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Did Climate Change Intensify Supertyphoon Haiyan?

12 Nov

At the UN climate talks in Poland, Yeb Sano, the head of the Philippines delegation has announced he will refrain from eating until participants make “meaningful” progress. In his address, Sano linked the terrible devastation in the Philippines after Supertyphoon Haiyan to climate change.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness, the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.”

The images trickling back from the Philippines in the media are heartbreaking, but do we know whether climate change caused or intensified this immense, record-breaking cyclone? It’s complicated. Climate scientists are very hesitant to blame a single event on global warming. That said, here’s my take: It’s fair to say that climate change likely made this deadly storm deadlier.

The Philippines is already in a precarious situation. It’s a low-lying archipelago sitting atop warm Pacific Ocean waters. Temperature is important to consider here, because warm waters make storms stronger. Haiyan would probably have been monstrously destructive regardless of climate change due to its location and the dense population. We also know that sea level rise has been occurring significantly faster in the Philippine Sea than elsewhere around the world, which worsens flooding and storm surges.

Supertyphoon Haiyan has been devastating and the region faces many additional challenges in its aftermath. International aid groups are working to bring relief to the survivors (here’s how you can help) as delegates continue negotiations at the U.N. summit on climate change. Meanwhile, note that Haiyan has brought something additional to those of us watching half a world away: A glimpse of the future.

For more on the relationship between climate change and storms, take a look at my co-author Chris Mooney’s book, Storm World.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on November 11, 2013.

Scientists Report Human-Induced Climate Change Influences Extreme Weather Events. Now What?

17 Sep

Last week, a new analysis of climate change and extreme weather was released in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The study, entitled, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective,” brought together 18 different research teams from around the world to consider 12 extreme weather events–such as heat waves, storms, and droughts–on five continents during 2012:

Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.

The report demonstrates when and where human-induced climate change (translation: the burning of fossil fuels that creates heat-trapping gases) has contributed to specific extreme weather events. For example, the team found that the impacts from Hurricane Sandy (left) were exacerbated by sea level rise. They also concluded that the high temperatures here in the U.S. are now likely to occur more frequently. And that’s just the beginning… I encourage readers to explore the full results in detail.

It’s good to have this kind of new data in order to make a stronger case that we ought to do something. But that said, how many more analyses are required? How long will we spend valuable time, energy, and resources documenting climate change?

The science community already knows this is happening. We recognize that Earth is getting hotter in some places, wetter elsewhere, drier in dry regions, and stormier as well–in very vulnerable areas. Excess carbon is changing the atmosphere and oceans. Further, even if all emissions stopped today, we will continue to see the impacts of excess carbon in the environment for centuries.

The American public will continue to debate what causes climate change, but over two-thirds of us do acknowledge it’s taking place. So sure, scientists will continue to predict and model the results–one report at a time. But I sincerely hope we shift our primary focus to mitigation and adaptation, because the world is changing and right now, we are largely unprepared.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on September 9, 2013.

What YOU Need To Know About Iron Fertilization

20 Oct

You’ve likely seen the story already:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

Just *scientists and government officials*? In reality, all of us should be outraged, including you. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the prospect of iron fertilization–a geoengineering strategy that involves dumping large amounts of iron into the ocean. Back in 2008, I described how a for-profit company called “Planktos”canceled its field tests due to a lack of funds–blaming a “highly effective disinformation campaign.”

Now the 62 year old so-called “chief executive” of that company, Russ George, has taken it upon himself to experiment with planet Earth. That’s not okay. Further, it’s not legal. You can read about his egregious and irresponsible behavior at the NYTimes, but I’d like to provide a bit more background on iron fertilization for readers.

The idea is relatively simple: In certain regions of the ocean, a lack of iron limits the growth of phytoplankton.  When dust containing iron settles onto these regions, plankton blooms occur which take up CO2 from the atmosphere. When the algae die, the carbon sinks, and can be stored for varying amounts of time.

For-profit investors hope to earn carbon credits through this kind of carbon-offset scheme. But the truth is, iron fertilization cannot be viewed as a simple input and output equation and therefore it’s difficult to quantify what to expect.  The great deal of uncertainty makes policy governing these kind of large-scale geoengineering projects critical before any action is taken for profit.  This is because the implications of altering our climate and oceans have the potential to impact everyone.

Here’s what you need to know:

* Location, season, temperature, water chemistry, species composition, and so on – factors that are already independently in flux – may significantly impact the phytoplankton response.

* We do not know much about the ability to manipulate ecosystems.

* Effectiveness will depend on the the environmental consequences of the process and the final fate of carbon in the system.

* Results observed in studies so far may not apply to areas where future iron fertilization would take place.   In fact, some areas that have not been tested may be more promising for iron fertilization.

* In the short-term, iron fertilization typically leads to phytoplankton blooms, but the long-term effects are mostly unknown.

* Science has a great deal to learn about creating the right market to facilitate offset efforts.  The scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on biophysical and social impacts of the process.

Read more on Iron Fertilization here and here [pdf].

New UT Energy Poll Shows Voters Prefer Obama’s Energy Platform

16 Oct

AUSTIN, Texas, Oct. 16, 2012 — As the 2012 presidential election draws near, more voters say they prefer the energy policies espoused by President Barack Obama than Gov. Mitt Romney’s energy platform, according to the latest University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll results released today.

View Energy Poll Briefing Slides

While support from Democrats and Republicans fell along party lines, Obama garners more support from Libertarian voters (48 percent vs. 21 percent for Romney) and independent voters (27 percent vs. 23 percent for Romney).

Overall, 37 percent of respondents say Obama’s platform is best for the country, while 28 percent favor Romney’s views on energy. More than a third of those surveyed (35 percent) are not sure whose energy policies they prefer or are undecided.

The online nationwide survey, conducted Sept. 6–17, offers further insights into how energy issues might affect the upcoming presidential election. This is the third wave of the Energy Poll, which was launched in October 2011.

“While job creation and the economy continue to top the list of concerns, two out of three consumers say energy issues are important to them,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll. “Support for increased production of domestic energy supplies remains strong, and we’re also seeing a lot of interest in the promotion of alternative forms of energy and energy-saving technologies that crosses party lines.”

Sixty-two percent of the 2,092 poll respondents say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who says he will increase funding for scientific and university research into new energy technologies, and 58 percent would back a candidate promising to expand natural gas development.

Consumers also support an increase in renewable forms of energy, with 58 percent saying they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports additional financial incentives for companies engaged in renewable technologies. Meanwhile, 40 percent say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports decreasing the use of coal as an energy source (46 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans).

The poll also shows a notable rise in the willingness of consumers to adopt new energy technologies. Between September 2011 and September 2012, the percentage of consumers who say they will use “smart meter” technology within the next five years rose from 38 percent to 45 percent. Similarly, more consumers indicate they are likely to own a hybrid vehicle (30 percent to 36 percent during the same timeframe).

Other findings from the latest UT Energy Poll include:

  • Between March and September 2012, the percentage of respondents who say that climate change is occurring jumped from 65 percent to 73 percent. This increase occurred across all political parties (Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and independent voters) with the greatest change notable in the southern states (57 percent to 71 percent).
  • When asked to report their level of knowledge on energy issues, 45 percent of men consider themselves knowledgeable, while just 20 percent of women do.
  • Ninety-two percent of respondents are concerned about the cost of gasoline, and 63 percent are more likely to vote for a candidate promising to make it less expensive.

Data from The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll were weighted using U.S. Census Bureau figures, as well as propensity scores, to ensure the sample’s composition reflects the actual U.S. population. The poll was developed by the McCombs School of Business to provide an objective, authoritative look at consumer attitudes and perspectives on key energy issues. It is designed to help inform national discussion, business planning and policy development.

No Slate, Romney Did Not “School” The President On Science Policy

6 Sep

As a founding member of ScienceDebate, I must politely disagree with Laura Helmuth’s well-circulated Slate piece entitled, “Romney Out-Debates Obama: How the GOP candidate schooled the president on science policy.” That’s a strong declaration, and from a scientific standpoint – an unfair assessment.

It’s true that many of Romney’s answers to the 14 science questions were longer in length than Obama’s. But both sets of responses were too highly variable to claim that anyone “schooled” anyone. Highlighting question 2 specifically, it’s clear that the GOP candidate has a lot to learn about a very critical global challenge:

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
Barack Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government. Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last. Mitt Romney:I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response. President Obama has taken the view that if global warming is occurring, the American response must be to slash carbon dioxide emissions by imposing enormous costs on the U.S. economy. First he tried a massive cap-and-trade bill that would have devastated U.S. industry. When that approach was rejected by Congress, he declared his intention to pursue the same course on his own and proceeded through his EPA to impose rules that will bankrupt the coal industry.

Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

So I oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away, all without actually addressing the underlying problem. Economic growth and technological innovation, not economy-suppressing regulation, is the key to environmental protection in the long run. So I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.

For instance, I support robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries. And I believe the federal government must significantly streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power. These steps will strengthen American industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce the economically-attractive technologies that developing nations must have access to if they are to achieve the reductions in their own emissions that will be necessary to address what is a global issue.

Read all of their positions here

What Water Crisis?

2 Aug

I often write about what I consider to be the most significant challenge of the 21st century: the looming water crisis. As I explained earlier this year at NPR:

As temperatures rise due to climate change, evaporation and precipitation have increased. This means that the atmosphere holds more water. Unfortunately, the condition is anticipated to lead to storms and floods of increased severity in some parts of the world, with prolonged and more intense droughts elsewhere.

“Extreme extremes,” says [Jay Famiglietti, director of the University of California's Center for Hydrologic Modeling], which could lead to greater conflict over the scarce resource.

In other words, prepare for water wars. This is a big deal. But based on this new data from the UT Energy Poll, it appears that most of us here in the United States still do not understand what’s taking place on our watch:

What will it take?

A Closer Look At How The Summer Heat Wave Has Influenced Attitudes On Climate Change

24 Jul

Source: The UT Energy Poll

Did The Heat Wave Influence Public Opinion On Climate Change? Yes.

19 Jul

As Bloomberg reports:

A record heat wave, drought and catastrophic wildfires are accomplishing what climate scientists could not: convincing a wide swath of Americans that global temperatures are rising.

In the four months since March there has been a jump in U.S. citizens’ belief that climate change is taking place, especially among independent voters and those in southern states such as Texas, which is now in its second year of record drought, according to nationwide polls by the University of Texas.

In a poll taken July 12-16, 70 percent of respondents said they think the climate is changing, compared with 65 percent in a similar poll in March. Those saying it’s not taking place fell to 15 percent from 22 percent, according to data set to be released this week by the UT Energy Poll.

While the survey didn’t ask about the causes of climate change, Sheril Kirshenbaum, the poll director, said “there is no debate” that man-made carbon emissions are warming the planet. “We need to get beyond arguing if it’s occurring and start developing policies to adapt to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.”

The jump in public opinion over the past four months took place in southern states, including drought-ravaged Texas, where it climbed 13 percentage points to 70 percent this month, according to the poll. Other areas of the country showed modest variations in levels of support.

The latest University of Texas poll also found a sharp divide between political parties, with 87 percent of Democrats saying climate change is taking place compared with 53 percent of Republicans. In March 45 percent of Republican respondents said climate change is happening.

Among independent voters, those saying temperatures are rising jumped to 72 percent in July from 60 percent in March.

Read the full article here and I’ll have more on these new poll results soon.

What Do Americans Believe Contributes To Climate Change?

22 Jun

Following the findings I posted yesterday showing that 65% of Americans say climate change is occurring, we asked that group to consider a series of factors from deforestation to fossil fuel use and rate how significantly they believe each contributes to global climate change. Here is a look at “Natural Forces (not manmade)” broken down by political affiliation:

Natural Forces (not manmade) and Global Climate Change

The posts this week are just snapshots of what we have been learning through the UT Energy Poll. The more we understand about public attitudes and opinions on energy issues, the better prepared we will be to address questions, educate, and move toward more informed policy decisions.

This contribution to “Your Dot” at NYTimes was originally posted as part of a slideshow on June 19, 2012.

Majority Of Americans Recognize Climate Change Is Occurring

21 Jun

Returning to the most recent results from the UT Energy Poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents acknowledge that global climate change is occurring.

When the same question is broken down by party affiliation, the notorious partisan divide emerges.

Do you think climate change is or is not occurring?

Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at what Democrats and Republicans who say global climate change is occurring attribute it to.

This contribution to “Your Dot” at NYTimes was originally posted as part of a slideshow on June 19, 2012.