Outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn

The UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, known as COP 23, concluded on Saturday. Its goal was to draft the rules and processes needed to translate the spirit of the historic Paris Agreement into action.

Years in the making, the 2015 Paris Agreement set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). But when added up, the current collection of NDCs, which vary widely in ambition, will miss the 2°C goal.  In fact, they would allow for a 3.2°C (5.76°F) rise in the global temperature. This is why the agreement requires countries to reassess their plans every five years once it goes into effect in 2020.

One of the main goals of the Bonn meeting was to create a standardized rulebook for the monitoring and reporting of these independent undertakings. While some progress was made, the negotiators agreed to wait until the end of 2018 to finalize these vital rules. However, they did agree to begin discussing the NDC shortfall and the need to increase ambitions before 2020 at the next COP. This process was labeled the “Talanoa Dialogue”, which is a tradition of inclusive and transparent conversation used to resolve differences without blame in Fiji – the official host of this year’s conference.

The issue of financing climate adaptation – the touchy subject having wealthy nations pay to help poor nations adapt to climate change – was also pushed down the road. However, the delegates did establish an expert group to discuss the issue of “loss and damages”.

Although ratified in record time, the Paris Agreement is a fragile accord. All commitments are voluntary and vulnerable to the political will of individual governments – both now and in the future. Moreover, there are no penalties for those who do not live up to their promises.

That said, on the second day of this two-week conference, war-torn Syria announced that it would sign the Paris pact. This move now leaves the US as the only country not part of the global agreement. The Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw the US from the accord in June.

Outside of the formal COP meetings, the positive spirit of the Paris Agreement pushed forward. Nineteen countries and several sub-national actors (states and cities) created the “Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Its aim is to phase out the use of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, by 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, coal still powers 40% of the world’s electricity.

The Bonn meeting was the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was lead by Fiji but held in Germany because of logistical concerns on the small island nation.The next conference (COP 24) will take place in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland.

Credit: UN

October 2017: Earth’s Fourth Warmest on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with October 2017 tying October 2003 as the fourth warmest October ever recorded on this planet. Only October 2014, 2015, and 2016 were warmer.

According to the State of the Climate Report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 58.41°F. That is 1.31°F above the 20th-century average. October was also the 394th consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

It is also interesting to note that the ten warmest Octobers on record have all occurred in the 21st century.

While heat dominated most of the planet last month, some places were particularly warm, including much of Europe, northern Russia, and the northeastern United States. For the contiguous US as a whole, the month ranked among the warmest third of the historical record.

These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. In fact, a weak La Niña – the cool counterpart of El Niño – developed in the tropical Pacific during October.

Year to date, the first ten months of 2017 were the third warmest such period of any year on record. With only two months left, 2017 is expected to end up among the top three warmest years ever recorded on this planet. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

October 2017 was the planet’s 4th warmest October on record. Credit: NOAA 

Syria Signs Paris Climate Agreement, Leaving US as Lone Holdout

The United States is now the only country on the planet not part of the Paris Climate Agreement.

On Tuesday, Syria announced that it would sign the historic accord to limit global warming. The surprising declaration came at COP23, the UN Climate Change Conference that is currently taking place in Bonn, Germany. The move comes on the heels of Nicaragua signing the pact in October.

Years in the making, the Paris Agreement set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

When the deal was struck in 2015, Syria was in the midst of a destructive civil war and Nicaragua refused to sign because if felt the agreement did not go far enough to rein in carbon pollution. The US on the other hand, under the Obama Administration, played a critical role in making the deal a reality. But President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax”, announced plans to withdraw the US from the global pact earlier this year.

Following the rules of the agreement, however, the US cannot officially pull out of the deal until 2020. In the meantime, the administration says it will only re-enter the global accord if it can renegotiate more favorable terms. The rest of the world, however, seems ready to move forward on this critical issue without the US.

The US is the only country not part of the Paris Climate Agreement. Credit: Quartz

Massive Federal Science Report Says Humans Cause Climate Change

The Fourth US National Climate Assessment (NCA4) was released on Friday. It clearly states that climate change is real, it is happening now, and human activities are the main cause.

The first volume of the assessment – the Climate Science Special Report – says the average global temperature has increased 1.8°F (1°C) during the past 115 years (1901-2016). “This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization,” according to the report. It also says that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Going even further, the report concludes, “there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

With a focus on the US, the report says the average annual temperature in the contiguous forty-eight states has increased by 1.2°F (0.7°C) since 1986, relative to the previous century. It is projected to increase 2.5°F (1.4°C) by 2050.

In addition to warming, other aspects of climate change are highlighted in the massive report. One of these is sea level rise. Since 1900, the average global sea level has gone up 8 inches. Of that total, a 3-inch rise has occurred since 1993. This rate of rising, according to the report, “is greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years.”

Moving forward, all projections show sea level continuing to rise. An increase of several inches is likely in the next fifteen years and 1 to 4 feet is estimated by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by the end of the century, however, “cannot be ruled out”, the report warns. This is especially true if the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica prove to be more sensitive to rising temperatures than expected. In cities along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, where daily tidal flooding is already a problem, sea level rise is forecast to be even higher than the global average.

The report also contains details on how extreme weather is changing across the US. For example, heavy rainfall events are ”increasing in intensity and duration” nationwide with the biggest increases happening in the northeast. In the west, the incidence of large forest fires has been rising since 1980 and is expected to increase even further in the coming years. Heat waves, unsurprisingly, have also become more frequent while cold waves have become less frequent.

Looking beyond the next few decades, the NCA says the magnitude of climate change depends on the amount of greenhouse gases that are added to the atmosphere. The level of carbon dioxide in the air today has already passed 400 parts per million, a number not seen in 3 million years. If emissions are not reined in, the average global temperature could increase by as much as 9°F (5°C) by the end of this century. According to the report, “the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts.”

Mandated by Congress under the Global Change Research Act of 1990, this exhaustive climate report was produced by hundreds of experts from government agencies as well as academia and was peer-reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Published every four years, it is considered this country’s most authoritative statement on climate change.

Its findings, however, are in stark contrast to the words and actions of the Trump Administration. The President has called climate change a “hoax” and in June announced that he is withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement – an international accord that aims to reduce greenhouse gases and limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F). The US and Syria are now the only two countries not part of the historic agreement.

Global annual average temperature (left) and surface temperature change for the period 1986–2016 relative to 1901–1960. Credit: NCA4

Road Trip Highlights US Environmental History and Shows Big Changes are Possible

Last week, I was in Pittsburgh, PA to serve as a Mentor at a Climate Reality Project training event. Having never been in that part of the country before, I spent a few extra days to explore the area. The overall experience felt like a road trip through US environmental history and was a great reminder that large-scale changes are possible, especially in this era of climate policy backpedaling.

First stop: Donora, PA. This Pittsburgh suburb was the site of the “Killer Smog of 1948”. As the longtime home of the Donora Zinc Works Factory and the American Steel and Wire Plant, smoke-filled skies were not unusual here in the early part of the 20th century. In October 1948, however, the air turned deadly. An inversion layer, a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing, trapped emissions from the factories. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases created a thick, yellowish smog. It hung over the area until the weather pattern changed five days later. As a result, twenty-six people died and thousands of others became ill.

This tragedy garnered national attention and spurred federal regulations on air pollution. In 1955, Congress provided funding for pollution research and later passed the Clean Air Act of 1963. In 1970, the EPA was created and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which established national air quality standards.

Donora is proud of their role in this change in national environmental policy. Outside of their local Historical Society/Smog Museum is a sign that says “Clean Air Started Here”.

Another highlight of this trip was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeastern Ohio. Established as a National Recreation Area in 1974 and upgraded to a National Park in 2000, it reclaimed and now preserves the natural landscape along twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland, OH. While relatively small, the river is an icon of American environmental history.

Starting in the late 1800s, the river became highly industrialized. For more than a century, the steel mills and factories that lined its banks dumped untreated waste directly into the river. The Cuyahoga became so polluted that it caught on fire thirteen times.

The last time was June 22, 1969, when sparks from a passing train ignited the oil and debris floating in the water. This fire, while not the largest or deadliest in the river’s history, caught the attention of Time Magazine and became national news. Appearing in their August 1 issue, the article described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows”.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, river fires were common and seen as the price of industrial progress and prosperity. By the 1960’s, however, that way of thinking was starting to change. The country was becoming more environmentally aware and the Cuyahoga River fire put a national spotlight on the need to protect waterways from industrial pollution. The event helped to galvanize the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

In the years since, the Cuyahoga River has made an amazing comeback. Bald Eagles – a symbolic emblem of this country – have returned to fish its waters and nest along its banks. In 1998, it was designated as an American Heritage River to recognize its historical significance.

Today, our environmental challenge is the carbon pollution that drives climate change. Its solution, as with conservation issues in the past, lies with policy adjustments. While these types of large changes can sometimes seem impossible, history reminds us that they are not. All that is required is the will to act. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Cuyahoga River, past and present. Credit: Cleveland State University Library

Nicaragua Joins the Paris Climate Agreement, Leaving Only US and Syria as Outsiders

Nicaragua has announced that it will sign the Paris Climate Agreement. This move leaves Syria and the United States as the only two countries that are not participating in the historic pact.

Years in the making, the Paris Agreement of 2015 set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Based on the current collection of NDCs, the agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. It does, however, legally obligate countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated and to ratchet up their plans every five years.

Nicaragua initially rejected the deal, saying it did not go far enough to fight climate change. They were particularly skeptical of the voluntary pledge system and the lack of an enforcement mechanism for countries that did not live up to their commitments.

Their position, however, has now changed. In a radio interview, Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s Vice-President and First Lady, said: “Despite not being the ideal agreement, it is the only instrument we have in the world that allows the unity of intentions and efforts to face up to climate change and natural disasters.”

The US government on the other hand, under the Trump Administration, has rejected the science of climate change and called the deal an economic hindrance. In June, Mr. Trump announced that he is withdrawing the US from the global agreement that his predecessor helped to bring about. Syria, the other country not part of the accord, is in the middle of a civil war.

Nicaragua’s decision to join the Paris Agreement comes just weeks before the next UN Climate Change Conference – COP23 – begins in Bonn, Germany. There, delegates from all the signatories will flesh out the rules of the accord, discuss setting more ambitious emission-cutting targets for 2020, and negotiate the universal sticking point of how to pay for the impacts of climate change.

Credit: USAID

September 2017: Earth’s Fourth Warmest on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with September 2017 marking the fourth warmest September ever recorded on this planet. Only September 2014, 2015, and 2016 were warmer.

According to the State of the Climate Report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 60.4°F. That is 1.4°F above the 20th-century average. September was also the 393rd consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

While heat dominated most of the planet in September, some places were particularly warm, including much of Canada and parts of Asia. For the contiguous US, the month ranked among the warmest third of the historical record.

These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. ENSO-neutral conditions prevailed in September, which means there was neither an El Niño nor a La Niña to influence global weather patterns.

Year to date, the first nine months of 2017 were the second warmest such period of any year on record. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

Credit: NOAA

Climate Change Indicator: Arctic Sea Ice

There are a number of key indicators, beyond our rising global temperature, that show Earth’s climate is changing. One of these is Arctic sea ice.

Measured via satellite since the late 1970’s, the extent and thickness of sea ice tend to vary from year to year but both have been in an overall decline for decades. According to NASA, the melt season in the Arctic has increased by 37 days since 1979.

Sea ice extent, the area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice, has a strong seasonal cycle. It typically peaks in March as winter ends and then declines during the summer, reaching a minimum in September. In March 2017, it hit a record low maximum for the third year in a row. The record minimum occurred in September 2012.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the average age of Arctic sea ice is also changing. Thick multi-year ice – the ice that lasts through at least one melt season – has decreased 11% per decade since the satellite era began. That means there is more first-year ice, which tends to be thin and brittle. This is troublesome because it is more vulnerable to warming temperatures and wave action.

Sea ice is frozen ocean water. It forms, grows, and melts in the ocean. In contrast to land ice (glaciers), it does not contribute to sea level rise. However, as it melts it creates a global warming feedback loop. Ice is lighter in color and reflects more sunlight than dark ocean water. So, as more ocean water is exposed, more of the sun’s energy is absorbed. This drives temperatures up even further and causes more ice to melt.

The Arctic is now warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet – a phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification.”  At this rate, scientists expect the region to be ice-free in summer by the 2030s.

Credit: NSIDC

Earth Posts Third Warmest August and Summer on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month. August 2017 marked not only the third warmest August on record but also closed out the planet’s third warmest June to August period, which is known as meteorological summer in the northern hemisphere.

According to the State of the Climate report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for August – over both land and sea surfaces – was 61.59°F, which is 1.49°F above the 20th-century average. Only August 2015 and 2016 were warmer.

This August also marked the 392nd consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

The three-month period of June, July, and August was also unusually warm. NOAA reports that Earth’s average temperature for the season was 1.46°F above the 20th century average of 60.1°F. That makes it the third warmest such period on record, trailing only the 2016 and 2015 seasons.

While heat dominated most of the planet this summer, some places were particularly warm, including parts of Europe, the Middle East, and the western United States. For the contiguous US as a whole, it was our fifteenth warmest summer on record.

These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. ENSO-neutral conditions prevailed in August, which means there was neither an El Niño nor a La Niña in the Pacific to influence global weather patterns.

Year to date, the first eight months of 2017 were the second warmest such period of any year on record. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

Credit: NOAA

Climate Week NYC 2017

Climate Week NYC begins on Monday.

This annual global summit takes place alongside the UN General Assembly and brings together leaders from a variety of sectors, including business, government, and civil society, to discuss climate change. Organized by The Climate Group since 2009, the goal of the conference and its affiliate events is to raise awareness and keeping climate action at the top of the global agenda. This year’s event will focus on the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement and UN sustainable development goals.

Public events in support of the summit’s mission are scheduled all week around the city, from September 18-24. They range in style from panel discussions and seminars to concerts and exhibitions. For the full program of events, go to the Climate Week website.

Credit: The Climate Group