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From Copenhagen to Paris: Holding onto Hope

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 11/25/2015 - 11:21

There are actually a few reasons to be just a little bit optimistic about the possibility of a good outcome from COP21, apart from the fact that it is being held in one of the world’s loveliest cities.

Geophysicist and social scientist John Mutter is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and School of of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.

Geophysicist and social scientist John Mutter is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.

Perhaps most important is that the pope is paying attention, and a lot of people pay attention to what the pope pays attention to. That includes people like me who are not Catholic and don’t really believe the pope has speed-dial access to the word of God. I am sure he has better access than I do. I can’t seem to get hold of The Lord at all these days. So it is worth listening to the pope and, incredible as it might sound, the pope is actually saying the right things on this issue and, of course, we have no obligation to listen to him on anything else.

The second isn’t so much about COP21, but I have not lost faith that climate may be less sensitive to our actions than most scientists think it is. There might be a huge negative feedback hidden somewhere that will counteract all the efforts we are making to try to change climate for the worst. The climate system may turn out to be sort of dull and unresponsive. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I need to hold onto some hopes.

And no matter what changes happen, they will happen fairly slowly, much more slowly than the outbreak of war, plague or pestilence. Society is pretty slow, dull and unresponsive, too, so that doesn’t help, but things will change slowly, and that gives us time. The time should be available for us to create the huge negative feedback ourselves to counteract what we have done, just in case Nature doesn’t have one hidden. COP21 should be able to buy us the time we need to engineer the feedback.

COP21_ad1But more than that, I don’t believe for a second that we are on the brink of global destruction. We are on the brink of a global re-distribution and whole scale re-balancing of global goods and bads. But we have been there before and survived. Our planet will be a very different place, no doubt, but it will still be here and so will we, in some form, maybe not recognizable to us now. I don’t know how we will survive, but I am optimistic that we will.

I do know we will not be rescued by constantly repeating words like vulnerability, sustainability and resilience to one another, and I am optimistic that that phase will pass and we can start to think seriously about our new world. COP21 might just help us start that thinking.

Mutter was among Earth Institute contributors writing about the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Here’s some of what he had to say in a question and answer session back then (you can see all of his comments in 2009 here):

Is the world ready to meet a CO2 target—any target?

Probably not; we need to make big investments in technology. The lifestyle changes that we have made to feel better about ourselves don’t amount to much.  I’m not sure driving silent, ugly cars is going to help in the way people think they will. …

What would you most like to see happen at Copenhagen?

A serious discussion about adaptation: What we are going to do for [low-lying islands like] the Maldives and climate change refugees? Normally, refugees are people who have been displaced by somebody else—persecuted. One of the obligations we have to refugees is to repatriate them to where they came from. But if where they came from is under water? We don’t have language to describe the international community’s obligation for people persecuted by climate.

What will it take to get people to act?

If people see countries going under water, the spread of conflict in the drylands of Africa, with implications beyond, and people displaced from their homes, we will do something. We’re altruistic as a species. It calls on our core beliefs. We can ignore polar bears and still go to heaven, but we can’t ignore people.

Exploring Beneath Earth’s Changing Ice Sheets

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 08:06

Click here to view the embedded video.

Antarctica holds about 27 million cubic kilometers of ice that is constantly flowing, pushed by its own weight and pulled by gravity. If just part of that ice – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – were to melt into the ocean, it would raise global sea level by 6 meters. That’s more than a theoretical problem. West Antarctica is losing ice mass, and scientists are worried.

Warming air temperatures and warming water both play a role. So does geography.

“As our planet warms, the polar regions are warming faster than anywhere else on our planet and the ice sheets are changing. They’re melting and they’re sliding faster toward the ocean. Global sea level is going up, and we expect that to go up faster as more of the ice melts,” said Robin Bell, a glacialogist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is leading the Changing Ice, Changing Coastlines Initiative with paleoclimatologist Maureen Raymo.

To understand how a massive ice sheet can become destabilized, we need to understand the structure of the land that holds the ice on Antarctica today.

Bell and her colleagues engineered a way to do that in some of the most remote regions on the planet. They took radar and other technology normally used to study the sea floor and attached it to a C-130 cargo plane in a capsule called the IcePod. By flying over the ice sheets – as they’re doing right now over Antarctica’s giant Ross Ice Shelf – they can see where the ice enters the ocean and map the ice layers and the terrain hidden beneath it.

Ice shelves, like Ross, are particularly important to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s stability. They jut out over the water ahead of flowing glaciers and slow the glaciers’ flow into the ocean. The biggest threat to ice shelves is warmer water brought in by ocean currents that flows low along the continental shelf and eat away at the base of the ice shelf. This line where ice, water and rock meet is called the grounding line. As the ice erodes, the grounding line moves inland, and geography comes into play: In West Antarctica, most ice shelves are on slopes that slant inward toward the center of the continent. As the grounding line moves inland and into deeper water, the ice shelf becomes unstable and can break apart.

After the Larson B Ice Shelf broke off from Antarctica and disappeared over the span of a few weeks in 2002, the glaciers it held back started flowing at eight times their previous speed. It was a wake-up call, as Bell explains in the video above.

The Ross Ice Shelf is much larger than Larson B and is an outlet for several major glaciers from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And it’s only one area of West Antarctica that has scientists concerned.

To the west of the Ross Ice Shelf, on the Amundsen Sea, scientists see evidence that the massive Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers are also moving faster as their grounding lines recede. At the Pine Island Glacier, the grounding line receded about 31 kilometers between 1992 and 2011, contributing to the glacier’s increasing speed and ice loss starting around 2002. One recent study used computer modeling to look at what might happen and suggests that if the Amundsen Sea glaciers were destabilized, a large part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would discharge into the ocean. Another study found that the rate of thinning in West Antarctic ice shelves had increased 70 percent over the past decade based on satellite data, and some ice shelves lost as much as 18 percent of their volume between 1994 and 2012. (To learn more about changing ice sheets, look for the Polar Explorer app being released by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory this fall.)


These and other findings led the National Academies of Sciences to issue a recommendation this summer that the U.S. Antarctic Program at the National Science Foundation make changing ice sheets and their contribution to sea level rise one of its top research goals for the next 10 years, particularly in West Antarctica. The fate of the ice sheets has a direct impact on humanity: as land-based ice melts, it raises sea level, and that can threaten coastal communities and economies worldwide.

“Our planet’s large ice sheets contain secrets that will be uncovered by studies of the changing ice and changing coastlines,” Bell said. “New expeditions to poles to decode how they work what makes them flow deform and melt while new studies of ancient shoreline will inform how fast the change occurred in the past.  We envision a new phase of exploration and discovery to inform our future.”

Learn more about West Antarctica and the impact of rising temperatures on marine life, part of a video series.

U.S. Could Cut Per Capita Greenhouse Emissions 90% by 2050, Says Report

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Mon, 11/23/2015 - 16:29

SDSN US report Nov 2015 coverAs the Paris climate summit approaches, a new study shows in detail that it is technologically and economically feasible for the United States to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the international goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less. The report says it is possible to revamp the energy system in a way that reduces per capita carbon dioxide emissions from 17 tons per person currently to 1.7 tons in 2050, while still providing all the services people expect, from driving to air conditioning.

The two-volume report is from the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. The project is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations-sponsored initiative whose secretariat is at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. The analysis itself was conducted by the San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics Inc., in collaboration with researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory  and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The first volume describes the technology requirements and costs of different options for reducing emissions. An update of a study released last year, it lays out in detail the changes in the U.S. energy system needed year by year to meet the target, looking at every piece of energy infrastructure—from power plants and pipelines to cars and water heaters—in every sector and every region of the U.S.

 © Hans Hillewaert / Creative Commons

Offshore wind farm in the North Sea off the coast of Belgium. Photo: © Hans Hillewaert / Creative Commons

The report says this can be done using only existing technology, assuming continued incremental improvements but no fundamental breakthroughs, and without premature retirement of current infrastructure, at a net cost equivalent to about 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2050.

The report finds multiple technology pathways capable of reaching the target, presenting choices that can be made based on innovation, competition and public preference. Passenger cars, for example, could be switched to battery-powered electric vehicles or fuel-cell vehicles.  Low-carbon electricity could be provided by renewable energy, nuclear power, or carbon capture and storage. The authors looked closely at the reliability of a power grid with high levels of intermittent wind and solar energy, using a sophisticated model of the electric system’s operation in every hour in every region.

“I think our work throws down a gauntlet to those who claim that decarbonization of the U.S. energy system is impractical and out of reach,” said report lead author Jim Williams, chief scientist at Energy and Environmental Economics and director of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. “Arguments that the U.S. can’t achieve this technologically or economically don’t hold water.”

 Wikimedia Commons

An electric car charging station in Amsterdam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Williams said, “The challenges are often not what people think. The public has been conditioned to think of climate policy in terms of costs, burdens, loss of services. But if we get it right, we will create a high-tech energy system that is much more in sync with a 21st century economy, and there will be many more economic winners than losers.”

The second volume provides a roadmap for what policy makers at the national, state and local levels need to do to enable a low carbon transition.  It describes how businesses and whole regions could benefit in an energy economy where the dominant mode shifts from purchasing fossil fuel, with historically volatile prices, to investment in efficient, low carbon hardware, with predictable costs.

The U.S. study is part of a series by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an international collaboration of research teams from the world’s 16 highest-emitting countries. This year it has issued country-specific strategies for deep decarbonization also in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

“The DDPP has taken an essential step in low-carbon energy policy, and the work of the U.S. team points the way forward for the Paris summit,” said Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs. “Happily, the U.S. government has also endorsed the idea of preparing deep decarbonization pathways as a critical tool for achieving the transformation to low-carbon energy systems worldwide.”

In September, a joint statement on climate change cooperation by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China stressed “the importance of formulating and making available mid-century strategies for the transition to low-carbon economies.”


From Copenhagen to Paris: Low Expectations

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Mon, 11/23/2015 - 10:01

In the run-up to Copenhagen, there was widespread hope that the conference would lead to a legally binding agreement that would include commitments that would keep global temperatures within tolerable levels. None of that happened. Copenhagen did lead to widespread agreement that an increase in global average temperatures of more than 2 degrees Celsius would be intolerable (though the small island states wanted a 1.5 degree goal, which they need to survive). The developed countries also agreed to come up with $100 billion annually, starting in 2020, to assist in mitigation and adaptation measures in the developing countries.

Michael Gerrard is Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Michael Gerrard is Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice
at Columbia Law School and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

As we head to Paris, the expectations are profoundly lower. The national commitments that countries are putting on the table (“Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”) do not add up to nearly enough to keep us within 2 degrees; instead the plan is to come back every five years and hopefully do better. Nor will they be legally binding; fulfillment of them will be monitored and reported, but there will be no sanctions for missing them, and no one can sue to enforce them. (To be fair, even though the Kyoto reduction requirements were legally binding in theory, there were no meaningful sanctions available for missing them, either.)

It is still mathematically possible to stay within 2 degrees, but the odds of actually doing so seem to be receding by the month.

The $100 billion plan is still on the books, but the pledges made so far are well short of what is needed even for the first year. And there is growing evidence that, even if that amount of money were found every year, it would not be nearly enough to meet the needs—especially if temperatures are on a pathway well above 2 degrees.

One encouraging development is that it was unclear before and during Copenhagen whether China would commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. China’s emissions are continuing to grow at a rapid pace and dominate the world picture, but the central government of the country has made serious promises to cap emissions (though not until 2030), and is participating much more fully in the international climate regime than it did in 2009.

COP21_ad1On the other hand, in 2009 there were still real prospects for U.S. climate legislation; the White House and both the Senate and the House were controlled by Democrats who favored such legislation. Today, however, both the Senate and the House are controlled by Republicans who reject the basic science of climate change and are doing everything they can to stand in the way of President Obama’s use of existing statutory authority to fight climate change.

Thus the results of the U.S. national election in November 2016 will be even more important for the future of the global climate than the outcome of the Paris conference.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Gerrard was among those writing for State of the Planet about those talks back in 2009, contributing several reports, which you can find in this compilation of stories about the Copenhagen talks. Here is an excerpt:

Many people, including myself, are now looking through the documents and trying to figure out just what they mean. But it is clear that the conference achieved neither a universally accepted binding legal agreement that would have assured a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and perhaps have denoted a return of the Age of Miracles), nor a complete breakdown. …

Major fights lie ahead about whether the measures agreed to will succeed in meeting the developed countries’ goal of keeping future increases in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius; whether achieving even that goal will be sufficient to prevent catastrophic damage in some of the most vulnerable countries; and many other issues. It is also highly uncertain whether the conference’s results will make the U.S. Senate more or less likely to approve U.S. legislation.

Enduring is easy 100 years after Endurance

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Sat, 11/21/2015 - 20:37

Today’s a special day in the annals of Antarctic exploration, it’s been 100 years to the day since Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed by ice and finally sank after 307 days beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea.  The disaster ended Shackleton’s hopes of leading the first team to cross the Antarctic continent, but set the stage for one of the most audacious maritime adventures of the era.  You can read more about that in Frank Worsley’s excellent book Endurance, or in Shackleton’s own book South.  Or you can take the easy way out and read the Wikipedia article here.  To mark the occasion the Royal Geographical Society has released a new set of digitized images from the expedition.  The images were digitized by scanning the photographic plates directly, the resulting resolution is extraordinary.

The Endurance, beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The Royal Geographic Society has released a new set of high resolution images from the expedition.

The Endurance, beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The Royal Geographic Society has released a new set of high resolution images from the expedition.

There are, not surprisingly, a lot of Antarctic history nerds in Antarctica, so we had a small celebration in honor of the Endurance today.  It’s also a good day to reflect on modern Antarctic science and travel.  Things have evolved a bit since 1915; the only open small boat journeys that we get to take are to our designated sample sites, and we don’t get to take them in anything approaching exciting conditions.  We also have these actual research stations to operate from; for US researchers those are Palmer Station (where I’m writing from), McMurdo Station (less a research station than a logistics hub), and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (which I have not been to).  You might be asking exactly who operates these stations and how.  Where, for example, does the trash go?  What about sewage?  There are some key differences between the stations but they all follow the same operational logic (that’s a nice way of saying the operation isn’t always logical).  By request here’s a quick look at the inner workings of Palmer Station.

Palmer Station and the ARSV Laurence M. Gould.

Palmer Station and the ARSV Laurence M. Gould, as seen from a zodiac in 2013.  The building in front of the very tall antennae houses the galley, the labs, offices, and one set of dorm rooms.  The building behind it (to the left in the image) houses the generator, gym, lounge, and a second set of dorm rooms.  The building at the top of the hill houses equipment for weather and radar stations and other observing programs.

First, the basics.  Palmer Station was built by the Navy Seabees over a three year period starting in 1965.  It was purpose-built for science and, unlike McMurdo Station, was never a military station*.  Today the station is operated by something called the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) on behalf of the National Science Foundation.  The ASC is an interesting construct and the relationship between scientists (the end-users of the stations), ASC itself, the individual ASC personnel on-site, and the National Science Foundation resembles a particularly intricate four-party dance that no one has mastered.  A lot of toes get stepped on but, in the end, a lot of science gets done.  The ASC operates as a subsidiary of a much larger logistical company and is subject to periodic rebidding.  Currently the ASC is held by Lockheed Martin, before that it was held by Raytheon.  The parent company changes but the internal structure and personnel of the ASC stay more or less the same.

The maximum capacity of Palmer Station is around 46 people, though a typical summertime population is probably closer to 40.  Most of these are ASC personnel.  At this exact moment there are 34 people at station, 24 of whom work for ASC.  Debating the merits of more or fewer ASC personnel supporting fewer or more scientists would take a much longer blog.  Suffice to say that toe’s a little bruised.  One issue is that the station is old and it takes quite a few people to keep it running (and the personnel here do a great job of that).  Another issue is that the station is set up for science groups to come in and out with a minimal time commitment.  That’s convenient for scientists, but discourages coordination among science groups or long-term investment in the system by any one group (the Palmer LTER study is a major exception to this).  Because of this two ASC personnel have full time jobs just supporting us in basic tasks; allocating space, procuring chemicals, supplies, fixing equipment, etc.

McMurdo Station has the feel of a South Dakota boom town (although I think all of those are de-booming at the moment) with a peak population around 1,200.  As a result of the potential environmental impact of 1,200 people in a somewhat-pristine coastal environment there has been some investment in environmental protection at McMurdo.  Sewage, for example, is treated in a top-of-the-line sewage treatment facility that is no different from what you’d find in any small municipality.  Unfortunately no such investment has been made at Palmer Station.  Our sewage and food waste gets a quick grind in a macerator before being released into Arthur Harbor.  While this probably doesn’t have any catastrophic impact on the local ecosystem it certainly does have some impact.  You can quickly identify the location of the sewage outfall from the gulls and penguins that congregate there (there was an elephant seal in there yesterday, Jacuzzi-like I suppose?).  And while it is certainly a bigger problem at McMurdo, the input of artificial hormones and other pharmacological products into the local seawater is a bit disconcerting.  This would be a perfect place to test new sewage treatment technology, I’m not sure why that isn’t done (oh right, $$).

Most of the other waste streams at Palmer are treated with a little more care.  Food waste that can’t get macerated (e.g. chicken bones) get burned in a barrel (okay, not much care there), virtually everything else gets transported out by ship.  Regular trash gets compressed, bundled, and disposed of in Chile.  Laboratory waste, which may contain trace amounts of nasty things, gets transported to Chile, then by cargo vessel to the United States.  Actual hazardous lab waste, broken down by type, goes out the same way every two years.

Fortunately, since we end up feeding a lot of it to the wildlife in Arthur Harbor, the quality of food at Palmer Station is very high.  There are two chefs on staff and they take it seriously.  They succeed in doing this without making it seem excessive; I recall being a bit offended that steak, lobster, and other luxury items are flown – at great expense – into McMurdo Station (yet getting scientific equipment flown in or samples out takes nearly an act of Congress).  There’s no air traffic here, everything comes in by ship, and the cuisine leans more toward the good home cooking variety.  I enjoy it with minimal guilt.

Station power comes from a surprisingly small diesel generator.  This and the backup generator keep the diesel mechanic, who also doubles as a heavy equipment operator, pretty busy.  McMurdo Station has experimented with diversifying its power sources with varying degrees of success.  It has a small (and I understand underutilized) wind farm, and early on it had a small nuclear power plant.  I’m not aware of any similar experiments at McMurdo, and really, I’m not sure what else you could do.  It’s very cloudy here and it snows a lot, so solar would be a bad choice.  The station is far too small to justify nuclear, and that’s pretty unpopular these days anyway.  Plenty windy here, but there are a ton of birds, and I hear that wind turbines and birds are a bad mix.  So I think we’re stuck with diesel.

There’s one additional quirk that I think is unique to Palmer Station.  Everyone, from the station manager to the station doctor to the scientists, pitches in with housework.  Once a week you take your turn cleaning up after dinner, and every Saturday afternoon you draw an additional cleaning task out of a hat.  It can be a bit annoying when you have to stop doing science to clean, but it’s worth it for the extra sense of community.

*McMurdo Station was originally Naval Air Facility McMurdo, although the purpose of McMurdo Station has always been (mostly) scientific.

How Bad Will this El Niño Be? Worse Than You May Think

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/20/2015 - 15:49

This week the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute on Climate and Society convened a 2-day workshop reflecting on efforts over the past 20 years to improve responses to climate variability, especially risks associated with El Niño.  Concerns that the current El Niño has the potential to exceed in severity the devastating El Niño of 1997-1998 permeated the discussion.  At the conference I presented a brief overview of the social, economic and political changes that will have a large effect on human impacts from El Niño.  I amplify those remarks here.  For more information, thoughts and opportunities to engage on questions of how climate, fragility and risk interact, check the Environment, Peace and Security Certificate Program website. 

Much of the discussion about the fear that the current El Niño will turn out to be even worse than the devastating 1997-1998 El Niño neglects a crucial fact.  Today’s El Niño is unfolding over a world that is in many ways more vulnerable than the world of 1997-1998. Just as today’s climate continues to generate extremes without historical precedent, we are starting to see elements of social vulnerability also without historical precedent.

That is an alarming combination.

It is relevant because historical experience tells us that El Niño roughly doubles the risk of major political insecurity breakdowns in countries affected by its weather impacts. So if the year brings together unprecedented weather extremes and unprecedented patterns of fragility, the risks may be worse than our preparations.

Within areas affected by 1997-1998 El Niño, there are now 230 million additional people.

Within areas affected by 1997-1998 El Niño, there are now 230 million additional people. Source: Calculations and surplus/deficit masks, ISciences, LLC (2015). “Water Security Indicator Model.” Ann Arbor, MI: ISciences, LLC. Available on-line:; Gridded Population of the World, CIESIN,

Think of a typical pair of office scissors. Their two blades are not especially sharp, yet they can cut very well because of how they interact. In the same way social impacts that arise from extreme weather depend on what kind of underlying vulnerability such weather encounters. We have heard a lot about the meteorological blade of the scissors.

Let us now consider the societal blade.

Global food prices in 1998 were at their long-term average. They have been markedly higher since the shocks of 2008, and even after a period of abating pressure last year remain 25 percent above their long-term average in real terms. As a result, poor communities and vulnerable regions have an elevated baseline risk of food insecurity. Compounding this effect is the unusually high global levels of income inequality, which Thomas Piketty and others have drawn attention to—the poorest of the poor are worse off in many parts of the world.

Grain stocks have fallen and budget deficits have risen since 1997-1998

Source:,, World Bank World Development Indicators


Changes to the global food system have diminished our ability to respond to food crises since 1998. Global food stocks have shrunk from about 100 days’ worth of consumption to about 60 today. And changes in where those stocks are held make it far more difficult to direct them to humanitarian crises.  Finally, government budget deficits in donor countries are far higher than before, making it harder to mobilize large crisis responses.

Politically, the world is showing signs of heightened fragility. Some elements of this fragility were already underway in 1998, and what is alarming is that they have not yet abated. One measure of such fragility is the number of countries experiencing a transitional political state characterized by neither strong democratic institutions nor strong autocratic institutions. Known as anocracies, such countries are not well equipped to absorb exogenous shocks and are highly vulnerable to various forms of instability. Since the late 1990s, they have been at historically unusual highs.

Other elements of political fragility are worse than in 1998. The amount of territory outside of state control has increased to an unexpected and scary degree since 1998, including a number of countries that qualify as failed states (such as Libya) and countries no long exercising sovereignty over major areas (such as Syria). Such areas pose multiple risks. They provide havens for trafficking, terrorism and other illicit behavior. They trigger population displacement. They augment risk of epidemics. And the people within them suffer high levels of vulnerability to food insecurity and other impacts from climatic stress.

The trend in heightened political fragility is now clear enough to be counted as a defining risk of our age. It is also one of the saddest surprises of the past decade, following over 25 years of broad progress toward enhanced security and stability, as documented by scholars such as Steven Pinker. In the last 10 years, security breakdowns have increased in number and intensity, and the resulting human tragedies and geopolitical upheavals have secured a permanent foothold in our daily headlines.

When the post-WWII record for global refugees and internally displaced populations was broken last year, topping 50 million for the first time, it came amid so much bad news that it scarcely got the attention it deserved.

Global registered refugees have surpassed 50million, the highest numbers since World War II.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons exceeded 50 million in 2014, a post-WWII high.

These changes take place against a backdrop of rapid population change in the poorest countries of the world, which has the effect of increasing the number of people exposed to the risks of El Niño. There are 1.3 billion more people in the world now than in 1998. Calculations with spatial data carried out by Tom Parris and colleagues at ISciences show that an additional 230 million people now reside within the areas most affected by the 1997-1998 El Niño.

That’s like adding an additional Indonesia (203 million people in 1998) and Malaysia (23 million in 1998) to the El Niño front lines.

Moreover, in areas where rapid urbanization is not being met with equally fast increases in jobs and political participation, the potential for protests and instability is also rising. Here, too, the trends are not in our favor. In 1998 poor cities were growing at about 3 million people per year. Today the number is 7.5 million.

If you thought things couldn’t get worse, recall that whatever weather shocks emerge from El Niño today will do so in the context of long-term climate change that is manifesting at a more rapid pace than we earlier anticipated.  September 2015 was about half a degree Centigrade higher than September 1997, for example. For the year as a whole, 2015 is shaping up to be the hottest ever on record—if trends continue it will be about a quarter of a degree hotter than 1998 and a third of a degree hotter than 1997.


2015 is likely to be the hottest year recorded. Source: NOAA,

Fractions of degrees may not seem like much at first glance, but when the global climate system entered lesser degrees of this non-analog state earlier in the decade we witnessed such unprecedented disruptive shocks as the heat waves that triggered the global food crisis associated with the Arab Spring, unusual devastating floods in Pakistan, widespread and traumatic wildfires in the western and southwestern U.S., and unusual large storms such as those affecting Myanmar, Philippines and the United States.

So the fact that the 2015-2016 El Niño will do its damage against an even higher level of baseline climate risk ought to give us serious pause.

Some societal risks we know with some confidence, stemming from analysis of the historical data. Food security problems, population displacement, disease outbreaks and political unrest are among such risks. Others are less well understood. Being less well understood does not make them less significant.

The risks that are relevant when considering how El Niño might interact with the underlying social and political changes underway are less predictable than El Niño itself. Cataclysmic breakdowns in human security are thankfully rare events, shaped by a number of causal forces that are marked by high uncertainty.

We cannot say whether El Niño will definitely trigger specific events culminating in large-scale crises in the coming year, in the same way that we wouldn’t be able to know for sure whether a specific drunk driver will cause an accident.

But as with the drunk driver, we know enough to say the risks are high and scary. We ought to be looking harder at whether we are prepared.

To hear my full talk, visit the IRI El Nino 2015 conference website and watch the beginning of the day two recording.


Climate Is Changing Fast in West Antarctica

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/20/2015 - 09:18

A snapshot of the changing climate of the West Antarctica Peninsula, where the impact of fast-rising temperatures provides clues about future ecosystem changes elsewhere. 


Click here to view the embedded video.

When the ship pulls up at Palmer Station each Antarctic spring, the arriving scientists glance up at the massive glacier that covers most of Anvers Island. It has been retreating about 7 meters per year, and this year is no different.

In this part of Antarctica, on the peninsula that sweeps toward South America, the climate is changing fast.

“Global warming is affecting Antarctica just as it’s affecting everywhere in the world at this point, but it is proceeding faster in both of the polar regions than it is anywhere else on the planet. What happens here is an early warning of what will be happening to ecosystems elsewhere – it’s just happening sooner and faster in Antarctica,” said Hugh Ducklow, the lead principal investigator at Palmer Station and a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Glacier retreat near Palmer Station, Antarctica. (US Antarctic Program)

Glacier retreat near Palmer Station, Antarctica. (US Antarctic Program)

Temperatures have been warming on the West Antarctic Peninsula at about 0.5° Celsius per decade since the early 1950s, a rate about four times faster than the global average. While winter sea ice extent in the Southern Ocean as a whole has changed little, the sea ice here begins to advance about 2 months later than it did in the 1980s and retreat about a month earlier. The West Antarctic Peninsula is bathed by relatively warm waters from the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that comes close to the surface near the peninsula, and that current is gaining heat as the oceans warm, studies show.

The changes and their cascading effects are showing in the ice and in the numbers and species of marine wildlife. The population of native Adélie penguin has declined from 15,000 pairs in the area around Palmer Station in the 1980s to fewer than 3,000 today. Penguin species from farther north, the Chinstrap and Gentoo, have started moving in, while Adélie numbers are increasing farther south in a region that hasn’t experienced as much warming. Fur seals and elephant seals, neither native to the area, are also now appearing near the Anvers coast. (Read more about the changing habitat of penguins and seals in this recent post and in the video above.)

Warming temperatures and changes in the sea ice matter for the entire marine food chain in this region where whales feed in the summer and large numbers of sea birds breed.

The ice is an important factor in the strength of the spring phytoplankton bloom and for the growth of ice algae, which are both important food sources for krill, which in turn are the main food source for the region’s penguins, whales and seals.

COP21_ad1When sea ice covers the coastal water in early spring, it prevents the spring bloom from starting too early, when it could be disrupted by storms, explained Jeff Bowman, a marine biologist from Lamont who is currently working at Palmer Station. As temperatures rise, the sea ice leaves earlier, and climate phenomena that drive weather patterns could impact marine life in different ways. Studies suggest that the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is more likely to be positive, meaning stronger winds will be more common, likely disrupting phytoplankton growth, and tropical storms could send precipitation across the Southern Ocean that can put penguin eggs and chicks at risk. (Read more about phytoplankton and what Bowman is seeing at Palmer Station in his research blog, Polar Microbes.)

The scientists at Palmer Station see changes like these up close every year, and they have collected data through the Long-Term Ecological Research program for the past two decades to track ecological and environmental changes and how those shifts cascade through the ecosystem. Two years ago, a video team joined them. You can watch the Palmer Station scientists at work and see the surrounding environment in the movie Antarctic Edge: 90 Degrees South.


Learn more about Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists and their work.

From Copenhagen to Paris: Likely to Fail Again?

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/20/2015 - 08:22
Scott Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Columbia University. His website is

Scott Barrett

The plan, going into Copenhagen in late 2009, was to broaden and deepen the Kyoto Protocol. This plan failed. The draft agreement prepared in advance of this conference was very long and filled with brackets, indicating that countries could not agree about very much. Once it became clear that an agreement about limiting emissions could not be negotiated, a short agreement was put together on the spot by a subset of countries.

This agreement set a global goal for limiting temperature change and invited all countries to submit pledges for the contributions they intended to make to this global effort. This agreement was not “legally binding,” and an analysis of the pledges submitted after this conference indicated that they fell far short of the emission limits that would need to be made if the global goal were to be achieved.

The Paris conference will build on the foundation laid so hastily in Copenhagen. The intention is to negotiate a “legally binding” agreement that will include arrangements for measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions. Rather than negotiate emission limits, countries are submitting new “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.”

COP21_ad1An analysis by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat shows that these intended contributions, if fulfilled, will still allow global emissions to increase through 2030. The claim is that the pledges being made will reduce emissions relative to “business as usual,” but this is a hard claim to substantiate since “business as usual” isn’t observable. Moreover, it isn’t obvious that countries will fulfill their pledges.

All of the pledges made in Paris will be voluntary. It is hoped that, by a process of “pledge and review,” these pledges can be strengthened—and that countries will feel obligated to fulfill them. However, countries have not always fulfilled their pledges in the past, and it isn’t obvious that this agreement is going to cause countries to behave very differently in the future.

Scott Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Columbia University. His website is He and Carlo Carraro and Jaime de Melo have written a new e-book, out this month, that you can download: “Towards a Workable and Effective Climate Regime.” 

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Barrett was among those writing for State of the Planet about those talks back in 2009. Here is an excerpt from back then (the full text is here and here):

The three pages of text that emerged after years of preparation and two weeks of intense negotiation in Copenhagen signally fail to address what the document correctly calls “one of the greatest challenges of our time”—global climate change. To many, the Copenhagen Accord will seem a setback; actually, it is a continuation of a long history of failure. The essential problem lies with the strategy of addressing this complex issue by means of a single agreement. Breaking this colossal problem into smaller pieces would allow us to achieve more.

… Climate change is the greatest collective action problem in human history, so we should not be surprised that it has been difficult to address. But our approach has made it harder than necessary. A better way to negotiate would be to break this colossal problem up into smaller pieces, addressing each piece using the best means appropriate.

Just one simple line of data has a full story behind it

Annotated radar image from project flight over the Ross Ice Shelf (credit ROSETTA)

Annotated radar image from project flight over the Ross Ice Shelf (credit ROSETTA)

The lines of data are slowly creeping across our Ross Ice Shelf GIS map and with each new line comes an improved understanding of Ross Ice Shelf. What can you learn from a ‘snapshot’ of data? The radar image above contains a nice story. You can see the ice thickness in the Y-axis of the annotated radar image. The ice shelf is approximately 300 meters thick. For scale this means you could stand 3 statues of liberty one on top of another and still have 21 meters of ice layered above them. The top layer on the ice shelf is snow that has accumulated on the surface of the shelf, layered almost flat as it fell on a level ice surface. Below you can see the ice that has flowed in from the Antarctic ice sheet with rumpling and roughness collected as it moved over the rougher terrain of the bed topography. Below that you can see the faint outline of the bottom of the ice shelf. This is where the radar stops, unable to image through the ocean water.

 Matt Siegfried)

Gravity data collected on the bed below the ice shelf.  (Credit: Matt Siegfried)

Air National Guard, complete with IcePod patch on his uniform, reviewing safety breathing apparatus with Sylvain Pascaud, filmmaker  LCL production interested in technology and airborne science.

Air National Guard, complete with IcePod patch on his uniform, reviewing safety breathing apparatus with Sylvain Pascaud, filmmaker LCL production interested in technology and airborne science. (credit: Matt Siegfried)

The radar and gravity work together to create a complete image of the Ross Ice Shelf and the bed below. Radar provides information on the ice layers but stops where the gravity excels, at the ice/ocean interface. With two gravimeters strapped down side by side in the LC130 and humming away as they collect data, the dual instrumentation has the project well covered.

A schedule of flying two flights a day can be exhausting.  However, the limited time in an Antarctic field season led to the plan to fly with two crews so data can be collected day and night; after all radar, gravity and magnetics don’t need the light to collect images. The personnel have been broken into teams so there is a constant rotation of working, sleeping and data review. The small cohort in the science team has been training each other on the various instrument operations to provide more flexibility in the flight planning.

Being on the ice can be an intense and compressed time…but it can also be filled with unexpected problems and delays. Weather has cancelled several flights, as have priority needs of the guard to handle emergencies and support missions.  The cold, dry static environment can be hard on equipment and a couple of the laptops used to manage the data have stopped working adding stress to the workload, as has illness. Although the team has been challenged by the cold and the weather they have managed 6 flights with more on the upcoming docket.

Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica, New Zealand research base.

Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica, New Zealand research base.

The team has taken advantage of down days to share presentations about the ROSETTA project with the other residents of McMurdo and Scott Bases. McMurdo and Scott are both located on Ross Island just at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. McMurdo is home to the U.S. research teams housing about 1000 residents during the austral summer season. Scott Base is home to the New Zealand teams, with close to 100 during the austral summer season. Sharing science is one of the perks of polar fieldwork.

McMurdo Base, Ross Island, Antarctica U.S. research base.

McMurdo Base, Ross Island, Antarctica U.S. research base.

Check out the newest lines on the GIS map and stop back for more. As we write the team is gearing up for another flight….and more lines of data with more stories.

For more about this NSF and Moore Foundation funded project, check our project website: ROSSETTA.

Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.

Peat Fires Choking Southeast Asia Pose a New Threat to Global Climate

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 07:10
Fires on the island of Borneo are visible from space. (NASA)

Fires on the island of Borneo are visible from space. (NASA)

Smoke from forest fires has been choking cities across Southeast Asia for months. The hazy, yellow blanket poses serious public health and economic risks for the communities it envelops. Indonesian authorities have been working hard to put out the fires, but have had trouble preventing the fires, which are intentionally set to clear land for agriculture. The government has resorted to using warships to evacuate its citizens from fire-affected areas. However, few of the other inhabitants of Indonesia’s forests, like the endangered orangutans, have made it to safety.

The fires are more than a local menace—they pose a global threat as well. They are huge—visible from space—and have begun to garner worldwide attention. Burning peat releases immense stores of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, strongly contributing to global warming. Since September, daily CO2 emissions from the fires alone routinely surpass the average daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy.

Why is so much carbon released from these fires?

The forests now burning had been growing on, and were contributing to, vast stores of peat—the partially decayed plant material that accumulates where growth is faster than decay. Peatlands (places where peat accumulates) are an important part of the Earth’s climate system—they are the primary locations where carbon from the atmosphere is sequestered on land. While they cover only 3% of the land surface, they hold 30% of soil organic carbon.

Since the end of the last ice age, approximately 600-700 gigatonnes of carbon—that’s 600-700 billion tonnes—have been sequestered from the atmosphere as peat, roughly equivalent to the total amount of carbon that was in the atmosphere before industrial times. As tropical peat forests are drained and burned, carbon that took thousands of years to accumulate is rapidly released back into the atmosphere.

Haze from Indonesian peat fires is causing health problems in cities downwind. (Naz Amir/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Haze from Indonesian peat fires is causing health problems in cities downwind. (Naz Amir/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Guido van der Werf, a forest scientist at the University of Amsterdam, estimated the total emissions from the fires this year to be 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2, or about 0.44 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) so far this season.

Let’s put this number into some context.

Of the 600-700 GtC that have been sequestered in peatlands globally since the last ice age, about 100 GtC are in the tropics; the rest are in boreal and Arctic regions. That means that the emissions from the fires this season alone are nearly half a percent of the total carbon accumulated in all tropical peatlands since the last ice age ended a little more than 11,000 years ago, or 0.15% of all the carbon emitted by human activity since the industrial age began.

Indonesian peatlands accumulate carbon at a rate of about 55 grams of carbon per meter squared per year—higher than most tropical peatlands elsewhere. If we generously extrapolate this rate to the about 400,000 km2 of tropical peatlands worldwide, the rate of accumulation of all tropical peatlands globally is only about 0.02 GtC annually. At 0.44 GtC, the Indonesian peat fires this season have emitted what took the entire Earth’s tropical peatlands at least 22 years to accumulate.

Forest fires are set each year, often illegally, for agriculture. The most common purpose is to produce palm oil, an economically important commodity, which is an ingredient in thousands of foods and cosmetics. Indonesia produced about 31 million tonnes of palm oil last year, and is projected to produce 31.5 million tonnes this year. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that burning a gallon of gasoline releases 2.5 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. This year, a gallon of palm oil from Indonesia will have released almost 10 times that, 24 kilograms of carbon, from burning peat forest.

Palm oil can be produced sustainably, but there is great economic pressure on small farmers to produce palm oil as quickly and cheaply as possible. Enforcement of laws that prohibit burning of peat forest is left to local authorities who are more easily influenced by their constituents and the palm oil companies that support them than by the Indonesian national government. Consumer pressure may be the only way to reduce these unsustainable agricultural practices.

What makes this year so bad?

El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean have made Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia particularly dry, lowering the water tables in the peat forests, making much more of the peat available to burn. Normally, peat does not burn below the water table, where it is water saturated. Further, many places where land is cleared by burning are also drained, artificially lowering water tables even further.

During the last major El Niño, 1997-98, about 0.95 GtC were released from Indonesian peat forest fires, and though this year only about 0.44 GtC have burned away, the season is not yet over.

Peat smolders after a fire. (Tan Yi Han, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Peat smolders after a fire. (Tan Yi Han, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Jonathan Nichols is a Lamont Assistant Research Professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a lover of peatlands. Follow him on Twitter @BogFossil.

Related: Indonesia on Track for Worst Fires Since 1997

An end to ice (sampling)

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Wed, 11/18/2015 - 14:04

It’s been a busy few days as we wrap up ice sampling and make the transition to sampling by boat at the regular Palmer LTER stations.  This afternoon we’ll break down the ice removal experiment we started over a week ago.  On Monday we went out for the final sampling at our ice station – though if the ice sticks around for a couple more weeks we’ll try to go out one final time to see how the spring ice algal bloom is developing.  The heavy snow cover on the sea ice has delayed the start of the bloom, however, things are starting to happen.  During our last sampling effort we lowered a GoPro camera underneath the ice to take a look.

You’ll notice a couple of interesting things about the underside of the ice.  First, it’s extremely rough.  Landfast sea ice often looks like this; the ice forms from many small flows being compressed together against the shoreline during the fall.  As a result there is a lot of “rafting” of small ice floes atop one another.  This can present some real challenges when selecting a sampling spot.  The first couple of holes that we tried to drill exceeded what we knew to be the mean thickness of the sea ice.  It took a few tries to find a representative spot.

The amount of ice algal growth in McMurdo Sound sea ice in mid-October, covered by only a few centimeters of snow, is much greater than in the Arthur Harbor sea ice, covered by 30 cm of snow, despite that fact that it is mid-November.

The amount of ice algal growth in McMurdo Sound sea ice in mid-October of 2011, covered by only a few centimeters of snow, is much greater than in the Arthur Harbor sea ice, covered by 30 cm of snow, despite that fact that it is already mid-November and Arthur Harbor is much further north than McMurdo Sound.

You’ll also notice that the ice has a distinct green color, concentrated on the lower (or higher, in the video) rafts.  That’s the start of the ice algal bloom.  If the ice was snow free the bloom would have developed by now into a thick carpet.  You can contrast the video above with the image at right of sea ice sampled from McMurdo Sound roughly three weeks earlier in the season (in 2011).  Although much thicker that ice was covered by only a few centimeters of snow.  If the Arthur Harbor ice sticks around for a couple more weeks it will develop some good growth (unless the krill come along and graze the algae down).  You might be wondering why, if the algae are limited by the availability of light, they are concentrated on the deeper rafts further from the light.  I’m not entirely sure, but I have a hypothesis.  I’ve been searching for a literature reference for this and haven’t located one yet, but I recall hearing a talk from an expert on the optical physics of sea ice describing how the sunlight that manages to penetrate sea ice reaches a maximum some distance below the ice.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but makes sense if you consider the geometry of the floes that coalesced to make the ice sheet.

One hypothesis for the vertical distribution of ice algae - and I have to caution that this is just an idea - is that the refraction of light as it passes through sea ice sets up a light maximum that is some distance below the bottom of the ice. Algae and phytoplankton would preferentially inhabit this zone.

One hypothesis for the vertical distribution of ice algae – and I have to caution that this is just an idea – is that the refraction of light (indicated in this schematic by yellow lines) as it passes through sea ice sets up a light maximum that is some distance below the bottom of the ice floes (white boxes). Algae and phytoplankton (indicated by green) would preferentially inhabit this zone.

As you can observe in the video the light is largely penetrating the ice around the edges of these floes.  The rays of light enter the water at an angle, and intersect at some distance below the ice determined by the mean size of the floes and (I’m guessing) the angle of the sun.  The depth where this intersection happens is the depth of greatest light availability.  Above this depth the water is “shaded” by the ice floes themselves.  In our case I think this depth corresponds with the depth of those deeper floes.  Unfortunately our crude hand-deployed light meter and infrequent sampling schedule are insufficient to actually test this hypothesis.  We’d need a much higher-resolution instrument that could take measurements throughout the day.  Something to think about for the future.

In the meantime Rutgers University undergraduate Ashley Goncalves, spending her Junior year with the Palmer LTER project at Palmer Station, made this short video that describes the process of collecting water for our experiment from below the ice in Arthur Harbor.  Let the boating begin!


Before Paris, Cause for Optimism

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 11/18/2015 - 09:16
 Wikimedia Commons

Solar and wind power are on the rise, but they will need better storage technology to make a big enough dent in our use of fossil fuels. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot more reason for optimism about the Paris climate talks than there was before Copenhagen in 2009. In particular, this time around, President Obama has taken clear steps to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly via executive action in the face of an intransigent Congress. Perhaps as important was the president’s recent cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, which was a largely symbolic move, but drew public attention to the issue of “stranded assets.” Why should fossil fuel companies continue to explore for more oil and gas, and produce fuel from increasingly low-grade reservoirs, using technically difficult methods, when identified reserves are already larger than any safe limit on total emissions?

COP21_ad1This said, the commitments made by various nations in advance of the Paris meeting are far too small to effectively curb increasing atmospheric CO2, as articulated by Steve Koonin in a New York Times op-ed a week ago, for example. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is Koonin’s: “The flood is coming, start building your ark.” No doubt he is right, to some degree. It seems probable that growth of fossil fuel emissions will continue, and atmospheric CO2 will exceed 600 ppm by mid-century. At that point, many expensive adaptations to climate change will already be underway. Also, the negative consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation may be clear enough to warrant implementation of a palette of methods for carbon-dioxide removal from air. (Interested readers should refer to the National Research Council report on this topic). Alternatively, we will be stuck with high greenhouse gas concentrations and continued warming for centuries to come.

Another perspective is that in Paris the international community will commit themselves to taking effective action designed to curb emissions and avoid warming beyond 2° C. Having made this commitment, together with some first steps, they may return in future years to amend their specific regulations, in order to succeed in their agreed goal. This is essentially what happened with regard to regulating CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) emissions in order to preserve the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. The first international treaty, The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, committed nations to effective action. But the specific regulations in that treaty were insufficient for success. Because a commitment had been made, however, subsequent revisions were relatively easy to implement, and ultimately success was—more or less—achieved.

 Sara Keleman

Peter Kelemen is the Arthur D. Storke Professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Photo: Sara Kelemen

Finally, it is just possible that Paris is less important than it seems. The dramatic fall in price for electrical generation using solar photovoltaic (PV) technology has been accompanied by 35 percent annual growth of PV capacity in this century, with wind power capacity growing in parallel at more than 25 percent per year. This is, in part, a success story for tax breaks and other incentives that have driven rapid growth, which in turn reduced the unit costs.

Conventional wisdom is that this rapid pace will soon diminish. When wind and solar electrical generation exceed a few tens of percent of the total, energy storage methods will become essential, to account for the temporally intermittent, spatially disbursed nature of renewable power generation. In turn, energy storage technology is improving very slowly, so most people think that a storage bottleneck will persist past 2050.

However, perhaps this conventional wisdom is wrong. If the international community were to fully understand the threat of climate change, and the likely cost of mitigation and adaptation, perhaps we would commit to continued tax breaks and incentives, and propel the renewable energy transition toward completion. In the long run, I am sure this would be less expensive than coping with the consequences of growth in greenhouse gas emissions through 2050. The energy industry can be incredibly nimble, as recently exemplified by 35 percent annual growth in fracked oil production in North Dakota. If solar PV and wind, including storage, were to become truly cost-competitive at the utility scale, there is no doubt that renewable capacity would continue to double every few years.

Finally, one more thought. The energy transition, and/or mitigation of CO2 emissions, will surely be expensive. However, it is not clear to me why this is considered to be a drain on the economy. We already spend plenty of money taking care of waste products, via sewage treatment and garbage disposal. It seems to me that large-scale replacement of energy infrastructure, or carbon dioxide removal from air, like the recent replacement of communications and data storage infrastructure, will serve to create jobs and economic growth. Of course, such processes will involve a net transfer of resources to some groups, away from others. Perhaps that is the main impediment to progress.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Keleman was among those writing for State of the Planet about the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Here is an excerpt from back then (the full text is here):

… Somehow, some people have come to believe that if a single study suggesting human-induced climate change is incorrect, the entire scientific basis for the hypothesis is invalidated. A corollary, implicitly adopted by some “believers” and “skeptics” alike, is that predictions of warming due to human CO2 emissions must be almost certain in order to justify major efforts to reduce CO2 output.

… Nevertheless, everyone involved needs to embrace the idea that all scientists are skeptics; that all scientific theories are open to doubt; and in particular that future projections of climate change are subject to considerable uncertainty. Furthermore, the economic and environmental impacts of warming are also uncertain, as are the costs of CO2 mitigation. When scientists hide these uncertainties, or simply don’t discuss them, they lose credibility.

… Does this mean that no political action should be taken until scientific uncertainties are resolved? Of course not. … atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rise, more rapidly and to higher values than recorded in gas trapped in glacial ice over the past 500,000 years. This is mainly due to use of fossil fuels, and it is pushing us further and further into uncharted territory. Though there are many other factors that influence global climate, there is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And, in addition to the threat of climate change, there are ample reasons to conserve energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The longer we delay, the higher will be the cost of limiting CO2 in the atmosphere. The cost may be high now, but it will only get higher in the future.

What Everyone Should Know About Climate Change

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Tue, 11/17/2015 - 12:38

The Science, Revisited

The climate is changing. We’re causing it. It’s going to affect our lives and our livelihood, if it isn’t already. It’s going to be expensive. But we can do something about it.

That’s how a group of young scientists at a conference in 2013 summed it up. This video, shot by climate scientist William D’Andrea of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explains in the simplest terms possible what we ought to know about climate change, and why we should care.

This is one in a series of posts looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. The original post about D’Andrea’s project, with a second video, is here.


Climate Through A Different Lens: Poverty, Inequality, Sustainability

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Mon, 11/16/2015 - 16:53
 Think Progress

Flooding in Pakistan. “It is no secret that the poor in any country, and the poorer countries, are the most adversely affected by the present and future climate.” Photo source: Think Progress

There is no religion that does not teach its adherents the need to nurture the earth, or the need for the brotherhood, equality and humility of men. In every generation, in every land and in every clime is born a populist who embraces such goals to rise as a leader of the people. Yet, on the eve of Paris, we are visited by gunfire and death, symbolizing the distrust that is bred by inequity of opportunity. Religions uniformly preach peace, even as some adherents invoke martyrdom as a path to address injustices, perceived and real. Sadness embraces the families of those martyred as well as those whom they extinguished with little reason.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center and a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center and a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

It is remarkable that we are in the 21st COP at Paris. In the furthest reaches of the world, there is now an awareness of our changing climate, of the human influence, and of the leaders who debate what needs to be done, year after year, decade after decade. The clock ticks, and in the absence of change in energy policies, the day comes ever closer. Inequities past and future color the debate, forestalling action. Technology has brought us low-cost global communication, and also enabled a global economy. It has also brought us closer and further from each other. We now know more about other cultures. We also see the differences, and sharpen our sense of inequities. Perhaps, this, rather than a control of greenhouse gases, needs to be the primary conversation.

It is no secret that the poor in any country, and the poorer countries, are the most adversely affected by the present and future climate. Their ability to withstand floods or droughts, or climate induced disasters of any sort, is the most limited. Unable to buffer themselves from the vagaries of climate, they have lower economic and agricultural productivity, lower resilience to shocks, and are for all purposes trapped. They lack reliable sources of energy that could increase their productivity, and allow them a better access to the local or global economy. Solving this may provide them the income that eventually helps them better address shocks, climatic, political or economic. Of course, such a pathway has to be harmonious with nature. These are the challenges we should be discussing and addressing as a common, global goal.

Most energy sources on the planet can be traced back to the sun. The winds blow in response to temperature differences created by imbalances in solar radiation. Hydropower relies on river flows that come from rain, which in turn is supplied by evaporation stimulated by the sun. Biofuels, coal, oil and gas result from biological activity on land and in the oceans that was once stimulated by the sun. We know how to harness all these sources to produce electricity and heat. The sun’s rhythm governs our every day, waking, sleeping and working, as it does life across the planet. It would seem that finding a way to tap this energy in an environmentally benign way, and making it as available to the masses as cellular phones have become, would be the grandest economic opportunity of the 21st century.

Indeed, recent initiatives in China and elsewhere have dramatically reduced the initial investment required to tap solar and wind energy. This is exciting since these sources can be implemented and spread much as cell phones have—across the world, to areas poor and rich, on or off an existing grid. This is a grassroots business opportunity, that brings together large manufacturers, last mile implementers, supply chain intermediaries and maintenance specialists, and diverse users who are bound to translate the opportunity into diverse income streams through their ingenuity and local knowledge.

COP21_ad1The COP discussions have revolved around targets for decarbonization to mitigate climate change. I think this needs to be a discussion about how the development of a renewable energy platform can lead to sustainable and inclusive economic growth of all sectors of society in the world. Uplifting the poor, while a moral imperative, may not actually translate beyond political slogans. Perhaps, this is why the debates are not framed in this light. The 20th century showed us that the rich get richer as the poor are uplifted. Let the 21st be about how to improve conditions for all living beings on the planet.

The second thread in the climate change discussions is that of climate change adaptation, recognizing that the political processes that lead to reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases may not yield results in time. There are many dimensions to this discussion, ranging from questions as to investment in infrastructure to financial risk management to migration to food and water security. A tacit assumption in many such discussions is that societies are, by and large, adjusted to climate risk, and it is the change due to human influence on the earth’s climate that we need to address.

This is a rather unfortunate posture that cripples real action, since future predictions of future climate with any specificity as to location or variable of concern are clouded by significant uncertainty not just in the models, but also in the assumptions that drive our models. Yet, floods and droughts ravage many places, with loss of life, disease, food insecurity, and property losses emerging as a surprise that we struggle to recover from, even from events that have been seen perhaps many times in the last century, but forgotten over the course of time. Again, if we are concerned about the well-being of people, we have a moral imperative to help increase resilience to climate shocks, whether or not we are concerned with climate change. The latter is an attendant factor that simply increases the urgency of the matter.

It is my view that mitigation of and adaptation to climate change should not be seen as two separate sides of a response to a threat. Rather, we need to approach both synergistically, under a paradigm that is primarily focused on economic growth and poverty alleviation, which in turn would reduce the risks of conflict and the threat to life on earth.

Every year, as climate induced disasters happen, in Brazil, in the United States, in Europe, in India, in Africa and in China, vivid images of tragedy pull at our heartstrings, and much is spent on international relief and recovery. Yet, many of the poorer places that are subject to these disasters have little to show a year later from the outpouring of support. A focus on economic growth stimulated by renewable energy, and accompanied by pre-emptive solutions to floods and droughts, through improvements in agriculture, in food preservation using energy sources, in the diversion and control of floods, and in early warning and action systems, would be transformative.

With increased income comes the possibility to acquire a more egalitarian perspective, pay for education, to pay for infrastructure development, to pay for effective institutions and for risk mitigation. I look forward to a world where the enlightened few see it fitting to steer us in this direction, and look beyond the rhetoric of emissions, and inequity in past and future carbon emissions, with suspended disbelief as to the potential calamities that face us. Sustainable development as an objective encompasses the climate and energy challenge, and the natural responses to these challenges promise directions for bringing people and countries out of poverty.

In September, the governments of the world agreed to the sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030, except Goal 13 (of 17), to deal with climate change. In December we can complete the agreement on that 13th goal. The 193 countries of the world must do nothing less.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Lall also wrote for us back in 2009, before the Copenhagen summit. Here’s an excerpt (for his full post, go here):

… In most places where we have multi-century historical records of rainfall or “proxy” natural records, such as tree rings, we see persistent shifts in rainfall patterns. Presumably due to natural causes, these often go beyond ranges experienced in the 20th century, and have lasted years or decades. In the meantime human population has boomed. Many developing countries are particularly subject to such swings, and now with huge numbers of people and little infrastructure, they are particularly vulnerable. Developed countries also are now quite susceptible to systematic climate shifts, since much of their modern infrastructure, especially for water, was designed on the assumption that climate does not change with time. Today, in many places in North America, Australia and Europe, this infrastructure is at the limits of its performance, and their chance of failure is high if protracted droughts or extreme floods come along.

Given the prospects for human suffering and international conflict over water, Copenhagen offers an opportunity to focus the climate change debate in a new way, that has nothing to do with conjecture: we must increase the resilience of water resources to shifts that we already know are quite real.

… While there is pessimism about the prospects of a binding agreement on future carbon emissions, there are things we can do now to address problems that are already with us—and will almost certainly accompany us down the road. It is imperative that the momentum and interest generated at Copenhagen be channeled toward them.

Unlocking the secrets of the Ross Ice Shelf

As the project sets out to explore the Ross Ice Shelf it seems appropriate to include a photo of Minna Bluff,  a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to McMurdo. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history. (Photo Nigel Brady)

As the ROSETTA project sets out to explore the Ross Ice Shelf it seems appropriate to include a photo of Minna Bluff, a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to McMurdo. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history. (Photo N. Brady)

The Ross Ice Shelf is much like the Rosetta Stone. The historic stone was inscribed in three different scripts; each telling the same story but in a different tongue. When matched together the information was enough to allow scholars to decode an ancient language. The Rosetta Project in Antarctica also brings together three different ‘scripts’, but in this case they  written by three Earth systems; the ice, the ocean and the underlying bed each have a story to tell. Mapped together these three systems can be used to unlock the mysteries of Antarctic ice history in this region and help us to develop models for predicting future changes in Antarctic ice.

Two gravimeters, one was used last year in test flights in Antarctica with GNS Science from New Zealand, and the second is from Dynamic Gravity Systems purchased through funding by the Moore Foundation. (Photo K. Tinto)

The team moves two gravimeters from the tent where they have been stabilizing for two days after arriving in Antarctica.  One instrument was used last year in test flights in Antarctica with GNS Science from New Zealand, and the second is from Dynamic Gravity Systems purchased through funding by the Moore Foundation. (Photo K. Tinto)

The  multi-institutional project is multi-disciplinary in nature and takes advantage of the recently commissioned IcePod integrated ice imaging system as the main science platform. IcePod is package of geophysical instruments packed into a 9 ft. container and loaded onto the large LC130 transport planes supporting science in the polar regions. Flown by the US Air National Guard these planes are the workhorses of the science program.  A unique ‘arm’ that fits into the rear side-door of the plane is used to attach the IcePod outside the aircraft, allowing it to be used on both dedicated missions and flights of opportunity.

IcePod’s instruments include two radar to image through the ice, lidar to measure to the ice surface, cameras for surface images, and a magnetometer to better understand the tectonics and origin of the bed below the ice shelf. Together with the IcePod instruments the project will  use two separate gravimeters in order to develop a bathymetric map of the seafloor under the ice shelf. Gravity is a critical data piece in this project as the radar is unable to image through the water under the ice shelf.

Crossing the Transantarctic Mountains on the flight to South Pole. (Photo N. Brady)

Flying up from the Ross Ice Shelf to cross the Transantarctic Mountains on the flight to South Pole. The Transantarctic Mountains are a stunning contrast to the flat surface of the Ross Ice Shelf. With peaks that reach upwards of 4000m they act like a zipper stretching  across the continent for over 3500 kms connecting two very different sections of the Antarctic continent. (Photo N. Brady)

The Ross Ice Shelf is a thick slab of ice that serves to slow and collect ice as it flows off the Antarctic peninsula. Ross is the largest of the Antarctic ice shelves moving ice at rates of 1.5 to 3 meters/day. Somewhat triangular in shape, it is bounded by the West Antarctic ice sheet on the west, the East Antarctic ice sheet on the east, and the Ross sea along the front.


Our interactive Rosetta flight tracking instrument. Go to the page to follow the flights as they are added.

This three year project involves 36 separate flights in a two season field campaign. The first field season is underway now, and will focus on building the larger framework for the dense 10 km spaced grid of flights that is planned for the following season. As each day’s flights are logged they are being posted on our interactive website. You can follow our campaign by linking directly to this data portal to watch the grid develop. You can select the project proposed flight plan (v9) on the Data Map to get a complete look at the project plan. The end product will be a dense grid of flightlines evenly spaced and crossing with regular tie points.

On the flight to the South Pole the LC130 hercules aircraft is the rear right parked at the edge of the skiway. The ice pod is on the far side the South Pole station. Team members Kirsty, Tej and Fabio are heading towards the South Pole passenger terminal waiting to reboard. (Photo N. Brady)

On the flight to the South Pole the LC130 hercules aircraft is the rear right parked at the edge of the skiway. The icePod is on the far side the South Pole station. Team members Kirsty, Tej and Fabio are heading towards the South Pole passenger terminal waiting to reboard. (Photo N. Brady)

First flights included two survey lines across the ice shelf. The most southern of the two lines was flown by IcePod in 2014 during commissioning flights, and by the NASA IceBridge project in 2013. These two flights provide a calibration line for the system. The northern line is the first new line for the project. The map also shows a small test flight for the equipment and a line up to South Pole that was a piggy back flight with another mission of the plane.

You will note that flights originate from McMurdo so there is a dense radiating line from the base. Minna Bluff is a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to MCM. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history.

Check the flight tracker daily for updated flight lines.

For more about this NSF and Moore Foundation funded project please check our project website: ROSSETTA

Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.

The Paris Climate Summit: Resources for Journalists

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/13/2015 - 14:24

From rising sea levels to pressures on agriculture, people everywhere face challenges from climate change. Above, flooded land near Khulna, Bangladesh. (Photo by Kevin Krajick)

Many experts at Columbia University’s Earth Institute are attending or closely watching the Paris climate summit. These include world authorities on climate science, politics, law, natural resources, national security, health and other fields, who can offer expert  analysis to journalists. Also, this week we start our Paris Climate Summit blog, with news, views, and scientific perspective from our staff. Below, a guide to resources that journalists covering the summit can tap.

   The Paris Climate Summit   A frequently updated blog from Earth Institute experts with explainers, commentary and other features.
   Recent Climate Research   The top Earth Institute scientific papers from 2015 and previous recent years.
   Milestones in Climate Science  A 60-year timeline of studies from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that have shaped modern climate science.
   Copenhagen Climate Conference 2009  Our blog from the last major summit provides historical perspective.

(Not an exhaustive list. *Denotes person attending the summit.)

 Climate science
*Peter deMenocal, professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Paleoclimatologist DeMenocal leads the observatory’s new Center for Climate and Life, which will examine globally how climate change affects ecosystems and human sustainability.
Jason Smerdon is a Lamont-Doherty climate researcher and educator who co-directs the Earth Institute’s undergraduate sustainable development program.
Gavin Schmidt directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He is a leading communicator on the fundamentals of climate science, and the implications.

 International negotiations/law/politics
*Scott Barrett, Earth Institute professor of natural resources; expert in dynamics of transnational negotiations, treaties and conflict resolution, especially climate. Barrett is coeditor of a new e-book prepared especially for the summit.
*Michael Gerrard, director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, leader in the study of climate’s legal implications on state, national and international levels.
Michael Burger, executive director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, consults internationally on efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and on climate adaptation.
Steven Cohen, Earth Institute executive director, comments frequently on political developments surrounding climate and sustainable development.

Solutions, adaptations, sustainable development
*Lisa Goddard, director, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which works with governments around the world to predict and adapt to medium-term climate swings.
*Cynthia Rosenzweig, Earth Institute senior research scientist, is a pioneer in studying how cities can adapt to climate change.
*Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director, Sustainable Development Solutions Network. SDSN is a UN effort hosted by the Earth Institute that mobilizes teams across the world to solve global challenges, including climate change.
*Laura Segafredo manages SDSN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a global collaboration of energy researchers charting steps for nations to cut emissions.

Natural resources
   Upmanu Lall directs the Columbia Water Center, which tackles water-supply challenges and their relation to climate across the world.
Pedro Sanchez, director, Agriculture and Food Security Center, helps direct multiple projects in developing countries to ensure a robust food supply in changing conditions.
Shahid Naeem, director, Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, is an ecologist who deals with issues of conservation and biodiversity.

International security
Marc Levy, deputy director, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), is a political scientist who studies the human dimensions of environmental change, including climate’s potential for violent conflict.
Alexander deSherbinin, CIESIN senior researcher, maps out the human consequences of climate change, including potential large-scale population migrations.

*Madeleine Thomson, IRI senior researcher, works to understand the health effects of climate, and help provide adaptations.
*Patrick Kinney, Earth Institute professor based at Mailman School of Public Health, studies the health effects of climate change, especially in cities.

Anthony Annett, an economist, leads the Earth Institute’s initiative to engage religious communities with climate and sustainable-development issues.
*Ben Orlove, anthropologist and co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, studies how the public apprehends climate change issues.

 # # #

More information: Kevin Krajick, Senior editor, science news, The Earth Institute 212-854-9729


No boating yet and a sneak peek at phytoplankton

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Fri, 11/13/2015 - 09:33

The storms of the past week cleared most of the pack ice out of Arthur Harbor, although the land fast ice that we’ve been sampling from has survived.  In anticipation of the start of the boating season there was a flurry of activity yesterday as station personnel cleared off the boat ramp and got the zodiacs ready.  Unfortunately Jamie and I didn’t think to start the time lapse below until yesterday afternoon after most of the three-ring circus had died down, but you still get a sense of the activity.

There are two science groups waiting to start boating operations; our group and a group of penguin researchers (aka “the birders”).  Both groups are part of the Palmer LTER.  While we will spend the summer investigating water column processes however, the birders will spend their summer visiting the various penguin rookeries and maintaining a remarkable long term dataset of penguin population.

The birders do far more than just count penguins, they analyze diet, physiology, breeding success, and a host of other factors. The number of penguins alone however, tells an interesting story.

Taken from Ducklow et al. 2013.  The birders do far more than just count penguins; they analyze diet, physiology, breeding success, and a host of other factors. The number of penguins alone however, tells an interesting story.  Since the mid-1970’s the number of adélie penguins along the West Antarctic Peninsula (or at least at those rookeries that we can access and monitor) has declined sharply.  There are good indications that this is related to the general decline of sea ice in the area.  A high ice year like we are having right now might be good for the adélie’s but the situation is complex.  The ice has been good but the weather is also warm and wet.  Warm, wet conditions are extremely hard on adélie penguin chicks and can lead to large (at times total) breeding failures.

The birders were supposed to get their final zodiac training today, but although the harbor is clear of ice the winds are back up (gusting around 30 kts at the moment) so everything is getting shifted back.  In the meantime we will have a late night sampling another time point from the experiment that we started on Tuesday.  As I described in the previous post, for this experiment we are making use of the highly unusual ice conditions to study what happens to the microbial community when the ice is suddenly removed (as has happened to much of Arthur Harbor and the surrounding area in the last week).  Although we won’t know the results of most of our analyses for several months, we can make some interesting qualitative observations as the experiment progresses.

One of the interesting observations so far was the initial condition of the microbial community.  During a down moment yesterday I took a look at water from just 24 hours into our experiment to see what was growing (so this isn’t exactly the initial condition, but a close approximation of it).  What we found really surprised me.  Here are a couple of images that illustrate the phytoplankton community in our experiment:

By far the most abundant phytoplankton growing under the ice in Arthur Harbor right now. The size and teardrop shape suggest that it is a Cryptophyte.

By far the most abundant phytoplankton growing under the ice in Arthur Harbor right now. The size (about 10 microns) and teardrop shape suggest that it is a cryptophyte.  This is interesting because many cryptophtes are mixotrophic; in addition to undergoing photosynthesis they can consume bacteria as a source of carbon.

A small pennate diatom. This is the only one that I could find, but, this is purely speculative, like it might be dividing.

A small pennate diatom. This is the only one that I could find but, and this is purely speculative, it looks like it might be dividing.  Magnification is the same as the previous image, so I would guess that this cell is 10-20 microns in length.

The traditional wisdom would suggest that the spring phytoplankton bloom should start with diatoms.  Following the initial diatom bloom there are successive, mixed blooms of haptophytes, cryptophytes, dinoflagellates, and other groups of phytoplankton.  Observations from this time of year are very sparse however, so it is difficult to know if we are seeing something that is unique or the normal phytoplankton assemblage for this time of year.  The composition of the phytoplankton assemblage is not merely academic; it dictates how carbon will flow through the food web in a given season.  Large diatoms for example, are easily feed upon by krill, resulting in high krill biomass and more and more healthy top predators (e.g. penguins, seals, and whales).  Smaller phytoplankton (like cryptophytes) produce a more complex food web that might ultimately channel less carbon to the top trophic levels.  We will have to wait and see how the situation plays out this year…


From Copenhagen to Paris: Getting Beyond Talk

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Thu, 11/12/2015 - 15:44

logo-cop-21-carr-During the Copenhagen climate meetings in 2009, I posted a piece in the Huffington Post assessing the conference. At that time I observed that:

“There is a broad consensus about the need for reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. Copenhagen is providing the entire world a crash course in climate science and policy. Over the past decade, the politics of national and global climate policy has shifted from the fringes of the public policy agenda to the center. The real story of Copenhagen is the maturation of this key issue of global environmental policy. … Climate change is just the first global environmental problem we have come to understand. At Copenhagen we are barely discussing the other global environmental issues such as species extinction, the destruction of the oceans and degraded fresh water supplies. But we could.”

As we approach the Paris version of these endless talks, COP21, to be held next month, it’s fair to ask: What has changed over the past six years, and did Copenhagen stimulate any of these changes?

What has changed is the broad consensus on climate change has broadened, and recent polls show that even Republicans in the United States understand the nature of the problem. Globally, individual nations have volunteered greenhouse gas reduction targets in anticipation of the Paris meetings. Unlike Copenhagen, where calls for mandatory reductions and transfer payments to the developing world caused the collapse of any potential agreements, the world community seems more realistic as it approaches the Paris meetings. An agreement that codifies the reductions already pledged seems within reach, even if its value is more symbolic than real.

There remains a possibility that the call for transfer payments from wealthy nations to developing nations could disrupt the effort at building a global consensus. Previous aid promises were not fulfilled, and there is some political pressure to get the issue back on the global agenda. One of the major changes since 2009 is the clear perception that some nations once classified as developing, such as China, Brazil and India, can no longer be thought of in that way. While this was also the case in 2009, six years later, they are clearly in a category of their own.

Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute.

Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute.

My own view of the Paris talks and the ones that came before is that they have value, but it is important to understand their inherent limits. The climate issue is really an issue of the energy base of a nation’s economy. Modern economies require energy, and economic development depends on plentiful, reliable, reasonably priced energy. The issue is so central to economic growth and the stability of political regimes that no nation state will fundamentally limit its flexibility in delivering energy for any reason. It is central to sovereignty in the modern world. But communicating the dangers of fossil fuels and the need to transition to a renewable energy based economy is something these meetings have achieved, and the importance of that achievement should not be underestimated.

The climate issue seems to generate a high level of ideologically based politics, emotional rhetoric and political symbolism. It is time to move past symbols to pragmatism and political reality. We need to move toward an acceptance of nine fundamentals if we are to address the climate change crisis:

  1. Human induced climate change is real, already underway and will continue into the future.
  2. We cannot precisely predict the future impact of climate change on human settlements and economic well-being.
  3. Fossil fuels are the largest single generator of greenhouse gases.
  4. Our economic way of life and therefore the political stability of our world are highly dependent on energy that mainly comes from fossil fuels.
  5. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is necessary but will take decades to accomplish.
  6. Reducing the use of fossil fuels by raising the price of these fuels is unlikely to achieve political support or be supported by the world’s governments.
  7. Reducing the use of fossil fuels by developing lower priced, reliable and renewable sources of energy requires additional technological development.
  8. Reduced energy costs will have great political appeal and positive economic impact.
  9. The increased use of current renewable energy technologies will be facilitated by government policy to attract capital and reduce the price of energy.

In my view, the battles over oil pipelines, fracking and divesting capital from fossil fuel companies are symbolic battles that serve to distract us from the operational issues that will facilitate the transition to a renewable energy economy. One issue to engage in is the coming battle to renew the favorable tax treatment of renewable energy in the U.S., now slated to end in December 2016. Ending that tax expenditure would slow down the growth of the solar and wind industry and have an immediate and dramatic impact on the production of greenhouse gases.

The Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation’s research budget for renewable energy technologies needs to be increased dramatically. The federal government should take the lead in purchasing electric vehicles and installing renewable energy. A federal fund to restore and build infrastructure will probably appear on the federal agenda during the next decade. Some part of that funding should be devoted to upgrading the electric grid to make it smarter and more efficient, funding public charging stations for electric vehicles, funding mass transit, and providing resources to make coastal infrastructure more resilient and better able to adapt to the impact of climate change.

The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors.

The greatest danger to America’s transition to a renewable resource based economy is not industry, which will make plenty of money off of this transition, or the public, which appears ready to move, but the anti-government ideology that continues to paralyze our federal government.

The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors. There will be some instances when the work that needs to be done—for example, basic research or infrastructure finance—will require federal funds. There will be other instances when the tax code or other incentives will be needed to attract private capital and companies into the market. And there will be even more instances when government action is not needed, and the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let the private sector act. By sophisticated partnership, I mean one that is guided by results-oriented pragmatism rather than symbols and ideology.

The climate talks in Paris will focus attention on the climate issue and increase understanding of the nature of the problem. Then the spotlight shifts to nations and cities, and hopefully from talk and chit-chat to funding and action. There are many signs that the transition from fossil fuels has begun. The speed of that transition is at issue and will require creativity, consensus and cash to be completed.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. 


The Paris Climate Change Conference – What You Need to Know

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 11/11/2015 - 12:00

Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of posts on the 2015 Paris climate summit. You can follow all of our coverage on a special State of the Planet feature page.


The difference in average surface temperatures from 1970-79 (bottom) to 2000-09 (top) due to global warming. Photo: NASA

What is it?

COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, will be held outside of Paris in Le Bourget, France, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. It is called COP21 because it is the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The parties meet each year to assess their progress in dealing with climate change; its objective is to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Who’s participating?

The 195 countries who make up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will send over 40,000 delegates to the talks in Paris. At least 80 world leaders will attend, including the leaders of Germany, South Africa, Brazil and England, and those of the three biggest carbon emitting countries: President Barack Obama from the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What is the goal?

The goal of COP21 is to negotiate a new international climate change agreement that can keep the average global temperature rise below 2° C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement will be universal and include pledges from the parties to limit and reduce greenhouse gases, implement strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and commit financial support to help developing countries deal with climate change. The agreement will also likely establish five-year reviews to make sure countries are keeping their commitments and to ratchet up emissions reduction targets in order to meet the 2˚C goal.

Why does it matter?

Human activities have generated greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases—that have collected in the atmosphere and warmed the planet. Between 1990 and 2014, global greenhouse gases increased 36 percent. In 2011, Asia, Europe and the United States were responsible for 82 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the carbon dioxide that we have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain there for hundreds of years.


The increase in greenhouse gases over the last 100 years has so far caused average global temperatures to rise .85˚C. Data for 2015 from the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, shows that Earth’s global mean temperature will reach 1˚C above pre-industrial levels for the first time this year. While this does not sound like much, we are already feeling the effects of this warming with more extreme heat, heavy downpours, increased wildfires, insect outbreaks, loss of glaciers and sea ice, sea level rise and flooding.

Scientists and over 100 nations have agreed that limiting the global temperature rise to 2˚C is critical to avoiding more catastrophic climate change effects. According to the World Resources Institute, if we continue on a “business as usual” trajectory of generating greenhouse gases, we will reach 2˚C by 2045. This will increase the risk of sea level rise, intensify wildfires and make them more frequent, exacerbate heavy precipitation events and the severity of droughts, acidify the oceans, cause extinction of animal species and jeopardize our food supplies. With each degree above the 2˚C limit, the impacts of climate change will be more severe and the risks greater that tipping points could be passed, resulting in abrupt and irreversible changes in the global climate system.


The oldest Arctic sea ice is disappearing. Sea ice coverage in 1980 (bottom) and 2012 (top). Photo: NASA

In May, a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change report  concluded that 1.5˚C would be a preferable limit, but would require a faster reduction of energy demand and an immediate scaling up of low-carbon technologies to curb greenhouse gases.

When does COP21 go into effect?

In 1997, at COP3, 192 parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol (the United States did not ratify the protocol), which legally bound developed countries to reduce their emissions. Kyoto’s first commitment period went from 2008 to 2012. A second commitment period, known as the Doha Amendment, began in 2013 and ends in 2020. The COP21 agreement will take effect in 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol ends.

How will it work?

At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the 195 countries involved in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2025-2030.

Global CO2

Ahead of COP21, all the states were invited to submit their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” that indicate what actions the countries will take to reduce their emissions. Each plan takes into account a country’s particular circumstances and capabilities, and may address adaptation to climate change impacts, and what support they will need from, or be willing to give to other countries.

One hundred-thirty-one of these “intended contributions” have been submitted. Here are a few examples.

The United States has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 levels by 2025, with best efforts to reduce emissions by 28 percent. Strategies to achieve the goal include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to cut carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, tighter fuel economy standards for light and heavy-duty vehicles, and the development of standards to address methane emissions from landfills and oil and gas production.

China pledges that its carbon emissions will peak by 2030 or sooner if possible, and that the country will reduce carbon dioxide emissions for each unit of Gross Domestic Product (its “emissions intensity”) by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels, derive 20 percent of energy from non-fossil fuels, plant more forests and improve the country’s adaptation to climate change impacts.

India intends to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, increase forest and tree cover to provide additional carbon sinks and generate 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 with help from the Green Climate Fund. (The Green Climate Fund was established by 194 nations in 2010 with the goal of raising $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries deal with climate change.)

Brazil will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, then by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Strategies to achieve this include using renewable resources for 45 percent of its energy by 2030, stopping illegal deforestation by 2030, restoring forests and developing sustainable agriculture. It will also implement adaptation policies to make its population, ecosystems, infrastructure and production systems more resilient.

The European Union has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, in part by getting 27 percent of its energy from renewable energy resources and improving energy efficiency 27 percent by 2030.

Are the climate pledges ambitious enough to meet the goal?

The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, estimates that the climate pledges submitted so far will result in an increase of 2.7˚C of warming by 2100. This is an improvement over the worst-case scenario of a 4.5 to 6° C increase, which is what scientists estimate will result if we continue with business as usual; but it does not get us where we need to go.


However, the goal of remaining under the 2° C mark is targeted for 2100; these first climate pledges extend to 2025 or 2030. Much greater emissions reduction efforts will be needed after 2025 and 2030 to achieve the 2˚C limit. So a five-year periodic review mechanism will be critical to spur countries to set increasingly ambitious goals to reduce emissions.

What would a successful COP21 look like?

COP21 may or may not produce a treaty that legally binds countries to meet their emissions targets. If it does not, this should not be considered a failing, since legally binding treaties can cause countries to make overly modest commitments for fear of falling short, or opt out altogether.

COP21 will be considered a success if it:

  • Results in countries agreeing on shared long-term goals to reduce carbon emissions and work towards climate resilience.
  • Recognizes that all countries must take action.
  • Creates a climate financing arrangement that is acceptable to both developed and developing countries.
  • Establishes five-year reviews to encourage countries to continually set more ambitious emissions reduction goals.
  • Ensures that countries are transparent about their progress and actions through an effective reporting and verification process.

Why should you care?

COP21 is the best opportunity for the world to finally slow the rate of climate change. Its outcome will affect our lives and those of our children and grandchildren. If successful, COP21 will hopefully help us avert the most disastrous and potentially irreversible effects of climate change. As President Obama said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”


The Gould, a gale, and a bit more on SAM

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Mon, 11/09/2015 - 08:38

The Laurence M. Gould departed for Punta Arenas last night, taking Colleen with it and leaving Jamie and I on our own until reinforcements arrive in two weeks (you can check out Jamie’s blog here for more on what we’re up to this season).  That should work out fine although we’ll be very busy on sampling days – when and if we get sampling days.  We were supposed to get out today but the weather isn’t cooperating.

A small crowd gathers to send of the Gould. Colleen's enroute back to WHOI, leaving Jamie and I to handle things until reinforcements arrive in about two weeks.

A small crowd gathers to send off the Gould. Colleen’s now enroute back to WHOI, leaving Jamie and I to handle all the measurements until reinforcements arrive in about two weeks.

The ice is, or was, pretty thick in Arthur Harbor. 45 minutes after the Gould departed they'd made it this far. Eventually they cleared the harbor and made it to more open water.

The ice is, or was, pretty thick in Arthur Harbor. 45 minutes after the Gould departed they’d made it this far (you can see the same islet just behind the Gould in the previous picture). Eventually they cleared the harbor and made it to more open water.

Shortly after the Gould departed the wind started to increase.  Right now the Gould is getting 50 kt winds at the southern edge of the Drake Passage (sorry Colleen!), we’re getting a steady 35 kt wind the blew all night and should last through today.  I’m nervous about what that will do to our sampling plan.  So far the land fast ice where our ice station is has held together; it’s a nearly a meter thick and pretty well anchored to the land.  Sometime this season it’s going to give out though, and I’m hoping that we can sample from it a couple more times before that happens.

The flip side is that when the ice goes away we’ll be able to start using the zodiacs to sample at our regular stations, at least until the ice blows back in.  The worst case scenario is being in the awkward position of too much ice for the zodiacs, but no solid land fast ice from which to sample.  To get an idea of how fast things can change compare the ice conditions in the following pictures to the conditions when the Gould departed:

Four hours after the Gould departed open water is starting to appear in Arthur Harbor. The edge of the land fast ice is to the right in this image, the water is opening between the (hopefully!) stable land fast ice and the mobile pack ice.

Four hours after the Gould departed open water is starting to appear in Arthur Harbor. The edge of the land fast ice is to the right in this image, the water is opening between the (hopefully!) stable land fast ice and the mobile pack ice.  The little peninsula of ice at center-left in this image is an additional piece of land fast ice anchored to the east shore of Arthur Harbor.

And here's what it looks like this morning. The ice is pushed even further out (not that you can see very far!).

And here’s what it looks like this morning. The pack ice (beyond the ice peninsula) is pushed even further out (not that you can see very far!).

The fast departure of the ice underscores an important ecological concept that is central to this region.  The timing of the switch from ice covered to open water conditions has a major impact on the strength and timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom; the annual ecological event from which everything else derives (think of it like a burst of new green grass in the Serengeti).

Thanks to Jamie Collins for this light profile from our ice station earlier in the week. The grey line indicates the depth of the ice. The ice blocks nearly 95 % of the light that impacts the surface, the remainder is quickly extinguished in the water column.

Thanks to Jamie Collins for this light profile from our ice station earlier in the week. The grey line indicates the depth of the ice. The ice blocks about 94 % of the light that impacts the surface, the remainder is quickly extinguished in the water column.

In the springtime Antarctic phytoplankton are limited in growth only by the absence of light.  Nutrients have been replenishing all winter, there are no grazers around (yet), and the phytoplankton are relatively indifferent to temperature.  Right now at Palmer Station we have nearly 18 hours of daylight, what keeps the phytoplankton bloom from exploding right now is the ice.  Only 6 % of the light that hits the surface of the fast ice in Arthur Harbor is making its way down into the water.  That’s enough to support the growth of specialized ice algae and low-light adapted phytoplankton just below the ice, but not a major bloom deeper in the water column.  At just 10 m depth only about 0.01 % of the light that hits the surface remains; it is essentially totally dark.

So as soon as the ice departs the phytoplankton are primed to start growing.  In Arthur Harbor the wind is driving the ice away, does this mean a bloom is about to start?  Not necessarily.  For phytoplankton, what the wind gives it also takes away.  A strong wind induces strong vertical mixing in the water column.  This impact of vertical mixing on phytoplankton has been studied in places like the North Atlantic for a very long time.  Some phytoplankton can swim, but none can swim fast enough to outpace vertical mixing.  Under a stiff, sustained wind phytoplankton in the surface are mixed deep into the water column.  If they don’t go too deep that’s fine.  Below a certain point they can’t photosynthesize enough to meet their metabolic demands (we usually take this to be the 1 % light level), but like all organisms they have energy stores and can wait to get mixed back above this depth.  Pushed deep enough however, at what we call the critical depth a phytoplankton cell has insufficient energy stores to make it back to the surface.  Under these conditions, although phytoplankton may be growing at the surface, the formation of the bloom will be suppressed.

These two figures, from Ducklow et al. 2006, show the link between SAM, the sea ice anomaly, and primary production.

These two figures, from Ducklow et al. 2006, show the link between SAM, the sea ice anomaly, and primary production.

So what does this have to do with timing?  It’s no surprise that the strongest storms happen in the winter.  In low sea ice years, with less land fast ice and an earlier retreat of both land fast and pack ice, the surface of the Antarctic ocean is exposed to late winter storms and strong mixing.  Phytoplankton that have been overwintering safely in the stable water column below the ice start to grow, but are constantly mixed down below the critical depth.  Eventually this stock of phytoplankton is depleted (or much reduced), leaving insufficient numbers to initiate the bloom when conditions finally calm down.  This idea has been explored in a number of studies, including this great 1998 paper led by Kevin Arrigo at Stanford and this 2006 study led by Hugh Ducklow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.  This latter study is particularly interesting because it implicates the Southern Annual Mode (SAM) in determining the strength of the spring bloom.  As the plot at right shows it’s clear that SAM isn’t the only thing that determines ice duration, extent, and the strength of the bloom, but it has a clear and logical role.

More recent studies have extended the link between sea ice and SAM to higher trophic levels, including krill.  One of my favorite Palmer LTER papers is this 2013 paper by Grace Saba et al., which does a great job of illustrating the link and exploring the idea in the context of climate change.  A negative phase in the SAM during the winter and springs leads to low wind and high ice conditions (a double bonus for phytoplanton).  These conditions set the stage for a strong bloom and good krill recruitment (a large number of juvenille krill being “recruited” to the sexually mature, adult size class).  A positive SAM during the winter and spring leads to low ice, high wind, and a taxonomically different and overall smaller phytoplankon bloom.  This leads to fewer krill with a direct negative impact on penguins, seals, seabirds, and whales.

Taken from Saba et al. 2013. A negative SAM leads to low wind and high ice conditions. Good for phytoplankton and by extension good for krill. A positive SAM does the opposite, suppressing the spring bloom and reducing the food available for krill.

Taken from Saba et al. 2013. A negative SAM leads to low wind and high ice conditions. Good for phytoplankton and by extension good for krill. A positive SAM does the opposite, suppressing the spring bloom and reducing the food available for krill.

This post is getting long (this is what happens when a sampling day gets weathered out) so I want to end by wrapping it back around to the current season.  As I described in a previous post things are a little different this year.  The SAM index has generally been positive with some dips into the negative.  Only for the month of October was the mean SAM negative, and not very.  Despite this there is a definite positive sea ice anomaly.  This seems to be driven by the strong, persistent El Niño in the equatorial Pacific that shows no sign of abating any time soon.  Regardless of SAM, ice conditions are good this year, in a few weeks we’ll see what that means for the spring bloom when the ice clears out for good!

// The current sea ice conditions have defied the SAM index, underscoring the complexity of the relationship between climate, physical conditions, and the ecosystem.

Monthly mean SAM index for 2015. Taken from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center at The current sea ice conditions have defied the SAM index, underscoring the complexity of the relationship between climate, physical conditions on the ground, and the ecosystem.



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