Q&A from England to California

In January we presented the C-Change Primer to a California land trust made up of liberals and conservatives who were so divided on climate change they could not talk about it among themselves. C-Change was asked to provide a common set of facts to lay the groundwork for a discussion about the impact that a warming planet is having on the land entrusted to their care. It was such a gratifying experience.
 
Several skeptics in the audience asked climate questions that were better suited for C-Change’s three science advisors. About that time, we also received an email from a man in the small village of Bagshot, in Surrey, England, asking other science-related questions about climate change. Today, we are pleased to share this Q&A from California to England!
 
Through non-partisan education and outreach, C-Change Conversations aims to improve understanding about the science and effects of climate change and encourage ongoing discussion and engagement. We welcome your questions from across the globe and right down the street. 
 
Warmly,
The C-Change Conversations Team

Sea Level Rise

C-Change science advisor Nadir Jeevanjee answers questions from Neil Wilkins, who lives in the village of Bagshot, England.

Considering the anomalous expansion of water at or about freezing point, why would melting sea ice glaciers cause a rise in sea levels?

There is no such thing as a “sea ice glacier.” Sea ice doesn’t contribute to sea level rise, but glaciers do.

This is a common point of confusion, however, and the question raises an important distinction. Sea ice, which floats, does not raise sea level when it melts. The mass of water in a block of sea ice is exactly equal to the mass of water the block displaces, a fact that goes back to Archimedes. The volume of the ice is slightly larger, however, which is why a little bit of ice (the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”) pokes out above the water. All this means that melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean does not contribute to sea level rise.

Glaciers, however, occur on land and do not float. Glacier melt thus adds water to the ocean, so the melting of glaciers on the landmasses of Greenland and Antarctica do cause sea level rise.

Am I safe to assume most of the glacier melt consists of fresh water that has a lower density than sea water and has an effect upon deep ocean currents?

Yes! Glacier melt is fresh and thus less dense than sea water, as it has no dissolved salt to weigh it down.

And am I right to assume that a large volume of fresh water entering the deep ocean currents could have a significant long-term effect upon climate and weather regulation?

Right again. Climate scientists have probed exactly these effects in computer models, and indeed large additions of fresh water have been shown to impact the global ocean circulation and hence global climate. These effects were dramatized (rather inaccurately!) in the 2004 film The Day after Tomorrow.

The Fundamentals of Rising Temperatures

Liz Sikes, another C-Change science advisor, helped us answer a variety of questions from a California land trust.

If the world did become carbon neutral or even negative, is there any possibility that the environment would “autocorrect” the earth’s temperature by bringing it down to pre-spike levels?

Short answer: The system can’t autocorrect quickly enough to matter in the next few centuries. It will require some sort of CO2 “capture” to bring temperatures down in a realistic human life-span timeframe.

Long answer: The earth’s system (biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere) can autocorrect and can control the partitioning of carbon and CO2 between the atmosphere, land, ocean, etc. But this is a slow process. The earth’s system took approximately 10,000 years to release roughly 80 ppm of CO2 from the ocean at the end of the last Ice Age. This was a very, very quick change on natural timescales. We’ve added about 120 ppm to the atmosphere in about 150 years. It will take technical help to reverse that quickly.

Can you provide reference sites to graphs that show the temperature rising?

I tend to refer people to either the NOAA climate website or the NASA climate website. The British Antarctic Survey’s website is also terrific.

How do we know what the temperatures were 10,000 years ago?

Short answer: We have proxies that preserve a temperature record. We can read the proxy record of temperature to know what the temperature was. For example, tree rings are proxies. Trees react to temperature and moisture in their environment, and their annual tree ring width can be measured and interpreted to “read” the record of temperature and moisture.

Long answer: There are several proxies for past temperature that are preserved in what we would call the geologic archive. A proxy in this context is something that varies with temperature and then preserves that temperature as time passes.

One of the most widely used temperature proxies is “oxygen isotopes.” Temperature influences the isotopic content of water across the planet, and we can “read” the changes in isotopes like oxygen-18 content in ice cores, marine sediments, and stalactites. The lighter, lower boiling isotope evaporates more quickly and is separated and transported away as a function of temperature.

There are many, many proxies for temperature because so many living organisms respond to temperature, and so many reactions are controlled by temperature. You just need to know how to read the signals.

Depending on the proxy and the “archive” it is in, we can have temperature records that can give more or less detail. Generally, a fast growing archive such as corals gives more detail. Corals can provide temperature records that can give approximately monthly resolution but corals only live decades to a few hundred years, so the records are short. A slow growing archive, like a glacier, from which we can drill ice cores, can give a record of many hundreds to many hundreds of thousand years, but the resolution in those are at best a decade to a few hundred years. Tree ring records tend to be intermediate with annual resolution and a few hundred to a few thousand years long. So high resolution records tend to be short and low resolution records long. Generally no archive can record daily temperatures—but a monthly average is pretty powerful, as we are trying to understand past climate, which is the overall average of weather.

All proxies react to more than just temperature. Verifying and calibrating is important. This is why there are error bars on any measurement, and there are sometimes differences in the record from different proxies. That is why we have so many; we work hard to read the preponderance of evidence for an accurate record.

Climate Change & Tornadoes

Bernadette Woods Placky is our go-to science advisor for questions like this one.

We hear a lot about climate change being linked to hurricanes and wildfires, but what about tornadoes—like the one in Alabama in January and the derecho in Iowa last year?  Do we know if climate change plays a role?

While we’ve learned something about how climate change is affecting tornadoes, there is still a lot to learn.

For tornadoes to form, you need three key ingredients:

1) a warm, moist air mass
2) something to trigger thunderstorm formation (a front, dry line, etc.)
3) shear, which is the changing of wind speeds and direction with height upward in the atmosphere.

In a warming world, we know that heat and moisture are increasing. However, there are still questions about how climate change is changing our jetstream, which sets up our weather patterns that, in turn, create shear in the atmosphere. If we don’t have shear, we don’t get the needed spin for tornadoes. Also, the tornado reporting record has changed over time, so we don’t have as long and consistent of a tornado record as we do for other events.

What we have learned so far, though, is that our warming planet seems to be changing how we experience tornadoes. When we do have tornado “outbreak days” (days when there are multiple tornadoes forming), there seem to be more tornadoes striking on those days. So the outbreak days may be getting bigger when they do happen. And there has been some evidence that the main geographic area for tornadoes may be migrating farther east—into what we call Dixie Alley—as opposed to the traditionally recognized Tornado Alley. A warming climate may be responsible for both bigger outbreak days and the shifting geography of tornadoes.

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March 2021 Climate Change News

As we close out the third month of 2021, the winds of change around climate action continue to gather force. From energy storage and transmission to solar and wind power, we have the tools to keep our economy growing while moving to net-zero emissions by 2050. But do we have the will to use them? What would it take for America to embrace what Forbes Magazine has called the “biggest technological transition” in human history? To use new technologies to power our economies while decreasing pollution today and protecting the world for future generations?

The conservatives among us may not gravitate toward a self-proclaimed liberal voice like The Guardian, but the paper’s deep dive analyzing the plan for a net-zero future and cogently explaining what changes could be ahead was too good not to share. We encourage you to take a deep dive yourself, and think about what this transition will mean for you.

We hope our message remains clear: we all have a stake in this, and we need to come together to lower the risk. Please help us reach others by sharing our newsletters and telling them about our outreach.

Thanks as always for your continued interest and support.

Warmly,
The C-Change Conversations Team

Notable Quote
“You can stand at the tracks when the train is coming at you, or you can stand at the switch. I chose to stand at the switch.”
– Mayor Terry Weickum, Rawlins, WY, explaining his support for wind projects

Notable Video
This short but compelling clip features Jerry Taylor, a former climate change denier. Jerry says, “When you think about it, it’s not ‘conservative’ to hold on to old technologies that are causing pollution, more violent weather. It is conservative to understand the risks involved in climate change and to do what we can to protect ourselves and our families against that.” Watch the video.

News of Hope
Just this week the White House announced initiatives designed to spur development of large offshore wind farms. According to a new report, there is enough wind potential off states stretching from Maine to Florida to generate four times the electricity those states used in 2019.

This is welcome news, but what makes us really hopeful is that the economics of the energy transition are forcing change in some very interesting areas, including Wyoming. Rich coal reserves have long colored the state’s preference for fossil fuels. But thanks to another abundant state resource – wind – Wyoming will soon be home to one of the nation’s largest wind farms [paywall] and stands to become a national leader in renewable energy.

Back East, a Maine startup aims to “run the oil industry in reverse” and is counting on large-scale kelp farming to capture and submerge massive amounts of CO2 where it will stay locked on the ocean floor for thousands of years. If kelp doesn’t inspire you, maybe a trip to your local restaurant will. Carbon footprint labeling on menus is now taking off in “fast-casual dining” around the country, giving customers a simple tool to choose less carbon-intensive foods. It’s an old idea gaining traction thanks to better carbon reporting and more customer demand, and it’s an important one: globally, food production contributes more CO2 and methane to the atmosphere than transportation.

News of Concern
Despite the economic downturn wrought by COVID, we are disturbed to see that global CO2 emissions are predicted to hit a dangerous milestone in 2021: concentrations that are 50% higher than pre-industrial levels. In other words, it took 200 years for levels to rise 25% and just 30 years to approach the 50% threshold.

It’s increasingly apparent that everybody is quite literally paying the price for this rise. From spiking utility bills in the wake of the Texas cold snap to taxpayer-financed disaster relief after record hurricane and fire seasons, Americans are paying personally to cope with climate disasters – even if they live far from climate hotspots. Those facing predictable climate effects might soon be priced out of town. Municipalities along America’s coastline are grappling with the cost of protecting homes, roads, and schools from sea level rise – and are looking to huge tax increases [paywall] to fund the work.

Upper earners, though, are likely to be more cushioned than less affluent citizens – especially when it comes to housing. Climate gentrification describes a growing trend where property on higher ground commands higher prices, leaving poorer residents to tough it out in more climate-vulnerable areas.

Equally troubling is the specter of mass migration caused by climate disasters. The U.S. can expect more climate refugees from South and Central America as people flee extreme weather and the devastation it leaves behind.

We’ll end with disappointing news from China. Despite recent pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, its new five-year plan is mum on details and notably avoided any bans on new coal projects. The international community was underwhelmed.

Notable Graph
Projected change in energy sources based on a scenario in which the U.S. aggressively works to adopt electrification to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Notable Innovation
A solar panel prototype the size of a pizza box has harnessed the sun’s energy from space. Someday larger solar energy systems – like the one pictured here – could beam the power to Earth.

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February 2021 Climate Change News

Is it too early to see signs of Spring … or signs of thaw in the frozen debate about climate change? Probably. Here in New Jersey, there are undoubtedly many weeks of frigid weather ahead – both real and metaphorical. And yet we can hear ice cracking near and far.

From city councils to state legislatures to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, from local businesses to the heaviest of global industries, from private investors to the Federal Reserve, so many green shoots have been poking through the snow this month that we’ve decided to forego our usual format of ‘news of hope and concern’ and stick to the sunny side of the street. After all, who can fail to grin when comedian Will Ferrell advertises GM’s stunning decision to phase out gas-powered vehicles by 2035?

We’ll be back flagging causes for concern again next month but we hope you enjoy February’s roundup of exclusively hopeful news. As always we welcome your feedback and questions.

Warmly,
The C-Change Conversations Team

Notable Video

This Super Bowl ad made us chuckle AND feel excited and hopeful! View the video here.

News of Hope

Let’s hit the big news first: you may have heard that the U.S. officially re-entered the Paris Agreement on February 19. Just weeks before, more than 400 companies – including steelmaker ArcelorMittal, shipping giant Maersk, and Shell Oil – announced they would work together to decarbonize by 2050. These are some of the heaviest hitters in the world’s heavy industries.

Meanwhile, reports are circulating that BP, the world’s fifth largest petroleum company, has reduced its oil exploration team from 700 a few years ago to just 100 today – part of its rapid and ongoing shift away from fossil fuels. It’s yet another sign that even the world’s biggest carbon emitters recognize there’s greater risk in ‘business as usual’ than in decarbonization.

That same conclusion has mobilized the highest levels of America’s Federal Reserve. You’ll recall that in November, the Fed acknowledged climate-related risk in its semiannual Financial Stability Report. This month the Fed announced that it is creating a first-ever committee to assess climate risks facing the financial system, including companies, infrastructure, and markets.

Signs of adaptation are less easy to find in the coal industry. Coal communities, however, may be more proactive in the face of climate (and political) realities. We’re excited to see that coal-state economic development groups have called for the immediate creation of a White House Office of Economic Transition, focused on rebuilding the economies of coal communities as the nation transitions to renewable energy. These sorts of efforts are needed for the transition to help all Americans.

The best evidence projects that the wind and solar industries will see the most immediate build-outs but we’re intrigued by smaller industrial innovations, too, like converting garbage to fuel [paywall]. We’re also closely watching startups working to make ‘green cement,’ which would help replace a crucial building material that is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions.

And on the futuristic end of the technological spectrum, we’re delighted to hear the narrative around fusion energy – the ‘holy grail’ of renewables – has changed from ‘if’ to ‘when.’ Scientists have been working to achieve this limitless, clean energy source for decades. A report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine calls for efforts to start building a pilot fusion power plant by 2035 and have it running by 2040.

It seems we at C-Change are not alone in our sense of cautious optimism about renewed energy in tackling climate change. The mood of climate scientists around the nation is also on the upswing.

Notable Graph

The Energy Information Agency projects renewable energy generation will double by 2050, while coal and nuclear will decline and natural gas will stay relatively flat.

Notable Quote

“[The United States] is the best resourced nation in the world for a transition to net zero … [It has] abundant solar and wind resources both onshore and offshore … plentiful and economically accessible natural gas, and enormous geologic and terrestrial reservoirs for CO2 sequestration. Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050 is feasible and would not only help address climate change but also build a more competitive economy, increase high-quality jobs, and help address social injustice in the energy system.” – From Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine

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December 2020 Climate Change News

Like it or not, the presidential transition is now in full swing. The outgoing administration is working overtime [paywall] to approve a collection of new, large, energy and mineral projects on federal lands in hopes of locking in their version of a ‘business first’ approach to climate and the environment.

Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden’s key cabinet nominees view the relationship between the environment and the economy quite differently from the Trump team. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Energy, for example, is bullish on renewables and the jobs they’ll provide, and his chosen ‘climate czar’ sits on the board of CERES – a nonprofit composed of investors and environmentalists who make a powerful business case for climate action.

That’s been our mindset for some time, and it is good to see it’s gaining traction. As always, we welcome your feedback and reactions.


Warmly,
The C-Change Conversations Team

Notable Quote

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” –Socrates
 

Notable Video

Kicking off our theme of innovation and investment toward a green economy, enjoy this video that envisions American roads paved with something more valuable than gold: solar panels.

News of Hope

We’re buoyed that such economic opportunities seem very much in the sights of the climate and energy team that Biden announced this month. As Fox News reports, the lineup signals the President-elect’s commitment to “ambitious” climate action and – combined with his chosen economic team [paywall] – we see a coherent strategy emerging to align U.S. economic, energy, and environmental policies behind a climate agenda.

At the same time, ever more members of the business community are backing economy-wide climate action. The Wall Street Journal (among others) carried the news that leaders of more than 40 large U.S. corporations representing a broad swath of the American economy penned a letter to Congress urging cooperation with the incoming administration on climate issues. The letter echoed arguments that leveraging U.S. innovation and investment around climate solutions is a recipe for economic growth and called for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate.

That agreement commits its national signatories to major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. And while the Biden Administration begins to chart a new course in that direction, Princeton University offered a roadmap to get there, itemizing exactly what needs to be built, when, and where. The Net-Zero America study spells out no fewer than five energy-mix scenarios that could transition the economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. Crucially, none of the five scenarios would cost more than the country spends now on energy, and all would result in net job gains for American workers.

Meanwhile, Congress proved that bi-partisan cooperation around a green economy is possible when it passed the massive COVID relief and federal spending package. Forbes magazine described the bill as a “stimulus for clean energy,” noting the legislation’s many green tax credits and bipartisan support for them.

News of Concern

Climate change, however, hasn’t slowed down while the American political transition unfolds. A new scientific paper warns that rising sea levels may exceed even the highest projections of recent years. NOAA released its annual report card on the Arctic, and it describes a ‘new normal’ in the so-called frozen North that includes far less ice, more wildfires, and huge disruptions to ecosystems.
 
And although several large banks have aligned themselves with the fight against climate change, Bloomberg News [paywall] reports that some banks are still financing dangerous energy projects to the tune of billions of dollars. Three top international banks have invested $295 billion in 12 projects with the potential to release CO₂ equivalent to 75% of the remaining carbon budget we must maintain to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to researchers at Climate Analytics.
 
Such financing continues in a year that’s seen 16 separate climate disasters (see image above) as of the end of September costing a billion dollars or more – tying the records of 2011 and 2017. Given that three months have passed since since the data were tabulated, it is expected that the previous records will be broken this year.
 
Also for the record books, 2020 is neck and neck with 2016 for the hottest year in recorded history. In this context it’s disturbing to see that emissions of a super-polluting greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide—which is 300 times more potent than CO₂ and released primarily from fertilizer—is rising far faster than previously thought at a rate consistent with a worst-case trajectory for climate change.

Notable Graph

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Climate Change Impacting Hurricanes

Hurricanes get their strength from warm water, and those waters are getting warmer. Scientific research shows that more of the hurricanes forming these days are rising to the level of a major hurricane — category 3-5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

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To Get Action on Climate Change, the People Must Demand It

Catherine Rampell missed a key point in her Oct. 27 Tuesday Opinion column, “Biden’s energy ‘gaffe’ is the truth: Oil is history.” Though it is true that “politicians can make a difference” and “accelerate the pace of change,” the reason lawmakers haven’t, of course, is that they aren’t hearing from enough constituents that addressing the threat of climate change is a priority.

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October 2020 Climate Change News

Welcome back to our monthly roundup of climate news … both encouraging and, well, not-so-much. Just days before the presidential election, though, it’s striking to note more optimistic signs than expected. And we’re not alone. Some are describing a ‘sea change’ in the way the American electorate, politicians, and business people are now talking and acting on the issue of global warming. We concur. To set the tone, watch this new video about the biggest, baddest vehicle of the automotive world — which is now electric! The closing lines say it all.
 
Warmly,
The C-Change Conversations Team

Notable Quote
“Introducing the world’s first all-electric supertruck, the revolutionary GMC Hummer EV, with no limits, no emissions and no equals. It will leave everything you thought possible in a cloud of dust.”

– General Motors marketing video for the new electric Hummer
 

News of Hope
Let’s turn to the presidential debates. In a sign of a sea change, the final debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden was the first in 20 years to feature a substantive discussion about climate change. Even more important: the issue was treated as fact by both candidates who then sparred over policies.

While Biden made news by calling for a speedy transition away from fossil fuels, the world’s oil companies largely shrugged at the proposition, which many have already incorporated into their business plans. And coal? After years of retraction, the coal companies clearly see the handwriting on the wall and are divesting from coal themselves.

Meanwhile at the United Nations, the leader of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in its economy by 2060. Yes, China— the country currently burning half the world’s coal supplies (see the pie chart, below). China has expressed good intentions before but this commitment from its top politician has been followed up by a concrete plan charting a viable path to get there.

While many researchers in the U.S. are developing similar plans to transition the U.S. economy, it’s encouraging to see evidence that American workers are beginning to recognize that job growth in clean energy is outstripping job losses in fossil fuels. A sea change, indeed.
 
News of Concern
Of course, a sea change doesn’t mean smooth sailing. The annual report of the world’s most authoritative body of energy analysts, the International Energy Agency, concluded this month that the globe is headed toward more warming than the top manageable limit set by the Paris Agreement.
 
Meanwhile, another international body — the G20 (the premier forum for the world’s largest economies) — backtracked on previous commitments to end oil subsidies. The rationale cited was the disruption to oil markets caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
 
On the theme of backward movement, Bloomberg News divulged leaked documents from Exxon Mobil showing plans to increase the company’s annual CO₂ emissions by 17 percent by 2025. This trajectory clashes with plans by Exxon’s main industry rivals to reduce emissions and cut fossil fuel production.
 
Exxon’s short-sightedness may be part of another sea change we’ve witnessed this month: the Dow dropped Exxon Mobil from its index in favor of a software stock. XOM had been part of the Dow Jones Industrial average since 1928 and was its longest-serving component.
 
And lest we forget the climate-linked fires still burning in the West, consider this: a growing body of research shows significant and enduring health risks from wildfire smoke. That’s an extra layer of pain on top of the coronavirus pandemic and the arrival of flu season.
 
Notable Graph
When taking second place is not to be congratulated. How countries compare in CO₂ emissions(Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

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