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Q&A with UM climate guru Steve Running

John S. Adams, Missoula News
Last spring, University of Montana ecologist and forestry professor Steve Running presented an abbreviated version of his increasingly popular lecture, “The Inconvenient Truth for Montana,” to a room full of environmental journalists.

Near the end of his keynote, Running outlined what he called his “Five Stages of Climate Grief.” Running’s adaptation of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ groundbreaking “Five Stages of Grief” starts with stage one: denial that global warming exists. Denial naturally precedes anger: “I do NOT want to change my lifestyle.” Then stage three bargaining sets in: “Warming won’t be that bad.” Things get bad at stage four, depression: “It’s too late, we’re doomed.” But finally, if all goes well, you might get to the fifth and final stage, acceptance: “Okay, it’s real, now let’s get to work.”

…In 2004 Running joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where he was the lead author of a report analyzing North America’s contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide and its impacts on the global climate. Gore based much of the scientific evidence for his documentary on the IPCC report, and on Oct. 12 Gore and the IPCC committee won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

Running, as one of the key members of the intergovernmental panel, shares in that award, making him Missoula’s first Nobel laureate since UM professor Harold Urey received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1934 for his discovery of heavy hydrogen.

…Indy: How long have you been studying climate change, and how have you witnessed Americans’ attitudes toward the issue evolve over time?

Running: I think in the scientific community we all got started back in the early 1980s-in a, you might say, politically innocent way-just simply realizing that we needed to start learning how to study the entire earth system. And so I go back to 1981 when NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] first called inviting me to start thinking about how to do earth system monitoring.

At that time there was no political tone to any of this at all. It was simply a scientific exercise in how to study, monitor and understand the whole earth.

…When I think of it now, the issue started to get political in 1988 when Dr. James Hansen [director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies] announced to Congress that global warming had started.

Indy: What happened to the issue both politically and socially after Hansen brought the idea of global warming to Congress?

Running: Well, I think back then even the rest of us earth scientists were a little stunned to hear him say that. We knew by then what computer models suggested for some future, decades away, but even we thought it was a little premature to be talking about global warming starting in 1988.

It’s interesting. Now that we look back at the graphs over the last 20 years, we discovered he was right.
(25 October 2007)

Climate expert says drought, flooding threaten Texas

Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle
A top climate scientist warned Wednesday that Texas faces a dual threat from floods and drought if global warming is left unchecked.

James Hansen, in Houston to speak before the Progressive Forum on Wednesday night, said predictions made two decades ago about the effects of a warming world are now beginning to come true.

“Texas is in the line of fire for double-barreled climate impacts,” said Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What we said in the 1980s, and is beginning to come true now, is that both ends of the hydrological cycle get intensified by global warming.”

A warmer climate increases evaporation, he said. It both sucks moisture from the ground, intensifying drought, and increases atmospheric humidity, which causes more rain to fall during extreme events.
(25 October 2007)

Climate change will hurt NM water supply

Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Researchers at New Mexico’s two largest universities are painting a grim picture of New Mexico’s economic and agricultural future with predictions that climate change will mean less water in the Rio Grande watershed.

New Mexico State University agricultural economics professor Brian Hurd and University of New Mexico civil engineering professor Julie Coonrod say a wide range of climate models predict warmer weather and a change in precipitation patterns in New Mexico.

The researchers said in a study released Tuesday that those changes could lead to a drop in the basin’s water supply by as little as a few percent or as much as one-third. That, in turn, could result in direct and indirect losses ranging between $13 million and $115 million by 2030 and from $21 million to more than $300 million by 2080.

The researchers noted that water is used by people, plants and animals and it’s used to grow food and provide economic and ecological benefits.

“Under current climate there is virtually no spare water in New Mexico,” the study says. “Imagine a very plausible future … of significantly less water and at the same time significantly more people.”
(24 October 2007)

Warming could wipe out half of all species

Alok Jha, The Guardian
Rising global temperatures caused by climate change could trigger a huge extinction of plants and animals, according to a study. Though humans would probably survive such an event, half of the world’s species could be wiped out.

Scientists at the University of York and the University of Leeds examined the relationship between climate and biodiversity over the past 520m years – almost the entire fossil record – and uncovered an association between the two for the first time. When the Earth’s temperatures are in a “greenhouse” climate phase, they found that extinctions rates were relatively high. Conversely, during cooler “icehouse” conditions, biodiversity increased.

The results, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that the predictions of a rapid rise in the Earth’s temperature due to man-made climate change could have a similar effect on biodiversity.

Peter Mayhew, a population ecologist at the University of York and one of the authors of the research paper, said: “Our results provide the first clear evidence that global climate may explain substantial variation in the fossil record in a simple and consistent manner. If our results hold for current warming – the magnitude of which is comparable with the long-term fluctuations in Earth climate – they suggest that extinctions will increase.”
(24 October 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.

Greenland’s ice sheet melts as temperatures rise

Heather O’Neill, CNN
ILULISSAT, Greenland (CNN) — From the air, Greenland’s ice sheet, the second largest on Earth, appears to be perfectly still.

But below the surface, the ice sheet is in constant motion, as ice built up in the interior pushes toward the coast in the form of massive glaciers. During warmer months, ice from these glaciers melts into the ocean.

It’s an age-old process that scientists say has speeded up in recent decades because of global warming.

The fear is that melting ice from Greenland and other Arctic areas could cause sea levels to rise enough to flood low-lying cities, such as Shanghai, China, and New York City, displacing millions of people in the process.

A recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of scientists from around the world, estimates the sea level rise by 2100 could be as much as 1½ feet.

“That sea level rise is only based on melt from ice sheets, and does not include a new fast flow of ice we have detected in Greenland that is generating additional icebergs,” said Dr. Konrad Steffen, a climate scientist with the University of Colorado, Boulder.
(24 October 2007)

Expert: Health risks rise as Earth warms

David Whitney, Sacramento Bee
CDC director says there’s no question about climate change’s negative impact

WASHINGTON – From algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay to heat waves, drought and fires consuming the West, global warming is stirring up health problems that are likely to worsen, witnesses told a Senate committee Tuesday.

They pointed to as many as 35,000 deaths in 2003 during a summer heat wave in Europe. They cited the spread of the West Nile virus, unseen in the United States eight years ago, to 47 states.

It’s not a question of whether there will be health impacts from global warming, said Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s a question of who, where, when and how,” she said.

The testimony came during the 19th hearing this year on global warming held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
(24 October 2007)