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Posts Tagged ‘environment

Climate Change: the clock is ticking (pt.1)

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web_stateofclimate2015_coverHere’s some news we already know or thought we knew. Yes, climate change is here and here to stay according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and its effects are no longer subtle or easily argued away.

NOAA and the American Meteorological Society released the “State of the Climate in 2015”, a 300-page document published the AMS Bulletin last month.

It makes for sobering reading, for example (quoting from the Abstract):

  • “In 2015, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—all continued to reach new high levels. At Mauna Loa, Hawaii, the annual CO2 concentration increased by a record 3.1 ppm, exceeding 400 ppm for the first time on record. The 2015 global CO2 average neared this threshold, at 399.4 ppm.
  • “Owing to the combination of El Niño and a long-term upward trend, Earth observed record warmth for the second consecutive year, with the 2015 annual global surface temperature surpassing the previous record by more than 0.1°C and exceeding the average for the mid- to late 19th century—commonly considered representative of preindustrial conditions—by more than 1°C for the first time.
  • “Across land surfaces, record to near-record warmth was reported across every inhabited continent. Twelve countries, including Russia and China, reported record high annual temperatures.
  • “In the Arctic, the 2015 land surface temperature was 1.2°C above the 1981–2010 average, tying 2007 and 2011 for the highest annual temperature and representing a 2.8°C increase since the record began in 1900. Increasing temperatures have led to decreasing Arctic sea ice extent and thickness. On 25 February 2015, the lowest maximum sea ice extent in the 37-year satellite record was observed, 7% below the 1981–2010 average.
  • “Above average sea surface temperatures are not confined to the Arctic. Sea surface temperature for 2015 was record high at the global scale; however, the North Atlantic southeast of Greenland remained colder than average and colder than 2014…The Greenland Ice Sheet, with the capacity to contribute ~7 m to sea level rise, experienced melting over more than 50% of its surface for the first time since the record melt of 2012.
  • “Springtime ozone depletion resulted in one of the largest and most persistent Antarctic ozone holes observed since the 1990s.
  • “Closer to the equator, 101 named tropical storms were observed in 2015, well above the 1981–2010 average of 82. The eastern/central Pacific had 26 named storms, the most since 1992. The western north Pacific and north and south Indian Ocean basins also saw high activity. Globally, eight tropical cyclones reached the Saffir–Simpson Category 5 intensity level.
  • “An above-normal rainy season led to major floods in Paraguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil. In May, the United States recorded its all-time wettest month in its 121-year national record. Denmark and Norway reported their second and third wettest year on record, respectively, but globally soil moisture was below average, terrestrial groundwater storage was the lowest in the 14-year record, and areas in “severe” drought rose from 8% in 2014 to 14% in 2015. Drought conditions prevailed across many Caribbean island nations, Colombia, Venezuela, and northeast Brazil for most of the year. Several South Pacific countries also experienced drought. Lack of rainfall across Ethiopia led to its worst drought in decades and affected millions of people, while prolonged drought in South Africa severely affected agricultural production. Indian summer monsoon rainfall was just 86% of average. Extremely dry conditions in Indonesia resulted in intense and widespread fires during August–November that produced abundant carbonaceous aerosols, carbon monoxide, and ozone.”

Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Penn State, last month told the Guardian, “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. They are playing out before us, in real time. The 2015 numbers drive that home.”

More on the parlous state of the climate, and what we are not doing about it, next time.

Image: State of the Climate in 2015 cover from the AMS website.

Written by William DiBenedetto

19 September, 2016 at 7:20 am

Bionic leaf beats photosynthesis, creates liquid fuel

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bionic-leaf_orig_1 (1)Now this from Harvard University researchers: “bionic leaf 2.0,” which turns sunlight into liquid fuel, introduced in the academic journal Science earlier this month.

In what is called an artificial version of photosynthesis in plants, the study says the “bionic leaf 2.0” “aims to make use of solar panels for splitting molecules of water into oxygen and hydrogen. On separation of the water compounds, hydrogen is moved into a chamber for consumption by bacteria. A specialized metal catalyst and carbon dioxide in the chamber then helps generate a liquid fuel.”

Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, and Pamela Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, have developed a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels. What’s cool about this is that using sunlight to convert it into liquid fuels would reduce the vast areas of land usually used for producing plants that generate biofuels. According to a study by the University of Virginia, about 4 per cent of the world’s farmland is currently under crops for fuel rather than crops for food.

The paper, whose lead authors also include postdoctoral fellow Chong Liu and graduate student Brendan Colón, is described in a June 3 paper published in Science.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Nocera said in a Harvard Gazette article. “Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.” While the study shows the system can be used to generate usable fuels, its potential doesn’t end there, said Silver, who is also a founding core member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

“The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist — biology can do chemistry we can’t do easily,” she said. “In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile.”

The new system builds on previous work by Nocera, Silver, and others, which — though it was capable of using solar energy to make isopropanol — faced a number of challenges. Chief among those, Nocera said, was the fact that the catalyst used to produce hydrogen — a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy — also created reactive oxygen species, molecules that attacked and destroyed the bacteria’s DNA. To avoid that, researchers were forced to run the system at abnormally high voltages, resulting in reduced efficiency.

“For this paper, we designed a new cobalt-phosphorous alloy catalyst, which we showed does not make reactive oxygen species,” Nocera said. “That allowed us to lower the voltage, and that led to a dramatic increase in efficiency.” Read the rest of this entry »

The sordid whack-a-mole nature of climate change denial

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It’s all about doubt when it comes to climate change, no matter what the science is telling us. The playbook is tried and true as illustrated in the 2014 film, Merchants of Doubt—if you can create enough doubt about the science and the harmful effects of tobacco, asbestos or fossil fuels, basically you’re home free. Instead of solving an obvious problem, companies in those industries can obscure and obstruct, and continue to make truckloads of money.

And it’s still happening. In a report from the Desmog Blog this month, “Study Finds The ‘Era of Climate Science Denial Is Not Over,'”  Graham Readfearn writes: “Conservative think tanks in the United States are a sort of ‘ground zero’ for the production of doubt about the links between fossil fuel burning and dangerous climate change.

“These think tanks produce reports, hold conferences, write books, go on television, produce columns and blogs and generally and liberally splatter the public discourse with talking points.

“You’ll have heard their manufactured doubt everywhere. ‘CO2 is great for the planet… fossil fuels are good… climate scientists are wrong… the world has been hotter in the past… cutting emissions will kill the economy.’ That sort of thing.”

He points to a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change that says, “the era of climate science denial is not over.”

Dr. Travis Coan, of the University of Exeter, and Dr Constantine Boussalis, of Trinity College Dublin, analyzed 16,000 articles, reports, transcripts, letters, reviews and press releases from the websites of 19 conservative think tanks, mainly based in the U.S, who work on climate change.

In the study, Boussalis and Coan discuss how commentators had been speculating about an end of climate science denial for more than a decade. But analyzing documents from 1998 until mid-2013, Boussalis and Coan found that think tanks had in recent years been focusing less on policy and more on attacking the science.

Why change the playbook if it works so well?

Republican Bob Inglis a conservative former South Carolina congressman, lost a bid for re-election in 2010 after telling a radio host that he believed humans were contributing to climate change. “The most enduring heresy that I committed was saying the climate change is real,” he told PBS’ FRONTLINE.

Inglis saw through the thick fog machines of doubt and denial, to his cost. He closed the Merchants of Doubt, with moving and spot analysis of why it so hard to embrace the reality of climate change:

He’s a hero.

Written by William DiBenedetto

25 January, 2016 at 6:00 am

COP21 a cop-out or an opt-in?

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COP ParisIt’s been awhile, but in the great scheme of things not that long, and my absence here lately is of no great import. Things have changed in the past few months, including an engagement, a time-consuming book project and a re-think of my assocoation with TriplePundit. It’s all great-to-good-to-exhausting, but without getting into details, the gist is that I’ll concentrate more on this blog space in the future. Maybe.

First, some venting about the climate change summit that concluded in December, COP21. Remember? It already seems like a long time ago! The results were better than expected and encouraging, but still probably too little too late. Coverage and punditry was mixed, which is better than saying the effort failed. Time will tell on that. Yes, it’s a climate accord among a slew of nations, but unenforceable.

Here’s Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org, the global grass-roots climate campaign, writing in the New York Times: “In the hot, sodden mess that is our planet as 2015 drags to a close, the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995, when the first conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Berlin.

“Under its provisions, nations have made voluntary pledges to begin reducing their carbon emissions. These are modest — the United States, for instance, plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 by 12 to 19 percent from their levels in 1990. As the scrupulous scorekeepers at Climate Action Tracker, a nongovernment organization, put it, that’s a ‘medium’ goal ‘at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution.'”

If all parties keep their promises, and if you expect that to happen I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn you can buy, the planet will warm by an estimated 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels. “That is way, way too much,” McKibben says. “We are set to pass the 1 degree Celsius mark this year, and that’s already enough to melt ice caps and push the sea level threateningly higher.”

The irony is, he continues, an agreement like this adopted at the first climate conference in 1995 “might have worked.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

11 January, 2016 at 8:00 am

Pope Francis: Care for our common home (4)

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Laudato Si'_cover_ Thomas CizauskasHere’s the next installment of our close read of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on climate change, Laudato Si’.

(Note: emphasis added by me)

Climate as a common good

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. (Para. 23) Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

5 October, 2015 at 6:00 am

Pope Francis: Care for our common home (3)

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Pope Francesco I_Jeffrey BrunoHere’s the next installment of our close reading of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on climate change, Laudato Si’.

Chapter One: What Is Happening To Our Common Home

The continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called “rapidification”. Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity. (Para. 18)

Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach. We see increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet. Let us review, however cursorily, those questions which are troubling us today and which we can no longer sweep under the carpet. Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it. (Para. 19) Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

21 September, 2015 at 8:00 am

Pope Francis: Care for our common home (1)

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Laudato Si'_cover_ Thomas CizauskasAdmit it: how much of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on climate change, Laudato Si’, have you read? I admit I have read some parts of it and have certainly read about it, but here’s a thought: let’s read it together…

It is 184 beautifully written and compelling pages. As I read it I’ll highlight some passages and post them here over the course of—well, however long it takes.

The pope gets right into on page 3:

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).”

Some perspective, “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us” starts on page 4.

But note, rather than cite specific pages after this, I’ll use paragraph numbers and delete the footnote cites.

3. More than fifty years ago, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis, Pope Saint John XXIII wrote an Encyclical which not only rejected war but offered a proposal for peace. He addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire “Catholic world” and indeed “to all men and women of good will”. Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.

4. In 1971, eight years after Pacem in Terris, Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”…

5. Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue. In his first Encyclical he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption”. Subsequently, he would call for a global ecological conversion. At the same time, he noted that little effort had been made to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology”.6 The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies”. Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”. Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.

Pope Francis notes that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, also proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”. He observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible”, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”.

“Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. The social environment has also suffered damage.” Both are ultimately “due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”

This is valuable background, I think, because it shows that Pope Francis is not alone in his thinking on climate change and society – the popes are “united by the same concern.” And the statements of the popes echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions. Outside the Catholic Church, other Churches and Christian communities – and other religions as well – have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing.” (Paragraph 7) He cites the compelling statements of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in the ways we have harmed the planet: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. (Paragraph 8).

Riveting stuff whether you believe in God or not, but especially if you believe in God.

This where we’ll stop for now.

Image: Laudato Si’ (cover) by Thomas Cizauskas via Flickr CC

Written by William DiBenedetto

7 September, 2015 at 6:22 am

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