Going to Extremes

Amidst the scarcely believable frenzy of climate change denial which has taken hold in sectors of American politics, to say nothing of the equally scarcely believable silence from the White House, we need to be reminded that there are sane and steady political voices in that country, however difficult it is for them currently to gain a hearing. Representatives Edward Markey and Henry Waxman recently had the minority staffs of the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Energy and Commerce prepare a report for them Going to Extremes: Climate Change and the Increasing Risk of Weather Disasters (pdf here). It’s now available as a Kindle edition and in short compass reports the scientific case that global warming is shifting the odds towards extreme events.

Evidence is mounting alarmingly. Over the last several years a barrage of extreme weather events in the US and the world has been consistent with what scientists have been predicting from global warming. “Indeed this summer US weather was almost apocalyptic.” The introduction mentions some of the events of the past two years, noting that NOAA has recently concluded after looking through 50 years of weather data that droughts like the recent 2011 Texas drought are roughly twenty times more likely because of global warming. “Global warming has stacked the deck with extra jokers.”

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The Climate Show #29: if the sun don’t come, you get a tan from standing in the English rain

This week The Climate Show brings you an all news special. We have wet summers for Europe, permafrost warming delivering a methane kick, La Niña driving floods that make sea level fall, a glacier calving in Antarctica, mammoths and sabre tooth tigers — all delivered with Glenn and Gareth’s inimitable panache (!).

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Do you want to fly or do you want to eat?

The title to this post may seem like an odd question, but I think it is an inescapable one, as I hope to demonstrate. The US Department of Agriculture has a mandate for a huge biofuel planting programme, the largest in the world in 2005. Currently around 13.5 billion gallons are produced per annum. The aim is to grow this to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Then along came the US drought of 2012. US farmers are asking the USDA to forgo the biofuel mandate. It turns out that that they need all of that corn to keep food prices down.

The fact that biofuels compete with land for food crops and can produce food shortages has been noted by others. The US drought has simply demonstrated that the issue will affect rich and poor nations.

But the dream of using biofuels on a large scale for transportation has always been fanciful. US production targets for biofuels have been based on assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland. A recent report, using satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land, showed that meeting current US biofuel production targets with existing technology would require “devoting almost 80 percent of current farmland in the US to raising corn for ethanol production or converting 60 percent of existing rangeland to biofuels.”

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Kerry Emanuel: the role of reason

The reign of climate change denial in the US Republican Party is an extraordinary spectacle, hard to credit in an educated modern democracy. It’s also a very sad spectacle in view of the prominent role the US plays in contributing to climate change and the potential leading role it could play in mitigating it. I often wonder what members of the party who take science seriously and understand climate change make of the phenomenon. A recent podcast interview with noted atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, a former registered Republican, indicates that for him at least it has meant becoming an Independent of conservative inclination.

Emanuel was a keynote speaker last year at a New Hampshire conference run during the Republican primaries by a group of Republican voters upset by their party’s anti-science rhetoric. As a result he was subjected to a torrent of particularly nasty hate mail, as reported on Mother Jones.

The interview I’m reporting in this post was conducted by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain. On the science Emanuel says the kind of things we hear from many climate scientists. But it’s always worth being reminded that such statements represent a very wide body of scientific opinion. I’ve picked out a couple of examples from the interview.

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You’ll see with your own eyes

An interesting piece in the Huffington Post recently reported Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives, warning the United States: “You can’t pick and choose on science.” The Maldives is one of the most threatened nations in the world from the sea level rise accompanying global warming. While he was President, Nasheed worked to make the country carbon-neutral, as reported on Hot Topic a couple of years ago. That won’t save the Maldives, of course, but it will at least show willing to do what other much larger nations must do to keep climate change within manageable limits. With a population of 300,000-plus, he said his country needs to complete around 200 projects to reach that goal, a process he believes would take about 10 years.

He acknowledges the United States has a bigger challenge, but they need to face up to it.

“It’s going to be difficult for the U.S. to be a world leader unless they themselves embrace it.”

The population of the Maldives see all too clearly the effects of climate change, but Nasheed acknowledges that Americans may need the evidence of their own eyes. They’ll be getting it:

“You will probably see many aberrations in climate patterns. You’ll have to see that and you’ll have to experience that for you to take this thing seriously.”

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