Adding fuel to the fire

Media coverage of the international climate change negotiations is picking up speed as U.N. SG Ban Ki-moon’s September 23 Climate Summit draws near.  Today my local paper, the Valley News (warmly referred to as the Valley Snooze locally), implicitly covered the Summit in two ways.  A headline in the lower half of the front page shouts Report:  Big Surge in Carbon Gases and a letter to the editor on the Forum page is entitled Creating a Climate of Hope.

WMO logoThe front page story focuses on data from the most recent issue of the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the WMO (World Meteorological Organization, co-founder along with UNEP, the U.N. Environmental Programme, of the IPCC or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).  This data comes from observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network of 125 monitoring stations worldwide.  Fresh off the press today, the Bulletin highlights that:

  • between 1990 and 2013, radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – increased 34%because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide.
  • concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013 was 142% of the pre-industrial era (1750), and of methane and nitrous oxide, 253% and 121% respectively.
  • CO2 levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984. Preliminary data indicates that this was possibly related to reduced CO2 uptake by the earth’s biosphere in addition to the steadily increasing CO2 emissions. (Oceans absorb about a quarter of total emissions and another quarter is taken up by the biosphere, thereby reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.)

In other words, not only are we continuing to increase our CO2 emissions, but those already sent into the atmosphere in years passed have clogged the earth’s – meaning the ocean’s  and plants’ – capacity to store it in a way that doesn’t drive up the atmosphere’s temperature.

mussleAnd not only does it look like that the ocean is maxing out its absorption capacity, but in getting to this point, the uptake process is resulting in sea level rise and ocean acidification.  The Bulletin reports that the current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented in the last 300 million years.  (Read this Daily Climate story on how ocean acidification affects mussles, their ecosystems, and the commerical fishing industry built around both.)

WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud states in today’s press release that “We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.  The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that, far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years. We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the board.  We are running out of time.”

Mr Jarraud ends with “Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable.”


A negotiating “huddle” at COP19′s closing plenary.

Which leads to the Forum letter encouraging people to join the People’s Climate March scheduled to take place just before the UN Climate Summit.  While the laws of physics are not negotiable, international treaties on climate change are.

The Summit is intended to put world leaders, who will gather in New York for the annual General Assembly meeting, on the spot:  to shine a light on what countries are and are not doing under their existing obligations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, as well as in the negotiation of new ones.  (For more on the summit, read this interview with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is now serving as one of Ban Ki-moon’s three special envoys on climate change [along with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former president of Ghana John Kufuor]).  Given the shift to bottom-up, nationally determined mitigation and adaptation commitments in the ADP negotiations, March organizers like want U.S. officials (and those of other countries) to see physically the political support for agreeing to further emissions limits.

Drip by drip

According to Mother Jones, there’s a leaky member of the IPCC group that is working to finalize the leaky faucetsynthesis report (SYR) of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) before this year’s COP20 to be held in Lima, Peru from December 1 – 12.  The SYR is due to be approved by October 31, 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Interestingly, some people with access to the draft report want to make sure that more people know about it before the U.N. Climate Summit, which will take place in about two weeks.  (Read this Mashable article explaining the political, not legal, purpose of the Summit – “diplomatic jumper cables” to the UNFCCC negotiations – and analogizing it to a “cocktail party ahead of a formal dinner.”)

The draft SYR was recently posted to the IPCC page where “government focal points, IPCC observer organizations and other authorised users in the pre-registration site” can access it.  Since our VLS NGO observer delegation is to the UNFCCC and not the IPCC, I don’t have access to this site.

But what MJ reports doesn’t strike this reader as all too different from the already approved and publicly released reports of Working Group I (on the physical science), WG II (on human and environmental impacts), and WG III (on mitigation approaches) released serially in October 2013 (see this post), and March (see this post and this one) and April of this year (see this post).

While conceding this fact, the magazine asserts “in general, the 127-page leaked report provides starker language than the previous three, framing the crisis as a series of “irreversible” ecological and economic catastrophes that will occur if swift action is not taken.”  Mother Jones reports on “five particularly grim” take home messages:mother jones

1. Our efforts to combat climate change have been grossly inadequate.

2. Keeping global warming below the internationally agreed upon 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial levels) is going to be very hard.

3. We’ll probably see nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before mid-century.

4. Dangerous sea level rise will very likely impact 70 percent of the world’s coastlines by the end of the century.

5. Even if we act now, there’s a real risk of “abrupt and irreversible” changes.

For more details, read here.

Hat tip to Carla Santos and BJ Schulte.

Peru’s environmental law takes a turn for the worse

Read about this new law signed by Peruvian President Ollanta Humala that weakens the enforcement ability of Peru’s environmental ministry — at the same time that Environmental Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal takes the helm of the COP20 presidency.  COP20 Peru

Cuzco (the jumping off point for tourist treks to UNESCO World Heritage site Machu Picchu) congresswoman Veronika Mendoza called it “an embarrassment” for her country to have ”a completely debilitated environment ministry” while trying to lead efforts to draft a global GHG emissions reduction agreement to take the place of the Kyoto Protocol.

WG3′s report published today

The last part of the IPCC’s fifth report on climate change, AR5, is out today.  Here’s how the New York Times captures it:  “Delivering the latest stark news about climate change on Sunday, a United Nations panel warned that governments are not doing enough to avert profound risks in coming decades. But the experts found a silver lining: Not only is there still time to head off the worst, but the political will to do so seems to be rising around the world.”

wg3coverIn WG III’s summary for policymakers, the IPCC makes several key points based on the earlier reports by WG II (on the human and environmental impacts) and WG I (on the physical science):

1. World leaders have dragged their feet since the 1992 signing of the UNFCCC and the 1997 signing of the Kyoto Protocol.

2. This inaction has led to crisis, with GHG emissions rising faster than ever.

3. Yet it is possible to keep planetary warming to a habitable level, if concerted action is taken during the next 15 years.

4. This action is becoming less expensive and more politically feasible, as technologies and policies tried out in individual countries during the past decade become more routine (e.g. wind and solar energy, efficiency standards in building codes and automobile manufacturing).

5. As evidence of growing political will to acknowledge and address climate change, countries, states, and cities around the world have adopted climate planning.  (NYT note: ”They include China and the United States, which are doing more domestically than they have been willing to commit to in international treaty negotiations.”

6. To meet climate targets, annual investment in electrical power plants that use fossil fuels must decline by about 20% in the next 20 years while investment in low-carbon energy will need to double from current levels.

7. Money spent now to mitigate and adapt to climate change is the best insurance against severe climate impacts.

Are deserts carbon sinks?

Can arid regions – specifically deserts – act as carbon sinks?  This study, led by Professor David Evans of Washington State University and published in the current edition of Nature Climate Change, offers this conclusion:  “Results provide direct evidence that CO2 fertilization substantially increases ecosystem C storage and that arid ecosystems are significant, previously unrecognized, sinks for atmospheric CO2 that must be accounted for in efforts to constrain terrestrial and global C cycles.”desert

Good news in terms of potential progress on reducing CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming.  But Christopher Field, who directs the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, runs a project where similar experiments are conducted on grasslands, and is the lead author of the new IPCC report, puts it into perspective:   ”It is worth noting that, although the sink in this experiment is significant, it is … about a hundredfold less than typical sinks in young forested ecosystems not exposed to elevated carbon dioxide, so the bottom line is that deserts will not save us from climate change.”


WG2 report out today!

Read here at my Environmental Health Law blog for a terrific analysis of today’s IPCC Working Group 2 report approved and released in Japan earlier today.  Chapeaux to Caitlin Stanton, 3L student and RA extraordinaire!

Preview of IPCC Working Group 2 Report

The Guardian reports that IPCC Working Group 2′s report — entitled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, which is due to be debated by WG2 next week in Yokohama, Japan and released to the public on March 31 — underscores that developed countries will avoid the worst impacts of southeast asiaclimate change caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the first half of the 21st century while developing countries in low latitudes, particularly those along the coast of Asia, will suffer the most.  Hundreds of millions of people living in cities in coastal east, south-east and south Asia are likely to lose their homes as flooding, famine and rising sea levels sweep the region.  Forecasting with “very high confidence,” WG2 says that “heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, as well as drought and water scarcity, pose risks in urban areas with risks amplified for those lacking essential infrastructure and services or living in exposed areas.”

But the draft report authors also warn that other climate change effects will be global and affect bothWG2 report cover developing and developed countries.  ”Climate change throughout the 21st century will lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, as compared to a baseline without climate change,” the report states. “Examples include greater likelihood of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heatwaves and fires; increased likelihood of under-nutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions; and increased risks from food-borne and water-borne disease.”


UNFCCC Turns 20

Today matl_unfccc_logo_1992_435rks the 20th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  To celebrate the past, present, and future of international climate change law, the UNFCCC Secretariat created this timeline that provides perspective on the progress that’s been made since the 1992 signing and the 1994 entry into force.

In addition to providing historical facts, the timeline also lays the groundwork for Trivial Pursuit, UNFCCC Edition.  Did you know that Angela Merkel, then Germany’s Environmental Minister, presided over the first Conference of Parties (COP1) in Berlin?  And that she did so the year that Toy Story (I, that is) was released?!

Greenland Ice Melt

New research published in Nature Climate Change this week points to increased melting of the ice sheet that currently covers Greenland and thus a greater factor in sea-level rise.  According to its summary:

“The Greenland ice sheet has been one of the largest contributors to global sea-level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for 0.5 mm yr−1 of a total of 3.2 mm yr−1. A significant portion of this contribution is associated with the speed-up of an increased number of glaciers in southeast and northwest Greenland. Here, we show that the northeast Greenland ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet, is now undergoing sustained dynamic thinning, linked to regional warming, after more than a quarter of a century of stability. This sector of the Greenland ice sheet is of particular interest, because the drainage basin area covers 16% of the ice sheet (twice that of Jakobshavn Isbræ) and numerical model predictions suggest no significant mass loss for this sector, leading to an under-estimation of future global sea-level rise. The geometry of the bedrock and monotonic trend in glacier speed-up and mass loss suggests that dynamic drawdown of ice in this region will continue in the near future.” (emphasis added)


According to one news report, the northeast region of Greenland’s ice sheet retreated 12.4 miles between 2003 and 2012 after a period of particularly high temperatures.  This resulted in 10 billion tons of water added to the ocean each year of that nine-year span.  Greenland contributes approximately .012 to .13 inches annually to sea-level rise, accounting for almost one-sixth of annual sea-level rise.

Survey says . . .

As the U.S. negotiators return from Bonn today with their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) homework in hand, a recent Gallup poll informs the Obama Administration’s political task.

Its conclusion:  “Most Americans believe global warming’s effects will occur during their lifetimes, though this sentiment is no higher than it was 17 years ago, and is down from a peak of 75% in 2008. At the same time, although Americans largely do not view global warming as a likely threat to their way of life, they are more likely to believe this now than in the 1990s.”

Trend: Expectations for Global Warming During Lifetime

There are variations by age and party affiliation, with younger voters and Democrats more likely to believe that global warming will occurr and affect their way of life.  It’s for this reason that this Gallup official thinks that the Senate’s recent climate change all-nighter (brainchild of the Senate’s new Climate Action Task Force) was a smart political move.  Funny, it occurred on the eve of the ADP’s meeting start.  In fact, given the five-hour time difference, I watched the morning shift speakers on CSPAN finish up the speaking marathon while climate change negotiators from around the world gave their opening remarks at the ADP plenary.