climate change is uncertain and unproven.

Myths like this deter us from timely action commensurate with the risks we face.  Let’s take a look at a particularly dangerous myth, “There is no urgency in dealing with climate change, because it’s a long-term problem.”

To the contrary, time is of the essence in keeping heat-trapping gas emissions from getting dangerously higher.  An alarming recent report to The World Bank by the prestigious Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Analytics concluded that the world is now on a path to an average temperature rise of more than 7˚F by 2100.  This puts the climate at great risk of reaching a “tipping point” at which large irreversible climate changes amplify the initial human-induced warming in a positive feedback cycle to create uncontrollable planetary overheating.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency recently found that human-induced global carbon dioxide emissions grew 45 percent in only the 20 years from 1990 to 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, global carbon emissions will be almost twice 1990 levels by 2035. This assumes continued increases in energy use and a failure to shift significantly from fossil to renewable energy. Acting promptly to lower emissions rates now, however, will reduce risk, provide economic benefits, and mitigate damage.

Of course, it is not enough to merely halt the increase in carbon dioxide emissions. The climate cannot tolerate the stabilization of carbon emissions at current levels without producing more powerful storms, tornadoes, droughts, and floods. Not only are current emissions rates too high, but even if we were to hold current emissions steady, which would be a big improvement, the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would still continue rising for hundreds of years, since they’re already pouring into the atmosphere far faster than natural processes can remove them.

Thus, even holding emissions steady will worsen the climate crisis. Furthermore, even if the concentration of carbon dioxide could be magically lowered to a historically safe level, the Earth would still continue heating for hundreds of years because of stored heat the oceans will be gradually releasing.

It should also be clear that if the concentration of carbon dioxide is stabilized at a level that is substantially above values found during the past 10,000 years, then that new atmosphere is simply not compatible with our continuing enjoyment of the familiar climate that has endured for all of recorded human history. If the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is abnormal, the climate will be abnormal. A stable but elevated concentration of carbon dioxide relative to the 10,000 year norm will force the temperature to rise. It will continue to do so until it corresponds to the much hotter climate that the record of climate data from the geological past shows occurred when carbon dioxide levels were 400 ppm or above. (Think palm trees and crocodiles in the Arctic.)

For a more livable, not to mention a more pleasant, climate like the one in which humanity has existed since the last ice age, not only will emissions need to be stabilized, but they will need to be reduced below the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by natural processes. Otherwise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase, even though emissions might be stable. If any reservoir is filled faster than it’s drained, even if it’s filled at a constant rate, the level of the contents will rise.

Currently, about half the carbon dioxide humans pump into the atmosphere is removed by natural processes in about 30 years, with about 30 percent staying in the atmosphere for a few hundred years and about 20 percent staying for thousands of years. By contrast, to get the atmospheric carbon dioxide level back to safer and more normal levels (300–350 ppm) as quickly as possible, manmade carbon dioxide emissions need to be virtually eliminated, rather than merely stabilized.

That means shifting with all deliberate speed largely to noncarbon and carbon-neutral renewable energy systems while actively removing carbon from the atmosphere into long-term storage and preventing its escape back into the air. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near either a political consensus that this should be done, or the adoption of an action plan to accomplish it.

We must not assume that just because energy technology will advance, the reduction of carbon emissions will be easier for our children thirty years from now than today. Unless we alter our energy technology mix now to rely more heavily on renewable technologies and to greatly increase the efficiency with which we use energy, our children will have to make drastic cuts in fossil energy use on a shorter timetable and without the benefit of today’s still relatively inexpensive fossil fuels for building the alternative global energy system needed. (Fossil fuels are likely to get more expensive as time goes on, as the most easily developed fossil fuel deposits tend to be developed first, and so will have already been exploited.)

Some people may resent that I am outspokenly critical of climate science denial and the institutions that have supported it.  I believe, however, that false claims need to be rebutted if sound climate policy is to be adopted.     Discussions about climate change do not take place in a vacuum.  The IMF recently issued a study showing that subsidies for petroleum products, electricity, natural gas, and coal reached $480 billion in 2011. Someone is getting that money. The larger political and economic context of the climate discussion therefore needs to be understood by people seeking to get to the truth about this vital subject.

Now that the key scientific facts are in, and the increasingly dire consequences of climate change are becoming ever more clear and alarming, it is unconscionable to continue circulating misleading, discredited information. People who knowingly do so for ulterior motives need to be held accountable in the court of public opinion, not kow-towed to.  At the same time, many people of good will have been genuinely hornswoggled by the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation. They have no wrongful motives.  They need solid, reliable information.  When they receive it, I believe they will recognize that action to protect the climate urgently needs to be taken.