The Senate, climate change, and the public opinion

On Wednesday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sent a letter, signed by 18 scientific organizations including ESA, to each member of the Senate. The letter states the consensus views of the scientific community: that climate change is real, that it is mostly anthropogenic in source and that, if unchecked, it will create major threats to our society. The letter is an exceptionally concise and to-the-point summary of the dire climate situation. Read the full text here. This letter is also especially important and timely given that a new poll out yesterday by the Pew Research Center shows some changing opinions about global warming in the American populace. The trends are not so good: 57 percent believe there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming, compared to 71 percent a year and a half ago. Only 35 percent think that climate change is a serious problem, down from 44 percent last year. Here’s The Grist’s David Roberts’ take on the issue: The temptation is to respond to a poll like Pew’s with lamentations about the state of science education–to imagine that the public, like scientists, can be swayed by the weight of empirical evidence. But the most important political takeaway is almost the opposite: popular belief in the science of climate change will follow popular support for clean energy, not the other way around. While we like to think that rational people will listen to solid scientific reason, we know that people are the product of marketing, often believing the word of a celebrity or a person they can relate to over the scientific facts. It remains to be seen how societal changes to combat climate change will be somehow made desirable to the mainstream American...

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Pollutants melting out of glaciers, into lakes

A mountain lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. Organic pollutants have been on the decline in most natural areas in recent years, due to stricter regulations and improvements to products including the contaminants, such as certain pesticides. But a new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that these pollutants are showing a spike in some natural lakes, regardless of their tighter restrictions in the marketplace. The answer to this mysterious reappearance, says first author Christian Bogdal of ETH Zurich, is the melting of glaciers that feed into these lakes.  He and his coauthors studied Lake Oberaar, a glacier-fed lake in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. They found that contamination was low in the 1980s and 1990s, but since the late 1990s, flow of pollutants into the lake has increased drastically. Levels of organochlorines — commonly found in pesticides and PVC piping — flowing into the lake at present are similar to or higher than peak levels in the 1960s and 1970s, before regulations took effect.  The pollutants are preserved in the glaciers over time and redeposited upon melting. The authors state that the 1500 glaciers in the Swiss Alps have reduced by 12 percent since 1999. If this decrease continues, they write, there could be “dire environmental impacts” to mountainous areas. Bogdal, C., Schmid, P., Zennegg, M., Anselmetti, F., Scheringer, M., & Hungerbühler, K. (2009). Blast from the Past: Melting Glaciers as a Relevant Source for Persistent Organic Pollutants Environmental Science & Technology DOI:...

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Biophysical climate feedbacks revealed at NASW 2009

Science writers from around the country gathered in Austin this week for their annual conference, put on by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The meeting attracted some 300 science writers – journalists, editors, communications professionals, etc. – for several days of talking about science and the craft of writing. In the current media environment where newspapers are folding left and right, the meeting is flooded with freelance writers looking for good, newsworthy science. This year the program includes scientists from around the country giving talks on diverse topics such as using yeast to study aging, creating a unified theory of consciousness and examining scientific ethics in the peer-review process. One of the most intriguing talks was given by Kevin Gurney of Purdue University. His project was spurred by the fact that although climate scientists are honing their understanding of the global climate cycle, the role of earths’ lands as a carbon sink is still unclear. Although Earth’s lands absorb about 3 billion tons of human-produced carbon per year, it’s tough to know where it goes. Is it mostly sequestered by vegetation?  Is it captured by soils?  The answers to these questions are important because if we know where the C is going, we can better predict the limits of Earth’s land’s ability to trap carbon.  As Gurney says, if our lands or ocean saturate and stop sequestering carbon, that would effectively make our carbon emissions twice as bad as they are now. Gurney’s Vulcan project attempts to map with high resolution carbon emissions across the United States. The simulation above shows these results mapped on Google Earth – you can zoom into any area and pull up a dictionary entry of its carbon emissions profile. Gurney has also taken these predictions to the next level and extrapolated for individual buildings in a pilot city – Indianapolis, Indiana. Knowing exactly where our carbon emissions are coming from will help us to figure out exactly where it’s going. Gurney hopes that in the future we’ll have an integrated climate forecasting system, just like our current weather forecasts, that will predict the carbon fluxes within any given region at any time. But the most amazing result Gurney presented – and the reason for his talk’s title, “Some Unfortunate Surprises” – has to do with the importance of Artic vegetation for climate change. Gurney’s simulations showed that if we removed all the vegetation in the Earth’s northern latitudes, the resulting exposed snow and ice would in fact create a lighter Earth surface. This change in albedo over the following 100 years would actually...

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Arctic’s big carbon sink could shift to a source

Scientists have known for some time now that the land and seas in the Arctic act as a sink for atmospheric carbon. In a new review paper in the journal Ecological Monographs, ecologists now have a sense of just how much carbon the Arctic has historically handled – up to a whopping 25 percent of the world’s carbon flux. David McGuire of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the USGS is the lead author on the paper, which reviews 265 published papers related to the Arctic and global carbon cycling. Since the end of the last Ice Age, the Arctic has oscillated between being carbon-neutral, or neither sequestering nor emitting carbon, to trapping up to 800 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere and the surrounding ecosystems. This figure shows (a) the extent of permafrost in 2000, (b) the estimate extent of permafrost in 2100 and (c) b overlaid on a. The authors note that recent warming trends have led to a steady decrease in the extent of permafrost, or the frozen underground earth beneath the active soil. Unlike active soils, permafrost does not decompose its carbon; thus, the carbon becomes trapped in the frozen soil. Cold conditions at the surface also slow the rate of organic matter decomposition, allowing Arctic carbon accumulation to exceed its release. The decrease in permafrost thus could tip the current balance toward the Arctic releasing instead of storing carbon. Warmer temperatures will create more active soils, accelerating decomposition and exposing layers formerly frozen in permafrost to decomposition and erosion. And all this doesn’t even touch on the methane problem. As the Arctic thaws, the lands become more waterlogged, encouraging anaerobic metabolism, which releases methane to the air. This is particularly concerning because methane can be up to 23 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. At this point, the carbon fate of the Arctic is far from certain, say the authors. Global warming may produce longer growing seasons and promote plant photosynthesis, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But on the other hand, increasingly dry conditions in the long term might counteract and even overcome this effect through decreased photosynthesis and increased fire prevalence.  Says McGuire: If the response of the arctic carbon cycle to climate change results in substantial net releases of greenhouse gases, this could compromise mitigation efforts that we have in mind for controlling the carbon cycle. Note also that this is the first review paper published by Ecological Monographs, a trend which will continue in future issues. Read more in the ESA press...

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Optimistic economists weigh in on climate change

A group called Economics for Equity and the Environment released a report today detailing their predicted costs for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  According to this article in the Washington Post, the cost could be as low as between one and three percent of the country’s GDP each year to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 387. The groups emphasizes the 350 number, saying that a 450ppm limit, put forth by many climate experts, would be far too much to avoid the negative impacts of ocean acidification, sea level rise and severe droughts. The report itself focuses on calculating the least-cost way of achieving the 350ppm goal by either the year 2100. A few of their requirements: (1)    Coal burning must be completely phased out or achieve 100 percent capture efficiency of carbon capture by the year 2030. (2)    Oil and gas reserves can be used freely according to the IPCC estimates of their reserve levels. (3)    Ending deforestation and initiating large-scale reforestation would have to bring land-use carbon emissions to zero by 2015 and become a force of carbon sequestration by 2030. As much as we all want attitudes about greenhouse gases and reduction of energy use to change for the better (see this recent post), these projections strike me as severely optimistic.  The small price tag is tantalizing, but doesn’t this goal seem too farfetched? Read the whole report here. I welcome your...

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The economics of Waxman-Markey

An insightful (if decidedly partisan) op-ed by Paul Krugman in Friday’s New York Times focuses on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill that was approved in the House but has stalled – due in no small part due to the debate over health care reform – in the Senate. Krugman points out that there are two kinds of people opposed to climate change legislation: those dwindling numbers who don’t believe climate change is happening at all, and those who believe it is happening but that any legislation will be too costly to the economy. He says that in many cases, climate change legislation would cost the average family about $160 per year, but also that our use of energy right now is so inefficient that implementing more efficient technologies could actually save Americans money. Like opposition to health-care reform, he says, those who oppose Waxman-Markey rest their campaign “mainly on lies.” Read the full article...

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Phenology, bees and climate change video

The Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA just put out this excellent video about pollination, phenology and the effects of climate change. Although NASA has satellite data showing that spring green-up has been occurring a half-day earlier each year, it’s a bit harder to figure out whether a corresponding change in phenology is occurring among pollinators. The video shows beekeepers–scientists and citizens alike–weighing their hives to find out whether flowering and pollination are getting out of sync. View the video below, or check it out (free) in stunning high-def at the NASA web...

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Study finds more agricultural trees than we thought

Sorghum grown under acacia and palm trees in Burkina Faso. According to a new study by scientists at the World Forestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, we’ve underestimated that amount of trees worldwide that are grown in agricultural areas. Using satellite imagery, the scientists show at the 2nd World Congress of Agroforestry this week in Nairobi that trees cover more than 10 percent of about 10 million square kilometers of farmland — about half of the world’s farms — across North America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Agroforestry is the practice of integrating trees into agricultural landscapes. A classic example of the ways this benefits farming is shade-tree coffee plantations, where trees provide habitat for birds as well as shade for the coffee plants growing underneath. Trees on farmlands also provide ecosystem services such as fertilizing the landscape, preventing erosion and helping to filter water runoff.  Dennis Garrity, the Centre’s Director General, elaborated in a statement: The area revealed in this study is twice the size of the Amazon, and shows that farmers are protecting and planting trees spontaneously. The problem is that policymakers and planners have been slow to recognize this phenomenon and take advantage of the beneficial effect of planting trees on farms. Trees are providing farmers with everything from carbon sequestration, to nuts and fruits, to windbreaks and erosion control, to fuel for heating and timber for housing. Unless such practices are brought to scale in farming communities worldwide, we will not benefit from the full value trees can bring to livelihoods and landscapes. Additionally, agricultural landscapes that have higher biodiversity are known to export fewer pollutants into watersheds. The World Forestry Centre advocates that there should be incentives for farmers to cultivate trees that provide such valuable services, and that policy should change to reflect those incentives.  Particularly in developing countries, says the Centre, it would help farmers — especially those in developing countries — adopt various agroforestry practices more rapidly if their trees were included in international climate change mitigation schemes now under development. Read more about agroforestry at the World Agroforestry Centre’s web...

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