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McKibben interview: Global warming is about to hit high gear

Asheville Citizens-Times (N. Carolina)
…The real scientific debate about global ended almost a decade ago, in terms of whether or not humans were warming up the planet, and whether or not it was going to be a big problem. Basically, almost all the world’s climatologists climbed on board with this idea by the late 1990s. …What’s happened in the last two or three years, and I think about now, finally, is that most of the general public is where scientists were 10 years ago. They are now discovering that it could be a potentially severe problem. It’s good that public opinion has reached this level.

The problem is that science has now progressed considerably further and it has become clear that global warming is an even more serious problem and that it’s proceeding even more rapidly.

…China has a large amount of coal and they will burn it unless we take some of the wealth that we piled up in 200 years of using fossil fuel and filling the atmosphere with carbon and transfer it to them in the form of technology. That is going to have to be one of the bargains that the world makes. We will build windmills for you across Mongolia if you stop building coal-fired plants. The process of that kind of transfer is one of the things that would have happened under the Kyoto protocols. There would have been a mechanism to begin to get Americans to meet their carbon reduction targets, like by building windmills in China.

…The Chinese and the Americans have sort of emerged as each others’ enablers for doing nothing on this topic.

…this process seems to be happening more quickly than people would have guessed. I think that there was a time when we thought that the biggest effects were going to be in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes, but it is pretty clear that these effects are in everyone’s lifetimes.

…Any kind of weather gets amped up. It is that extra solar energy that causes everything that happens including things like wind speed and storms. Harvard School of Public Health and one of the biggest insurance companies just issued a report in the fall talking about how there might well be in the future big swaths in this country that, in essence, will be uninsurable and where “natural disasters” – although by now they are no longer very natural – will strike so regularly that basically there will be parts of the country reduced for long periods to the economic level of a developing country.

…I am very interested in these questions of strong local economies, partly because I think they are more efficient and practical and they make better use of resources. I think they are far better at building and promoting real and strong relationships between people. One of the interesting things about them is that is it not about whether it’s a liberal or conservative idea, local economies have some of each. It is more about community and less about individualism.

…Beyond that, the government has to do the kind of planning that is going on in the other countries of the developing world. Every country in Europe has announced plans for how they are going to reduce carbon emissions by 50-60 percent over the course of the next few decades. It will be hard for them meet those targets, because they are already pretty lean on their use of energy. It would be easy for us because we waste so much

…AC-T: You are a Sunday school teacher in the Methodist Church and it sounds as though for you there is a spiritual/religious component that goes with all your activism on this issue. Does it feel to you like a call or a responsibility of a Christian to respond?

McKibben: I think it is a responsibility. Since we are called to read the signs of our times, there is no more obvious sign of our times at the moment than the fact that the temperature is going up and going up sharply, and it’s going to devastate God’s creation and devastate human communities around the world. I think people who are serious about their faith have very little choice but to be deeply engaged in this question.

Bill McKibben is the author of eight books, most notably “The End of Nature,” one of the most important works of the environmental movement…
(14 May 2006)
Long interview.

The Great Coral Reef disaster

Geoffrey Lean, The Independent
US admits for first time that global warming is killing reefs – and will now be legally obliged to protect them
Global warming is killing coral reefs, the Bush administration has formally admitted. And the admission means that, under US law, it will finally be obliged to take action to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has this month ruled that two species of coral – elkhorn and staghorn – must officially be registered as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, partly because they are imperilled by rising sea temperatures. They are the first species ever to be listed as a result of global warming.

The two corals are the main reef-building species in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Florida, but they have declined by 80 to 98 per cent throughout the region. The NMFS – part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – concluded that “elevation of the sea surface temperature” was partly to blame. The ruling accepts that the corals die when the sea temperature exceeds 29C, because a curious relationship between tiny algae and the coral breaks down.
(14 May 2006)

World Bank: China, India are fast-growing polluters [but the West is tops]

Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters via ABC News
Greenhouse gas pollution from China and India rose steeply over the last decade, but rich countries, including the United States, remain the world’s biggest polluters, a World Bank official said on Wednesday.

The United States accounts for nearly a quarter — 24 percent — of all emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming, said Steen Jorgensen, the bank’s acting vice-president for sustainable development.

The countries of the European Monetary Union contribute 10 percent.

But China and India are catching up. …China, the world’s second-largest polluter after the United States, increased carbon dioxide emissions by 33 percent between 1992 and 2002, according to the bank’s “Little Green Data Book,” a survey of world environmental impact released on Tuesday. India’s emissions rose 57 percent over the same period.
(10 May 2006)
Related: Bloomberg.
World Bank press release

Carbon dioxide levels accelerating

AAP, The Age
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and some other greenhouse gases grew at record rates last year, a CSIRO scientist says.

But some of the worst ozone-depleting gases in the atmosphere had showed a drop over the past eight years, said Paul Fraser, from CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research.

The results of the testing at the Cape Grim meteorological station in Tasmania will feature at a climate meeting in Sydney tomorrow.

Dr Fraser said carbon dioxide grew by two parts per million (0.54 per cent) in 2005, the fourth year in a row of above-average growth.

“To have four years in a row of above-average carbon dioxide growth is unprecedented,” Dr Fraser said in a statement.

“In addition, the trend over recent years suggests the growth rate is accelerating.”

He said the 30-year record of air collected at the Cape Grim observation station showed growth rates of just over one part per million in the early 1980s but, in recent years, carbon dioxide had increased at almost twice this rate.

“This is a clear signal that fossil fuels are having an impact on greenhouse gas concentrations in a way we haven’t seen in the past,” Dr Fraser said.

…Dr Fraser said there was some good news for the atmosphere.

“Concentrations of methane, the second most important gas responsible for the enhanced greenhouse effect, have not grown for six years,” he said.
(15 May 2006)

West’s Failure over Climate Change ‘Will Kill 182m Africans’

Philip Thornton, The Independent via Common Dreams
The poorest people in the world will be the chief victims of the West’s failure to tackle global warning, with millions of Africans forecast to die by the end of the century, Christian Aid says in a report out today.

The potential ravages of climate change are so severe that they could nullify the efforts to end the legacy of poverty and disease across developing countries, the charity says.

The report highlights the fact that, despite hand-wringing in the West about the threat to its coastlines from rising temperatures, it is the poorest who are likely to suffer most. It estimates that a “staggering” 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could die of disease directly attributable to climate change by 2100. Many millions more face death and devastation from climate-induced floods, famine, drought and conflict.
(15 May 2006)
Related article from Associated Press.

Long-haul breaks spell bad news for the climate

Michael McCarthy, The Independent
… A growing number of people who have money coming out of their ears but not the hours in the day to spend it – who are cash-rich but time-poor, as the jargon has it – are turning to a new form of relaxation, the long-haul short break.

Talk about the world shrinking. You might just have got your head around the idea of a weekend in New York. But how about a weekend in Dubai or a couple of days in Bangkok?

Plenty of trendy souls doing just that, according to, the internet gratifier of spur-of-the-moment travel impulses. People are happy to take short trips to places as far afield as Beijing and Hong Kong, the company says, with sales for long-haul short breaks 35 per cent up on the same time last year, and more than 90 per cent up on 2001.

…But from a green point of view, the story is quite different: the continuing breakneck growth of air travel. The normality of a quick break in a distant location indicates what a thorny political problem is being presented by the environmental consequences of air travel.

A government seeking to restrict flying’s runaway growth may find itself popular with green activists, but not with the much bigger mass of voters. It will be a brave prime minister who signs off on any attempt to cut it back, through tax increases for example, with an election on the horizon.

Yet air travel’s seemingly unstoppable growth is making a growing and disproportionate contribution to climate change. Exhaust emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) from jet exhausts are not only voluminous – they go straight into the stratosphere, so their effect on the climate is much quicker than emissions at ground level.
(15 May 2006)

Meltdown fear as Arctic ice cover falls to record winter low

David Adam, Guardian
Record amounts of the Arctic ocean failed to freeze during the recent winter, new figures show, spelling disaster for wildlife and strengthening concerns that the region is locked into a destructive cycle of irreversible climate change.

Satellite measurements show the area covered by Arctic winter sea ice reached an all-time low in March, down some 300,000 square kilometres on last year -an area bigger than the UK.

Scientists say the decline highlights an alarming new trend, with recovery of the ice in winter no longer sufficient to compensate for increased melting in the summer. If the cycle continues, the Arctic ocean could lose all of its ice much earlier than expected, possibly by 2030.
(15 May 2006)

Scientists Explain How They Attribute Climate-Change Data

Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal
For laypeople, one of the toughest things about science isn’t understanding what science knows, but grasping how it knows what it knows. The process seems like a black box. Questions go in one end, answers mysteriously emerge from the other.

Case in point: climate change.

Earth has warmed 1.4° Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. Skeptics concede that. But they scoff at the claim that the warming is caused by greenhouse gases from, in particular, the burning of coal, oil and gas, contending that it is more likely due to the climate system’s natural variability or to natural “forcings,” such as a hotter sun. After all, glaciers and arctic sea ice melted long before the first smokestack or tailpipe existed.

True. But as climatologists refine “detection and attribution” studies, they are getting better at discerning the fingerprints of changes that are so physically or statistically anomalous that they couldn’t be natural. “Different factors that affect climate — human or natural — have unique signatures,” says climatologist Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, California.

One signature is the pattern of warming in the atmosphere. Decades of data from satellites and weather balloons show that the lower atmosphere, or troposphere, has warmed while the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere, has cooled. “If you turn up the sun’s energy output, the atmosphere should warm from the stratosphere to the surface,” says Dr. Santer. “That’s contrary to what’s observed. But greenhouse gases do not produce a uniform warming. They warm the troposphere and cool the stratosphere.”

Another signature is the pattern of warming in the seas. Some 84% of the total heating of Earth over the past 40 years has gone into warming oceans about 1°. (The 84% comes from calculating the heat needed to melt glaciers and warm air and water; oceans, being so huge, suck up most of the heat.) In theory, a hotter sun could be the culprit. But the sun has increased its energy output less than 0.1% over that time, according to satellite data. That isn’t enough to explain even a few percent of the warming, says marine scientist Tim Barnett of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, Calif., who led a 2005 study on ocean warming, published in Science.
(12 May 2006)
Recommended by David Roberts at Gristmill who says:

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is responsible for a great deal of the FUD that still surrounds global warming. But their news operation is top notch.

Case in point: Here’s an excellent, plain-language explanation for how climate scientists attribute warming to human activity, from Sharon Begley. Bookmark it and send the link to friends who’ve been reading too many WSJ editorials.

Americans and Climate Change: Intro and executive summary

David Roberts, Gristmill
We’ve talked a great deal on this site about how best to “frame” global warming. How can we shrink the gap between what science tells us about the dangers of climate change and the relative disengagement of the American public? How can we get the public fired up and thus spur more aggressive policy responses?

That’s the subject of “Americans and Climate Change,” a new report from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, based on a conference held late last year. The 200-page report can be ordered in book form or downloaded for free as a PDF (uh, PDF). (It’s written by Associate Dean Daniel Abbasi, based on notes from the conference.)
(15 May 2006)