Fossil fuel industry still winning the investment war

Fossil fuel industry still winning the investment war

The campaign to convince investors not to use their money to support the extraction and use of fossil fuels is failing to gain enough converts, experts say.

LONDON, 29 July, 2015 – There’s sobering news for campaigners trying to persuade investors to withdraw their funds from the fossil fuel industry: UK experts say their efforts are unlikely to achieve enough quickly enough.

One expert, using the term often applied to the global energy industry, told a meeting in London: “The incumbency is winning the cold war.”

Senior members of asset management firms and carbon risk specialists were invited this week by a prominent British charitable foundation, Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, to discuss the prospects for disinvestment and the attitudes in the City of London to attempts to match investment policies with avoidance of climate change risks.

They say the continued confidence of the industry in the long-term viability of coal, oil and gas − despite the plunging cost of many renewable fuels − means that the UN climate change summit in Paris at the end of the year will fall short of its aims.

More face time

One participant, Mark Campanale, a former fund manager who founded the UK-based Carbon Tracker Initiative, told Climate News Network: “The key question is face time. The fossil fuel CEOs get far more face time with investors than they do with climate scientists, for example.

“There are some signs of hope, but we’re not seeing the City, as a group, changing its attitudes.

“Do the companies have the right people on their boards? Their approach is to say: ‘There’s doubt about the science. We’re ready to grow.’ And so, by default, they go back to business-as-usual, and Paris will not hit a home run.”

There was praise from many speakers at the meeting for the disinvestment campaigners’ commitment and imagination − and especially for Bill McKibben, co-founder of the 350.org campaign, for “brilliantly unleashing the naive energy of a generation of students”.

“You’re better off investing $100 billion in solar photovoltaics than in Canadian tar sands

Others questioned the language of the disinvestment campaign. One said: “The word ‘divest’ is campaigner talk, not a form of language that will advance the argument very far.” Instead, he suggested, it could be better to speak, in unthreatening language, of the need for “portfolio decarbonisation”.

But for many participants it was the basic facts and the simple arithmetic that the campaigners needed to assert.

One said: “The industry argues that the problem is cyclical, and that we’re now at the bottom of the cycle. But we need to know why, with crude oil now at US$55-60 a barrel, Shell is investing in projects that won’t break even until the price has gone back up to about $90 a barrel.”

Cleaner fuels

Another pointed to the rapid decline in the cost of cleaner fuels: “The economics of renewables are already much better than we’re often led to believe. You’re better off investing $100 billion in solar photovoltaics than in Canadian tar sands.”

The foundation that hosted the meeting supports Europeans for DivestInvest, part of a global movement that seeks to encourage charitable foundations and high net worth individuals to divest from fossil fuels and invest 5% or more of their portfolio in climate solutions − including renewable energy, clean technology, and energy efficiency.

In September 2014, more than 360 investors managing over $24 trillion in assets urged world leaders to agree to a strong global climate deal. – Climate News Network

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Norway pumps up ‘green battery’ plan for Europe

Norway pumps up ‘green battery’ plan for Europe

Hydraulic engineers in Norway aim to use surplus power from wind and sun to cut the need for fossil fuel plants to boost European electricity supplies.

LONDON, 26 July, 2015 − Norway is hoping to become the “green battery of Europe” by using its hydropower plants to provide instant extra electricity if production from wind and solar power sources in other countries fade.

Without building any new power stations, engineers believe they could use the existing network to instantly boost European supplies and avoid other countries having to switch on fossil fuel plants to make up shortfalls.

Norway has 937 hydropower plants, which provide 96% of its electricity, making it the sixth largest hydropower producer in the world − despite having a population of only five million.

Europe already has 400 million people in 24 countries connected to a single grid, with power surpluses from one country being exported to neighbours or imported as national needs change.

Supply and demand

As more and more renewables are installed across the continent, the problem of balancing supply and demand gets more difficult.

Because supply from wind and sun sources fluctuates, the grid needs back-up plants to keep the power constant. At present, this means that many countries have to keep gas and coal plants on standby to make up any shortage.

However, the Hydraulic Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim believes it can engineer the country’s vast power plants so that they can themselves be a giant standby battery that can be turned on and off.

When there is surplus wind or solar power in Europe, the electricity it generates can be imported to pump water uphill to keep re-filling the Norwegian reservoirs. This is, in effect, electricity that is stored, because when energy is needed again the generators can be turned back on to produce hydropower.

“Norwegian mountains are full of water tunnels. It’s like an anthill.”

The problem at the moment is that even hydropower is not instant. This is because water takes time to flow through the vast network of pipes and the turbines to reach the correct speed to provide stable power to the grid at the correct frequency of alternating current.

Norway currently has more kilometres of pipes carrying water to its hydroelectricity plants than it has miles of road, so controlling the flow is the key.

But Kaspar Vereide, a doctoral student in the department of hydraulic and environmental engineering at NTNU, has designed a model solution, with funding from the Centre for Environmental Design of Renewable Energy.

By creating a sealed surge chamber in rock close to the turbines, engineers can feed electricity, at the right frequency, into the grid immediately. The empty chamber contains air that is compressed as the space is filled with water. So, when the valves are open, the water can instantly turn turbines at the correct speed.

Vereide says: “Norwegian mountains are full of water tunnels. It’s like an anthill.”

The length of the waterway, he says, can be many kilometres, though this will require the engineers to accelerate the water to reach the turbines.

His solution involves blowing out a cavern inside the water tunnel near the turbine where the electricity is to be generated, creating a surge chamber where water at the correct velocity can reach the turbines immediately.

Fluctuations in power

He admits that his design is still at the early stages of development. The surge chambers have to be designed to avoid fluctuations in power needs, which can cause uncontrolled blowouts of air into the power plants, risking damage.

“We have to be able to control these load fluctuations that occur,” he says. “Among other things, it’s important to determine how big surge chambers need to be to function best. My task is to figure out the optimal design for the chambers.”

Vereide says that plants have traditionally been run very smoothly and quietly, with few stops and starts to create these fluctuations. But to become the green battery of Europe, the power plants would need to be started and stopped much more often − and then the problem of load fluctuations would increase significantly.

“We’ll benefit a lot from developing these new technologies, both in order to keep electrical frequency stable and to run power plants more aggressively to serve a large market,” he says. – Climate News Network

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Economic changes needed to tackle climate challenges

Economic changes needed to tackle climate challenges

A meeting building towards the Paris climate summit hears Ireland’s president call for a new economic order to address the threats of global warming.

LONDON, 25 July, 2015 − The president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, says the world needs a whole new economic framework to tackle the consequences of the warming caused by emissions of greenhouse gases.

Speaking at a meeting in Paris, entitled the Summit of Consciences for the Climate, he said this generation could be the last with the chance of responding to the urgent, uncontested effects of climate change.

The challenge of climate change, he said, provided opportunities to construct a new order for humanity and for the planet.

“Climate change is grounded in forms of development and industrialisation that are based on the exploitation of fossil fuels, with an assumption of infinite growth,”  he  told the meeting.

Climate agreement

The Paris summit, attended by religious groups, Nobel  laureates and artists, as well as prominent politicians, was convened by the President of France, François Hollande, and is one of a series of gatherings to be held in the run-up to the UN climate change conference in Paris in December, at which a new global climate agreement is due to be finalised.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, and Mary Robinson, the UN’s special envoy on climate change, were among those speaking at the meeting.

In an interview with the Irish Times, Higgins said that the neo-liberal model of economic development prevalent in western countries advocated the rolling-back of the state.

“The World Bank says we will have to go from billions to trillions to pay for the agendas that will flow from the conferences in 2015”

Massive movements of capital had created what he termed great fissures of inequality, and such freewheeling capitalism had shown itself capable of dislodging the whole fiscal system.

The global challenges of climate change and inequality could not be met if governments were not in control of their economies, Higgins said.

Besides the year-end Paris summit, several other significant  conferences are being held this year, including a UN meeting focusing on a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals.

“The World Bank says we will have to go from billions to trillions to pay for the agendas that will flow from the conferences in 2015,” Higgins said. “The issue is, can you do this with a minimised state?”

Global diversities

François Hollande told the meeting that it was up to every individual to see what he or she could do to save the planet. “There are philosophies, there are convictions, there are global diversities that should at a certain point unite – and unite to make decisions,” he said.

Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland, said that leaders of developing countries are trying to find a way of building a more sustainable model of development without increasing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Kofi Annan said the threat posed by climate change is as great as the danger of nuclear war, and he quoted the former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who said that, in the event of a nuclear conflagration, “the living will envy the dead”. – Climate News Network

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Emissions threaten age of uncertainty for carbon dating

Emissions threaten age of uncertainty for carbon dating

New study warns that rising CO2 levels from the burning of fossil fuels will undermine the precision with which once-living things can now be scientifically dated.

LONDON, 24 July, 2015 – Climate change driven by increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will not just damage the health of the planet. A UK scientist now warns that it will also make life increasingly difficult for archaeologists, forensic scientists, art experts, fraud and forgery detectives, and people who detect ivory poachers.

That is because the swelling volume of carbon pumped into the atmosphere from factory and power station chimneys and motor and airline exhausts is beginning to artificially “age” the planet’s atmosphere and bedevil attempts to use the technology known as carbon dating.

If emissions continue under the now-notorious “business as usual” scenario, then by 2050 a brand-new cotton shirt will have the same radiocarbon-dating age as the cloak worn by William the Conqueror when he invaded Britain in 1066.

But if, on the other hand, the world’s governments do move swiftly to curb fossil fuel emissions, then by 2050 a brand-new cotton shirt will seem only 100 years old.

Forensic scientists exhuming a skeleton, Egyptologists investigating an ancient tomb, and fraud detectives concerned with suspected forgeries of Renaissance paintings could still possibly make allowances for that.

Natural ratio

Radiocarbon dating is a 70-year-old technique now used with increasing precision to date anything once alive from the last 50,000 years. It exploits the natural ratio of two isotopes of carbon in the atmosphere.

Plants, and the animals that eat them, absorb radioactive carbon-14 and stable carbon-12 from the atmosphere in proportions which – except during the atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s − have not changed much from the Ice Ages to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

When the tree dies or the animal becomes old bones, the carbon-14 decays at a predictable rate, and the ratio that remains in the laboratory sample is a measure of the specimen’s age.

But Heather Graven, a lecturer in climate physics and Earth observation at Imperial College London, reports in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that by 2020, as the fossil fuel emissions mount up, the fraction of carbon-14 in the atmosphere could drop to such a level that carbon-dating could become increasingly uncertain.

“Given current emissions trends . . . ‘ageing’ of the atmosphere is likely to occur much faster and with a larger magnitude than previously expected”

Fossil fuels are reservoirs of carbon from plants and algae that died so long ago that all the carbon-14 has decayed. When carbon dioxide exhausts from combustion engines reach the atmosphere, they increase the levels of non-radioactive carbon, artificially ageing the atmosphere and, accordingly the new growths that exploit the atmospheric carbon.

Dr Graven warns that now, from the point of view of an archaeologist using radiocarbon dating, the planet’s atmosphere is ageing at the rate of 30 or so years for every year of international inaction.

If there are no steps to reduce emissions, then by 2050 the atmosphere will have a signature of what carbon ratios were 1,000 years ago. By 2100, just one human lifetime away, the atmospheric clock will have been turned back to the era of Imperial Rome.

That means that a freshly-dead dung beetle that falls into an Egyptian tomb dating from the reign of Cleopatra would have the same radiocarbon age as the scarab that was trapped in the tomb under the sarcophagus 20 centuries ago.

“Given current emissions trends, fossil fuel emission-driven artificial ‘ageing’ of the atmosphere is likely to occur much faster and with a larger magnitude than previously expected,” Dr Graven concludes.

“This finding has strong and, as yet, unrecognised implications for many applications of radiocarbon in various fields, and it implies that radiocarbon dating may no longer provide definitive ages for samples up to 2,000 years old.”

Historic sources

It also could, for instance, mean that border officials may not be able to distinguish museum collection ivory from illegally-poached elephant tusks, that fraud officers will not be able to confirm the age of costly single malt whisky or vintage claret, and that Jewish and Christian scholars may no longer be able to date important historic sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, or resolve doubts about the much-contested provenance of iconic relics such as the Shroud of Turin.

Dr Graven, who uses radiocarbon technology to study the global carbon cycle, told Climate News Network: “I was inspired by how many innovative applications there are for radiocarbon in diverse fields. This made me realise that fossil fuel emissions are likely to have an impact on these various uses for radiocarbon.

“By quantifying the potential changes over this century with model simulations, this study could help other scientists who use radiocarbon to prepare for forthcoming changes.” – Climate News Network

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Global warming’s record-breaking trend continues

Global warming’s record-breaking trend continues

Detailed update by hundreds of scientists on climate indicators in 2014 reveals highest recorded rises in temperatures, sea levels and greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 22 July, 2015 – Forget talk of a slowdown in global warming. Scientists say the climate is heading smartly in the opposite direction, with 2014 proving to be a record-breaking year.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the most respected sources of climate science, says that last year “the most essential indicators of Earth’s changing climate continued to reflect trends of a warming planet”. Some − including rising land and ocean temperatures, sea levels and greenhouse gases − reached record highs.

The authoritative report by the NOAA’s Centre for Weather and Climate at the National Centres for Environmental Information (NCEI), published by the American Meterological Society, draws on contributions from 413 scientists in 58 countries to provide a detailed update on global climate indicators.

“The variety of indicators shows us how our climate is changing, not just in temperature but from the depths of the oceans to the outer atmosphere,” says Thomas R. Karl, director of the NCEI.

Rising concentrations

The authors report that concentrations of greenhouse gases continued to climb during the year. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rose by 1.9 parts per million (ppm), reaching a global average of 397.2 ppm for the year. This compares with a global average of 354ppm in 1990 when the first edition of this report was published. And levels of methane and nitrous oxide also went up.

“Variety of indicators shows how our climate is changing, not just in temperature but from the depths of the oceans to the outer atmosphere”

Four independent global datasets showed that 2014 was the warmest year on record, with the warmth widespread across land areas.

Europe experienced its warmest year; Africa had above-average temperatures across most of the continent throughout 2014; Australia recorded its third warmest year; and Mexico had its warmest. Eastern North America was the only major region to experience below-average annual temperatures.

Global average sea level rose to a record high, and the globally averaged sea surface temperature was also the highest recorded. The warmth was particularly notable in the North Pacific Ocean, where temperatures are in part probably driven by a transition of the Pacific decadal oscillation – a recurring pattern of ocean-atmosphere climate variability centred in the region.

Earlier snow melt

The Arctic continued to warm, and sea ice extent remained low. Arctic snow melt occurred 20–30 days earlier than the 1998–2010 average. On the North Slope of Alaska, record high temperatures at a 20-metre depth were measured at four of five permafrost observatories. The eight lowest minimum sea ice extents during this period have occurred in the last eight years.

But temperature patterns across the Antarctic showed strong seasonal and regional patterns of warmer-than-normal and cooler-than-normal conditions, resulting in near-average conditions for the year for the continent as a whole. Last year was the third consecutive year of record maximum sea ice extent in the Antarctic.

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a periodic warming of the water in the central and eastern Pacific that disrupts weather over thousands of miles, was in a neutral state during 2014, although it was on the cool side of neutral at the beginning of the year and approached warm El Niño conditions by the end of the year. This pattern played a major role in several regional climate outcomes.

There were 91 tropical cyclones in 2014, well above the 1981-2010 average of 82 storms. But the North Atlantic season, as in 2013, was quieter than most years of the last two decades with respect to the number of storms. – Climate News Network

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Recession cut US emissions, not falling coal use

Recession cut US emissions, not falling coal use

Researchers say it was the economy rather than the replacement of coal by natural gas that drove the recent drop in US emissions of the main greenhouse gas.

LONDON, 21 July, 2015 – Between 2007 and 2013 emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burnt in the US fell significantly − by about 11% − and many analysts credited this to a change from coal to natural gas in electricity production.

But new research says it was, in fact, the economic recession that explains most of the decline, and more extensive use of natural gas may not do much to slow global warming.

“Natural gas emits half as much CO2 as coal when used to make electricity,” says research professor Laixiang Sun, of the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), who conducted the study with colleagues from the University of Maryland, US.

Release of methane

But that is only part of the story, he says in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications. “This calculation fails to take into account the release of methane from natural gas wells and pipelines, which also contributes to climate change.”

Methane is 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a century, but 84 times more over just 20 years.

In the US, coal-powered electricity fell from 50% to 37% of the generation mix between 2007 and 2012, with most of it replaced by natural gas − in large part, due to fracking and underground mapping technologies.

If we don’t understand the factors that led to this emissions reduction, we won’t know how to effectively reduce emissions in the future”

The researchers say that because this shift occurred at the same time as the reduction in emissions, many commentators linked the two, mistaking temporal co-incidence for causality.

Apart from the state of the economy, they say, there were several other factors involved: population growth, for example, and energy efficiency, which both also affect total emissions.

“If we don’t understand the factors that led to this emissions reduction, we won’t know how to effectively reduce emissions in the future,” says Klaus Hubacek, an ecological economist at the University of Maryland.

So the researchers used a method known as structural decomposition analysis to tease apart the various contributions of different factors related to energy use and CO2 emissions.

This enabled them to determine the relative influence of changes in population, amount and patterns of consumption, production structure, and changes in fuel mix on total emissions of greenhouse gases.

They found that from 1997 to 2007, a period of rising emissions, 71% of the increase was due to increasing US consumption of goods and services, with the remainder due to population growth.

Mix of factors

But from 2007 to 2009, when emissions declined the most, the study finds that 83% of the decrease was due to economic factors, including consumption and production changes, and just 17% of the decline related to changes in the fuel mix. After 2009, emissions declined by only about 1%, and this was due to a mix of all three factors.

Knowing the relative influence of such factors on emissions is important for devising effective policies for future climate mitigation, the researchers say.

In particular, they say their findings may indicate that further increases in the use of natural gas may not have major benefits for the climate.

Natural gas can replace coal, but research also shows that, if it is cheap and abundant, it can limit the growth of carbon-neutral renewable energy sources.

Prof Sun says: “Sustaining economic growth while also drastically reducing emissions to the levels targeted by the Obama Administration will depend upon large additional decreases in the energy intensity of the US economy, as well as radical decarbonisation of the energy sector.” – Climate News Network

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Melting sea ice means shortage of bear necessities

Melting sea ice means shortage of bear necessities

Researchers explode theory that polar bears can use hibernation techniques to last without food as climate change reduces their summertime hunting habitat.

LONDON, 20 July, 2015 – Global warming is likely to leave the polar bear high and dry and very hungry as increasing loss of sea ice reduces the hunting grounds of the Arctic’s top predator.

Researchers have established that while Ursus maritimus can survive for months without eating during winter hibernation, in the summertime it is not much better at going without food than any other mammal.

The polar bear is capable of shutting its own metabolism down to astonishingly low levels during hibernation and, until now, zoologists have surmised that the bear could minimise energy losses by entering a hibernation-like state when deprived of food.

But John Whiteman, a doctoral student in ecology, zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, and colleagues report in Science journal that that theory is wrong. Once they are up and hunting, bears need food.

Energy expenditure

“We report gradual, moderate declines in activity and body temperature of both shore and ice bears in summer, resembling energy expenditures typical of fasting, non-hibernating mammals,” they write.

As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere creep up, as a consequence of the human combustion of fossil fuels, so Arctic temperatures have on average risen.

The loss of sea ice in the Arctic has, over the last decade, happened even faster than climate scientists predicted, which creates problems for bears that need to hunt and gorge on high-calorie diets in preparation for the winter.

The polar bear hunts on the ice, and its preferred diet is the blubber-rich flesh of seals and small whales. On shore, it must forage for scraps, berries and small mammals while waiting for the seas to freeze again.

“Polar bears appear unable to meaningfully prolong their reliance on stored energy”

But Arctic summers have stayed milder for longer, and the areas of summer sea ice have steadily dwindled. So the bears have spent increasing periods without their preferred diet.

The orthodoxy had been that bears, while waiting for the first freeze, had been able to enter a state called “walking hibernation”. Whiteman and his fellow researchers took a closer look.

With help from government agencies, a US coastguard icebreaker, helicopter pilots and a large number of other people, they captured two dozen polar bears, fitted satellite collars, and implanted little devices that recorded body temperature and tracked their movements on shore and on ice in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska and Canada, between 2008 and 2010.

Core temperature

They found that the bears could do something physiologically clever to keep warm while swimming – they could temporarily cool their outermost skin layers to insulate their inner selves and keep their core body temperatures at a healthy level, and one bear was reported to have survived a nine-day swim from shore to ice.

But they also found that the bears were not much better than other mammals at walking around on dry land, looking for food that wasn’t there.

“We found that polar bears appear unable to meaningfully prolong their reliance on stored energy, confirming their vulnerability to lost hunting opportunities on the sea ice − even as they surprised us by also exhibiting an unusual ability to minimise heat loss while swimming in Arctic waters,” Whiteman says.

The evidence, however, suggested that “walking hibernation” didn’t actually exist. The researchers conclude that the bears “are unlikely to avoid deleterious loss in body condition, and ultimately survival, that are expected with continuous ice loss and lengthening of the ice-melt period”. – Climate News Network

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Climate threat as grave a risk as nuclear war

Climate threat as grave a risk as nuclear war

An international scientific report commissioned by the UK government says the risks of climate change are comparable to those posed by nuclear conflict.

LONDON, 18 July, 2015 – The UK government says that climate change poses risks that demand to be treated as seriously as the threat  of nuclear war.

Scientists from the UK, US, India and China say in a report commissioned by the UK that deciding what to do about climate change depends on the value we put on human life, both now and in years to come.

One of the lead authors of the report is Sir David King, formerly the UK government’s chief scientist, who last month co-authored a report on the scale of investment that should be made to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2025. 

In a foreword to the latest report, Baroness Anelay, a minister at the British foreign office, writes that assessing the risks surrounding nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation means understanding inter-dependent elements − including what science says is possible, what other countries may intend, and systemic factors such as regional power dynamics.

“The risk of climate change demands a similarly holistic assessment,” she says.

Value human life

She concludes: “How much do we care about the effects of climate change? How important is it that we act to avoid them? What probability of their occurrence can we tolerate?…The answers to these questions depend in part on how we value human life – both now, and in the future.”

The report is not the first to put climate chaos and nuclear devastation in the same category of risk, but its sponsorship by one of the world’s nuclear powers is eloquent.

It says the most important political decision is how much effort to exert on countering climate change, taking into account what we are doing to the climate, how it may respond, what that could do to us, and what we might then do to each other.

The authors’ best guess, based on current policies and trends, is that greenhouse gas emissions will keep going up for another few decades, and then either level off or slowly decline.

“Uncertainty is not our friend. There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky”

This, they say, is for two reasons: governments are not making maximum use of the technologies already available; and technology is not yet progressing fast enough to give governments the policy options they will need. In the worst case, emissions could keep on rising throughout the century.

They warn that how the climate may change, and what that could do to us, are both highly uncertain. “The important thing to understand is that uncertainty is not our friend,” the report says. “There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky.”

High emissions pathway

The report foresees wide ranges of possible global temperature and sea level increase. On a high emissions pathway, it says, where the most likely temperature rise is estimated at 5°C by 2100, anything from 3°C to 7°C may be possible.

On this pathway, the chances of staying below 3°C will become “vanishingly small”, but the chances of exceeding 7°C will increase and could become more likely than not within the next century.

The authors see very little chance that global sea level rise will slow down, and every chance that it will accelerate. The only question is by how much.

“While an increase of somewhere between 40cm and 1m looks likely this century, the delayed response of huge ice-sheets to warming means we may already be committed to more than 10m over the longer term. We just do not know whether that will take centuries or millennia.”

A temperature increase of 4°C or more could pose very large risks to global food security, and to people.

Humans have limited tolerance for combinations of high temperature and humidity. Their upper limits of tolerance are rarely if ever exceeded by climatic conditions alone, but with temperature increase somewhere between 5°C and 7°C, it starts to become likely that hot places will experience conditions that are fatal even for people lying down in the shade.

Population growth alone is also likely to double the number of people living below a threshold of extreme water shortage by mid-century.

Sea level thresholds

Coastal cities, according to the report, probably have thresholds in terms of the rate and extent of sea level rise that they can deal with, but we have very little idea where those thresholds are.

The authors say that even the 0.8°C of climate change experienced so far is now causing us significant problems, and that “it seems likely that high degrees of climate change would pose enormous risks to national and international security” − for example, through extreme water stress and competition for productive land.

In a highly topical passage, they say migration from some regions may become more a necessity than a choice, and could happen on a historically unprecedented scale.

“The capacity of the international community for humanitarian assistance, already at full stretch, could easily be overwhelmed,” the report warns.

The risks of state failure could rise significantly, affecting many countries simultaneously, and even threatening those currently considered developed and stable.

But the report is not relentlessly downbeat. “An honest assessment of risk is no reason for fatalism,” it says. “Just as small changes in climate can have very large effects, the same can be true for changes in government policy, technological capability, and financial regulation… the goal of preserving a safe climate for the future need not be beyond our reach.” – Climate News Network

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Ice offers insight into volcanic impacts on climate

Ice offers insight into volcanic impacts on climate

Analysis of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica yields new information on ancient volcanic blasts – and on the current effects of fossil fuel emissions.

LONDON, 16 July, 2015 − Fifteen of the 16 coldest summers recorded in ancient history followed violent volcanic blasts that darkened the skies between 1000BC and 500 BC − and four of the coldest happened shortly after the largest volcanic events on record, according to US and European scientists.

Studies of this kind, which reveal an intimate connection between discharges into the atmosphere and the consequences for the natural world, are an important part of the greater mosaic of research into climate change and global warming as a consequence of the human use of fossil fuels.

Michael Sigl, an environmental chemist with both the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, US, and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, and 23 colleagues from 18 institutions report in Nature journal that they analysed Greenland and Antarctic ice cores to create a more accurate timetable of more than 300 volcanic events, dating back to the early Roman period.

Dramatic shifts

Eruptive blasts from the past have been implicated in dramatic shifts in human history. Among them was the devastating bout of harvest failure, epidemic and famine − known as the Plague of Justinian − in the eastern Roman Empire from 541 to 543 AD.

And ice cores offer a reservoir of annual levels of atmospheric sulphate − evidence of volcanic eruptions.

The scientists matched these records with evidence from tree rings from Germany, the Alps, the US Great Basin, Siberia and New Zealand’s kauri forest.

They also combed historic chronicles and accounts − from China, Babylon and from ancient and medieval Europe − that recorded telltale atmospheric observations such as weak sunlight, a discoloured solar disc, and very red twilight skies.

Such matching has been attempted before, but the scientists believe their latest research has dated events with greater precision.

“Large volcanic eruptions were responsible for numerous and widespread summer cooling extremes over the past 2,500 years”

Large quantities of sulphate particles high in the atmosphere tend to block incoming sunlight, significantly reducing the temperature. For most of human history, the only source of such atmospheric pollution was violent volcanic eruption.

“We are able to show that large volcanic eruptions in the tropics and high latitudes were the dominant drivers of climate variability, responsible for numerous and widespread summer cooling extremes over the past 2,500 years,” Dr Sigl says.

“These cooler temperatures were caused by large amounts of volcanic sulphate particles injected into the upper atmosphere, shielding the Earth’s surface from incoming solar radiation.”

The researchers also pinpointed the beginning of a climate crisis in the Dark Ages. In 536 AD, a veil of dust began to mask the Mediterranean − evidence of a massive eruption in the high latitudes.

Four years later, a second volcano intensified the cooling, and a pattern of crop failure and famine persisted for the next 15 years, along with the Plague of Justinian, one of the greatest pandemics in human history.

Volcanoes have already been implicated in recent climate research, with two recent studies proposing that an increase in eruptive activity might account for the seeming “pause” in global warming as a consequence of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

But climate impact is only one aspect of volcanic hazard. A new position paper from the European Science Foundation warns that in just the last 300 years, volcanic eruptions have directly killed more than 250,000 people and devastated entire communities.

Directly at risk

At the turn of the century, the population known to be directly at risk from eruption stood at more than 500 million − “a figure certain to grow”, says the paper.

The European scientists also calculated the hazard of another mega-eruption on the scale of one 75,000 years ago from what is now Lake Toba, in Indonesia. This explosion in the distant Palaeolithic era is thought to have accounted for the deaths of two-thirds of all humans then living.

A second such eruption would be enough to devastate the global food supply by depositing a metre of ash over millions of square kilometres, destroying the food resources of two billion people, and then reducing yields by cooling the climate between 5°C and 15°C for up to a decade.

The scale of mortality would be impossible to predict, but the scientists conclude that “it is likely that it would be the greatest catastrophe since the dawn of civilisation”. – Climate News Network

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Record torrential rainfall linked to warming climate

Record torrential rainfall linked to warming climate

Scientists show that devastating increases in extreme rainfall over the last 30 years fit in with global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 13 July, 2015 – If you think you’re getting an unusually hard soaking more often when you go out in the rain, you’re probably right.

A team of scientists in Germany says record-breaking heavy rainfall has been increasing strikingly in the last 30 years as global temperatures increase.

Before 1980, they say, the explanation was fluctuations in natural variability. But since then they have detected a clear upward trend in downpours that is consistent with a warming world.

The scientists, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), report in the journal Climatic Change that this increase is to be expected with rising global temperatures, caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

High-impact flooding

Short-term torrential rains can lead to what the team calls “high-impact” flooding. For example, extreme rainfall in Pakistan in 2010 brought devastation that killed hundreds of people and led to a cholera outbreak.

In the same year, rainstorms in Texas caused dozens of flash floods. And no fewer than three “once-in-a-century” floods in Germany all happened in just a couple of years from 1997.

“In all of these places, the amount of rain pouring down in one day broke local records – and while each of these individual events has been caused by a number of different factors, we find a clear overall upward trend for these unprecedented hazards,” says the lead author, Jascha Lehmann, a PIK researcher into climate impacts and vulnerabilities.

Statistical analysis of rainfall data from 1901 to 2010, derived from thousands of weather stations around the globe, shows that from 1980 to 2010 there were 12% more of these intense events than would be expected in a climate without global warming. In the last year of the period the team studied, there were 26% more record-breaking daily rainfall events globally.

“One out of 10 record-breaking rainfall events in the past 30 years can only be explained if
the long-term warming is taken into account”

Not all parts of the world are experiencing a similar pattern of soaking. The PIK scientists found that − possibly not surprisingly − wet regions generally saw a bigger increase in deluges and drier regions a smaller one.

In southeast Asia, the observed increase in record-breaking rainfall events is as high as 56%, in Europe 31%, and in the central US it is a more modest, but still worrying, 24%.

In marked contrast, some regions have experienced significantly fewer record-breaking daily rainfall events. In the Mediterranean, the reduction is 27%, and in the western US it is 21%. Both regions are at risk from severe droughts.

The team says there is a simple scientific explanation for what they report. They compared their findings with existing knowledge about how much more water the atmosphere can store when temperatures rise, described by what they call the well-known Clausius-Clapeyron equation.

Put simply, warmer air holds more moisture, which can be released during short-term heavy rainfall.

The scientists show that the observed increase in unprecedented heavy rainfall generally fits with this thermodynamically expected increase under global warming.

Upward trend

“One out of 10 record-breaking rainfall events observed globally in the past 30 years can only be explained if the long-term warming is taken into account,” says co-author Dim Coumou, a PIK researcher into the links between atmospheric circulation and extreme weather events. “For the last year studied, 2010, it is even one event out of four, as the trend is upward.”

There are, of course, qualifications to the broad picture. For instance, the scientists allowed for the fact that the quality of historic weather data differs from one place to another. Unsurprisingly, rainfall measurements from the Sahara desert are scarce, so the team avoids drawing conclusions for the region.

But rainfall in regions such as Europe and the US has been carefully monitored for over a century, allowing the authors to draw conclusions with high levels of confidence

“The pronounced recent increase in record-breaking rainfall events is, of course, worrying,” Coumou says. “Yet since it is consistent with human-caused global warming, it can also be curbed if greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are substantially reduced.” – Climate News Network

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