France

#ClimateChange among Top Risks Facing World – WEF #StopAdani #auspol #qldpol

Extreme Weather and Climate Change Among Top Risks Facing World – WEF | UNFCCC

Extreme weather events such as coastal storms and droughts, failure to reduce carbon emissions and build climate resilience, and natural disasters are among the top risks that pose a serious threat to global stability, according the latest Global Risks Report 2018 published by the World Economic Forum.

The intensification of environmental and climate related risks comes on the heels of a year characterized by high-impact hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – causing major destruction in the US and the Caribbean island states, extreme temperatures and the first rise in global CO2 emissions in four years.

Speaking about the report, Alison Martin, Group Chief Risk Officer of Zurich Insurance Group, said: “Extreme weather events were ranked as a top global risk by likelihood and impact. Environmental risks, together with a growing vulnerability to other risks, are now seriously threatening the foundation of most of our commons.

Unfortunately, we currently observe a too-little-too-late response by governments and organisations to key trends such as climate change.

It’s not yet too late to share a more resilient tomorrow, but we need to act with a stronger sense of urgency in order to avoid potential system collapse.”

The report was published a few days before the beginning of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which will be attended by the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa.

In Davos, the UN’s top climate change official will meet with government and non-state leaders to discuss how to drive forward the implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the key international agreement designed limit the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius, thereby preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

The report notes that climate action initiated by a growing network of cities, states and businesses is emerging as an important means of countering climate change and other environmental risks.

Global risks are increasingly interconnected

The report also warns that biodiversity is being lost at mass-extinction rates, agricultural systems are under strain, global food supply is in danger, and pollution of the air and sea has become an increasingly pressing threat to human health. Some of these risks can cause a chain of events – large scale displacement, water scarcity – that could jeopardize social, political and economic stability in many regions of the world.

For instance, the latest data shows that over 75% of the 31 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.

Among the 30 global risks the experts were asked to prioritize in terms of likelihood and impact, five risks – extreme weather, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, major natural disasters and man-made environmental disasters, and failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change – were ranked highly on both dimensions.

The report points out the interconnectedness that exists both among these environmental risks and between them and risks in other categories – such as water crises and involuntary migration. Also notable is the economic cost attached to natural disasters and coastal storms that cause devastation of critical infrastructure.

The report suggests that a trend towards nation-state unilateralism could make it more difficult to sustain the long-term, multilateral responses that are required to counter rising temperatures and the degradation of the global environment.

The report – which shares the perspectives of global experts and decision makers on the most significant risks that face the world – asked nearly 1,000 respondents for the views about the trajectory of risks in 2018. Nearly 60% of them pointed to an intensification of risks, compared with just 7% pointing to declining risks.

See the relevant World Economic Forum press release.

Download the Global Risks Report 2018 here.

Press link for more: COP23.UNFCCC.INT

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Biodiversity destruction. #StopAdani #auspol #Qldpol

Could biodiversity destruction lead to a global tipping point?

We are destroying the world’s biodiversity. Yet debate has erupted over just what this means for the planet – and us.

By

Jeremy Hance

Jeremy Hance is a wildlife blogger for the Guardian and a journalist with Mongabay focusing on forests, indigenous people, climate change and more. He is also the author of Life is Good: Conservation in an Age of Mass Extinction.

Just over 250 million years ago, the planet suffered what may be described as its greatest holocaust: ninety-six percent of marine genera (plural of genus) and seventy percent of land vertebrate vanished for good. Even insects suffered a mass extinction – the only time before or since.

Entire classes of animals – like trilobites – went out like a match in the wind.

But what’s arguably most fascinating about this event – known as the Permian-Triassic extinction or more poetically, the Great Dying – is the fact that anything survived at all.

Life, it seems, is so ridiculously adaptable that not only did thousands of species make it through whatever killed off nearly everything (no one knows for certain though theories abound) but, somehow, after millions of years life even recovered and went on to write new tales.

Even as the Permian-Triassic extinction event shows the fragility of life, it also proves its resilience in the long-term. The lessons of such mass extinctions – five to date and arguably a sixth happening as I write – inform science today. Given that extinction levels are currently 1,000 (some even say 10,000) times the background rate, researchers have long worried about our current destruction of biodiversity – and what that may mean for our future Earth and ourselves.

In 2009, a group of researchers identified nine global boundaries for the planet that if passed could theoretically push the Earth into an uninhabitable state for our species. These global boundaries include climate change, freshwater use, ocean acidification and, yes, biodiversity loss (among others). The group has since updated the terminology surrounding biodiversity, now calling it “biosphere integrity,” but that hasn’t spared it from critique.

A paper last year in Trends in Ecology & Evolution scathingly attacked the idea of any global biodiversity boundary.

It makes no sense that there exists a tipping point of biodiversity loss beyond which the Earth will collapse,” said co-author and ecologist, José Montoya, with Paul Sabatier Univeristy in France. “There is no rationale for this.

Montoya wrote the paper along with Ian Donohue, an ecologist at Trinity College in Ireland and Stuart Pimm, one of the world’s leading experts on extinctions, with Duke University in the US.

Montoya, Donohue and Pimm argue that there isn’t evidence of a point at which loss of species leads to ecosystem collapse, globally or even locally. If the planet didn’t collapse after the Permian-Triassic extinction event, it won’t collapse now – though our descendants may well curse us for the damage we’ve done.

Instead, according to the researchers, every loss of species counts. But the damage is gradual and incremental, not a sudden plunge. Ecosystems, according to them, slowly degrade but never fail outright.

“Of more than 600 experiments of biodiversity effects on various functions, none showed a collapse,” Montoya said. “In general, the loss of species has a detrimental effect on ecosystem functions…We progressively lose pollination services, water quality, plant biomass, and many other important functions as we lose species. But we never observe a critical level of biodiversity over which functions collapse.”

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be deeply concerned about biodiversity, according to the researchers. Instead, we should worry about every species lost and not focus on a theoretical line in the sand.

“It is in fact the planetary boundary argument that implies that there is a lot of biodiversity that has no value. There is no problem with losing a small number of species, the argument goes,” Montoya said. “We argue that even small losses of biodiversity have important consequences for ecosystem function and service provisioning.”

In other words, extinction of species may not result in a total collapse of our ecosystems – but the more we lose, the less productive, efficient, and healthy our environment will be. And the more at risk we put ourselves.

Boundary scientists fire back

But, the Stockholm Resilience Centre recently published a long response to Montoya’s paper in the usual way of scientific sparring – publications going back and forth like boxers exchanging blows.

Johan Rockström the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and one of the leading researchers on planetary boundaries, said that Montoya’s critique didn’t stand up to scrutiny because its authors misunderstood the definitions built around the “biosphere integrity planetary boundary.”

Rockström agrees that there is no evidence of a planetary tipping point when it comes to biodiversity. According to Rockström, biodiversity decline does not have a hard planetary boundary like, say, climate change. Instead he describes biodiversity as a variable that operates “under the hood of the planetary system” because it influences the stability of our climate, ozone layer and oceans – all of which Rockström contends have very clear planetary boundaries.

Johan Rockstrom

Let the environment guide our development

A TED talk by Johan Rockström.

“We have never suggested a planetary scale biodiversity tipping point…” Rockström said. “Instead, the rational for biodiversity as a planetary boundary is that the composition of trees, plants, microbes in soils, phytoplankton in oceans, top predators in ecosystems…together constitute a fundamental core contributor to regulating the state of the planet.”

According to Rockström, biodiversity is one of the pillars supporting our planet – and if too much biodiversity is lost we risk “triggering a tipping point” in our climate or oceans, which in turn could risk pushing the planet into a new state.

“Without biodiversity, no ecosystems. No ecosystems, no biomes. No biomes, no living regulator of all the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and water,” he added.

Rockström says biodiversity loss could risk the “safe operating space” for humans, leaving us in an alien world increasingly hostile to our own survival. For example, life would still survive under apocalyptic climate change – but we may not.

While ecosystems may not fully collapse, scientists have found that some ecosystems can undergo what they are called “regime shifts.” Coral reefs, overheated by climate change, will shift to a much less productive, much less biodiverse algae-based ecosystem. Climate change, or alternatively humans with chainsaws and fire, can shift forest ecosystems to grasslands. While none of these ecosystems may wholly collapse, they will look nothing like they did after the shift occurs.

Montoya admits that such regime shifts “do actually happen” and is “well established” for some ecosystems – like forests, coral reefs and Arctic sea ice – though “unclear” if it happens in all ecosystems or only a few.

And he adds, perhaps most importantly, that “the mechanisms [of regime shifts] have nothing to do with biodiversity loss.” Instead, they have been driven by climate change or human actions – such as clear-cutting.

Debating definitions

It may be that unclear or shifting definitions are at the root of the dispute.

“Fatally, the boundaries framework lacks clear definitions, or it has too many conflicting definitions, does not specify units, and fails to define terms operationally, thus prohibiting application by those who set policy,” Montoya, Donohut and Pimm write in the paper.

But Rockström contends that when understood correctly the planetary boundary framework holds up to scientific scrutiny. He says planetary boundaries do not mean that humanity can just destroy and upend all the way up to a red line without consequences.

“This is of course just nonsense,” he noted, arguing that the planetary boundary for biosphere integrity is magnitudes more ambitious than the Aichi Targets from the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement set on preserving biodiversity – though already several goals have not been met.

“If the world is able to reduce biodiversity loss below the planetary boundary this would not only require major conservation efforts across the world,” he said, adding that “once inside the safe operating space, we would of course have to continue on a sustainable pathway.”

The Wider Image: Battling deforestation in the Amazon

Burning forest is seen during “Operation Green Wave” conducted by agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, to combat illegal logging in Apui, in the southern region of the state of Amazonas, Brazil, August 4, 2017.

Photograph: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Rockström said that he believes the disputing researchers have much more in common than their infighting would imply.

“We are [all] working to safeguard biodiversity for sustainable development. We are [all] in the same camp. Complementing each other, they at the ecosystem level, us at the planetary level.”

But Montoya and his group stand by their criticism and are working on a second paper responding to Rockström and his team.

While Montoya’s paper does not critique the other eight planetary boundaries in their paper, Montoya told me that each of the boundaries – even the physical ones – have faced “a lot of controversy.”

“They all suffer from the tipping-point problem,” he said, “which we argue promotes a business-as-usual ethos and distracts us from taking the action that is urgently needed.”

In many ways one could argue that the planetary boundary is an easy and simple way to explain environmental impacts to world leaders – few of whom have any education on ecology or the environment – and the public.

But Montoya argues that the planetary boundaries concept is doing more harm than good.

“Poor or ill-founded science ultimately brings about ineffectual policies at best – and potentially highly damaging ones – and erodes trust in scientists,” he said.

And this can have real world impacts: Montoya and colleagues point to forest policy in Europe as one example.

“The assumption that there is a critical biodiversity level below which forest functioning will collapse prompted managers [to] plant resilient tree species to climate change, pests, and disease,” Montoya explained, adding, “this was recommended to avoid reaching a tipping point in forest service provisioning, primarily timber production.” But the recommendations have resulted in endangered old growth forests and native species, according to Montoya.

A man offers for sale a wounded common buzzard (buteo buteo) in a national road near the village of Thumane on November 8, 2017. The excessive hunting of predatory birds, including eagles the national symbol of Albania, used for stuffing to adorn restaurants or be sold as souvenirs, has led to a serious decline of the population. Worldwide overhunting is one of the major threats to wildlife. Photograph: Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images

While the on-going debate over planetary boundaries is deeply academic and wonky, it is not without importance to the public. How we communicate environmental crises – and the accuracy of the science that underpins that communication – proves more important with every passing year, as the world walks into climate and ecological uncertainty.

Yes, life itself survived the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event – but most species did not. Believe me, humans probably wouldn’t have survived the tens-of-millions of years that followed the Great Dying: oxygen levels were dangerously low, food would have been scarce, and the world would have looked largely barren and wasted even as some species and ecosystems managed to survive. Outside the moral dilemma of extinction, there is no question that if humans push more-and-more species into oblivion there will be impacts on our society – and they could become catastrophic.

Humans evolved 248 million years later in an Earth that was far more biodiverse and rich, a kind of Eden of abundance and diversity. But our current actions risk all that – and perhaps ourselves.

Press link for more: The Guardian

Coal killed 169,000 Indians in 2015. #auspol #qldpol #StopAdani #AirPollution

Household burning, coal combustion behind 75% deaths

IANS

Exposure to household burning emissions and coal combustion were the main reasons behind 75 per cent of air pollution-related deaths in India in 2015 which came chiefly from rural areas, reveals a report.

The report, by experts from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)- Bombay and the US-based Health Effects Institute, found that residential biomass fuel burning contributed to some 268,000 deaths in 2015 and coal combustion from both thermal electric power plants and industry contributed to 169,000 deaths.

Anthropogenic dusts contributed to 100,000 deaths; agricultural burning to 66,000 deaths; and transport, diesel, and kilns were behind over 65,000 deaths in India.

“This systematic analysis of emissions from all sources and their impact on ambient air pollution exposure found significant contributions from regional sources (like residential biomass, agricultural residue burning and industrial coal), underlying that from local sources (like transportation and brick kilns),” said Chandra Venkataraman from IIT-Bombay.

According to the 2015 Global Burden of Disease analysis, these levels contribute to over 10 per cent of all Indian deaths each year.

The premature mortality, attributed to air pollution, contributed to over 29 million healthy years of life lost.

Overall, air pollution contributed to nearly 1.1 million deaths in 2015, with the burden falling disproportionately (75 per cent) on rural areas.

The 2017 Global Burden of Disease identified air pollution, both outdoors and in households, as the second most serious risk factor for public health in India, after malnutrition, contributing to 6.4 per cent of all healthy years of life lost in 2016.

India has some of the highest levels of outdoor air pollution in the world,” the researchers wrote in the “Special Report 21, Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India”.

“The most comprehensive air pollution estimates available from both satellite and Indian ground-level measurements of fine particulate matter indicate that 99.9 per cent of the Indian population is estimated to live in areas where the World Health Organisation Air Quality Guideline for fine particulate matter was exceeded in 2015, contributing to some 1.1 million deaths in India in 2015.”

This new study provides the first comprehensive assessment conducted in India to understand exposures at national and state levels from all major sources of particulate-matter air pollution (particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 µm, or PM2.5).

It takes advantage of enhanced satellite data and India’s growing network of air pollution monitors, and is the first to estimate the exposure from different air pollution sources state by state throughout India.

Press link for more: Business Standard

Paris 1.5C Goal Crucial to Protecting Communities from Rising Seas #auspol #StopAdani #ClimateChange

A study by scientists from Tufts University, Rutgers University, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany projects that aiming for the lower global average temperature increase under the Paris Climate Change Agreement could save coastal communities and ecosystems from the most dire consequences of global sea-level change.

It also shows that even meeting the Paris targets will result in sizeable sea-level rise.

The 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement has the goal to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Research studies forecast that warming the planet by more than 2 degrees Celsius will result in not only extreme weather events—floods, wildfires, landslides, and hurricanes—but also catastrophic sea level changes, leading to ecosystem loss and mass migration. As temperatures rise, sea levels rise and directly affect coastal areas.

The researchers found that stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius between now and 2150—which would require a swifter reduction in carbon emissions than under the 2-degree Celsius goal—would lower the impact of sea-level rise significantly; the global average sea-level in 2150 would be about 7 inches—or 17.7 centimeters—less than under a 2-degree Celsius rise.

The study’s lead author, Klaus Bittermann, a postdoctoral student in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said that the 0.5 degree difference could be a matter of life and death, as ecosystems and populations are overwhelmed by tidal flooding and other ecological changes. “For example, salt marshes and mangroves can be drowned if the local rate of relative sea-level rise exceeds their ecological ability” to adapt, he said.

“Some people might argue there will be no sizable difference between the two targets, so we should aim for the higher one, because it’s easier,” Bittermann said. But the findings challenge that idea.

“Those differences turn out to be significant,” he said.

Bittermann did the computational research along with Andrew Kemp, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and colleagues from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and Rutgers University. He said that highlighting the differences between the two targets contributes to the growing body of evidence that countries should step up efforts to reduce carbon emissions and protect the planet’s future.

Bittermann added that the paper, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, will be included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018 special report on 1.5 degrees Celsius, which aggregates current literature.

“I think this special report will be an important contribution to the public discourse,” he said. “It will inform also policymakers about what these Paris goals really mean from a physical and an economic point of view.

To those who want to know what the difference from a global sea level point of view is if you lower the temperature by just another 0.5 degrees Celsius, I think that our paper provides a very clear answer, and I think it is a difference that is worth fighting for.”

To learn more, visit the Tufts University website.

You can download the study here.

Press link for more: Cop23.UNFCCC.INT

#ClimateChange “All Hell will break loose!” #StopAdani #auspol #qldpol

When will we listen to the scientists?

To invest in new coal mines and ignore science is Criminal Negligence.

It is putting our children and future generations at extreme risk.

People all over the planet are demanding change.

We must declare a CLIMATE EMERGENCY

The Ocean is Suffocating. #ClimateChange #pollution #auspol #qldpol #StopAdani

A Foreboding Similarity in Today’s Oceans and a 94-Million-Year-Old Catastrophe

The ocean is suffocating—but not for the first time.

Peter BrannenJan 12, 2018

Algae blooms off the coast of New York and New Jersey in August 2015 NASA / AP

The ocean is losing its oxygen.

Last week, in a sweeping analysis in the journal Science, scientists put it starkly: Over the past 50 years, the volume of the ocean with no oxygen at all has quadrupled, while oxygen-deprived swaths of the open seas have expanded by the size of the European Union.

The culprits are familiar: global warming and pollution.

Warmer seawater both holds less oxygen and turbocharges the worldwide consumption of oxygen by microorganisms.

Meanwhile, agricultural runoff and sewage drives suffocating algae blooms.

The analysis builds on a growing body of research pointing to increasingly sick seas pummeled by the effluent of civilization.

In one landmark paper published last year, a research team led by the German oceanographer Sunke Schmidtko quantified for the first time just how much oxygen human civilization has already drained from the oceans.

Compiling more than 50 years of disparate data, gathered on research cruises, from floating palaces of ice in the arctic to twilit coral reefs in the South Pacific, Schmidtko’s team calculated that the Earth’s oceans had lost 2 percent of their oxygen since 1960.

Two percent might not sound that dramatic, but small changes in the oxygen content of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere in the ancient past are thought to be responsible for some of the most profound events in the history of life.

Some paleontologists have pointed to rising oxygen as the fuse for the supernova of biology at the Cambrian explosion 543 million years ago.

Similarly, the fever-dream world of the later Carboniferous period is thought to be the product of an oxygen spike, which subsidized the lifestyles of preposterous animals, like dragonflies the size of seagulls.

On the other hand, dramatically declining oxygen in the oceans like we see today is a feature of many of the worst mass extinctions in earth history.

“[Two percent] is pretty significant,” says Sune Nielsen, a geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“That’s actually pretty scary.”

Nielsen is one of a group of scientists probing a series of strange ancient catastrophes when the ocean lost much of its oxygen for insight into our possible future in a suffocating world. He has studied one such biotic crisis in particular that might yet prove drearily relevant. Though little known outside the halls of university labs, it was one of the most severe crises of the past 100 million years.

It’s known as Oceanic Anoxic Event 2.

The Mesozoic era, stretching from 252 to 66 million years ago, is sometimes mistakenly thought of as sort of long and uneventful Pax Dinosauria—a stable, if alien world.

But the period was occasionally punctuated by severe climate and ocean changes, and even disaster.

Ninety-four million years ago, while the supersonic asteroid that would eventually incinerate dinosaurs was still silently boomeranging around the solar system, a gigantic pulse of carbon dioxide rose from the bottom of the ocean.

The Earth warmed, the seas rose, and oxygen-deprived waters spread.

The smothering seas mercilessly culled through plankton, bizarre bivalves, and squid-like creatures whose tentacles long dangled from stately whorled shells.

For the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, Oceanic Anoxic Event 2, or OAE2 might have been the coup de grâce.

The ocean reptiles had been patrolling the ancient seas for more than 150 million years before seemingly taking their last gasps suspiciously close to the event.

“Basically the entire continental shelf went anoxic,” says Nielsen. “There was no oxygen at the bottom of the shelf anywhere in the world.”

Today, as much as 90 percent of commercial fish and shellfish are caught on these shallow shelves—the broad flanks of our continents that slip coyly under the sea, sometimes for hundreds of miles, before remembering to drop off into the abyss. And already, spreading anoxia is beginning to advertise its deadly promise on these fishing grounds: In 2006 a seafloor survey off of Oregon revealed that rockfish, familiar fixtures of the rocky bottom, had completely abandoned their haunts, as anoxic water—water with no dissolved oxygen—spread onto the shallow shelf.

But 94 million years ago in the Cretaceous, this problem was not just a seasonal nuisance. It was a global catastrophe.

If dromeosaurs had learned to pilot industrial bottom trawlers on the continental shelf they would have gone bankrupt pulling up empty nets.

The source of the great smothering in the Cretaceous seems to have been a molten font burbling deep beneath an ancient sea that separated North from South America.

The lava from these eruptions makes up much of what today is known as the Caribbean Large Igneous Province, a vast expanse of frozen lava that stretches from Ecuador in the Pacific to the Antilles bracing against the open Atlantic.

Like many scientific sobriquets, “large igneous province” fails utterly to capture the phenomenon it describes—though no description could ever really succeed in evoking its terrible grandeur.

In the United States, large igneous provinces might be more familiar to Manhattanites gazing across the Hudson at the towering basalt cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades (which, along with volcanic rocks of the same age from Nova Scotia to Brazil, are tied to a catastrophic mass extinction 201 million years ago), or to windsurfers in the black canyons of the Columbia River Gorge (which was formed by a later, smaller eruptive event).

The worst mass extinction of all time, the End-Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago, left behind a large igneous province so sweeping that today it blankets much of Siberia.

In fact, eruptions on this scale, though geologically brief and thankfully rare, are associated with at least four of Earth’s five major mass extinctions (and most of the dozen-or-so less severe, though still transformative, prehistoric crises like OAE2).

Though the link between these eruptions and the choking seas that accompany them isn’t immediately obvious—that is, how exactly it is that one drives the other—the answer lies in life itself. And strangely, the same mechanisms that pushed the Cretaceous oceans to the edge are also driving the worrying modern expansion of anoxia in today’s oceans.

* * *

Last summer, scientists in the Gulf of Mexico watched with growing alarm as the largest dead zone in recorded history spread across the sea, from Texas to the mouth of the Mississippi.

This almost 9,000-square-mile swath of oxygen-poor ocean rendered one of the country’s most productive fishing grounds almost completely lifeless.

Similar low-oxygen seas are spreading around the world.

Though not as exciting as Jurassic Park, summertime boating in the lifeless Gulf is just about as close as you can get to experiencing the Late Cretaceous planet of OAE2. “The Gulf of Mexico today is a good analogy,” says Nielsen.

“The best way to think about OAE2 is just gigantic dead zones all over the world.”

Today’s expanding dead zones are driven, perhaps counterintuitively, by plant food.

When farmers in the country’s breadbasket spread phosphorus and nitrogen-based fertilizers on their crops, much of that Miracle-Gro eventually washes into streams and rivers, and then on into the mighty Mississippi.

Where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana, this plant food from the heartland proves to be as good as advertised, fertilizing huge blooms of algae that, when they die, decompose and rob the seas of oxygen.

“It may seem counterintuitive at first—you think, ‘I’m putting lots of nutrients into the ocean that’s great,’” says Nielsen. But “ it actually strips the oxygen out of the ocean.”

In 2014, fertilizer from soy and corn farms in Ohio fueled an algae bloom on Lake Erie so large and noxious that it shut down drinking water for the city of Toledo. Erie vacationers have grown accustomed to the annual appearance of toxic slime season.

In dinosaur society, agriculture presumably played a limited role, and if tyrannosaurs had vast sewer systems, paleontologists haven’t found them yet.

So what was driving the global dead zones of the Late Cretaceous? That leads back to the molten forge burbling insidiously under the Caribbean. “The magmatism definitely drove an increase in marine productivity [like we see today],” says Chris Lowery, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “How you connect those things though—there’s still some debate.”

One of two things seems to have been happening. On the one hand, this strange volcanism could have been seeding the metastasizing algae blooms directly, by injecting a blast of trace metals, like iron, into the seawater. This would have fertilized the ancient oceans (much like some brash geoengineers have proposed doing today to sequester carbon in the ocean).

On the other hand, the volcanism might have fueled these runaway plankton blooms more obliquely. By injecting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the oceans and atmosphere, they drove global warming and more intense weather, as inevitably happens when you inject too much CO2 into the atmosphere.

Indeed, carbon dioxide-driven global warming is a feature of many of the worst mass extinctions in Earth history.

In the Late Cretaceous, this hot, stormy world would have worn down continental rock more quickly, releasing more nutrients like phosphorus from the land, which would have then washed into the rivers.

Just like today’s fertilizers, this nutrient-rich brew would have been carried into the open sea, where it would have fueled explosions of algae that would die and take the ocean’s oxygen with it.

On top of all that, warmer water is just able to hold less oxygen, a phenomenon documented in the modern oceans as well.

Perhaps, most likely, all of these mechanisms were working in concert, as they will be in our near future.

Who knows what legacy humans will eventually leave in the geological record, but the residue of Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 is painted in rocks around the world, most strikingly in the precipitous Furlo Gorge in central Italy. The gorge is carved out of the chalky submarine snowdrift of Cretaceous sea life—a seafloor that was shoved into the air during later tectonic collisions and which is part of a vast pile of ocean rock that makes up much of the Appenine Mountains. It’s a predictably beautiful limestone canyon, long traversed by Roman and Etruscan traders. But between stacks of this healthy white Cretaceous seafloor, a line of sickly black shale cuts through the walls.

This shale marks OAE2. Organic sea life that died during the episode was allowed to fall and gather on the stifling sea bottom, where it couldn’t decay. Eventually it became this carbon-rich black shale, and carbon isotopes in rocks all over the world indicate a massive global burial of life in these deadly seas. (Unsurprisingly, the black rocks of OAE2, rich with the carbon of ancient marine life, have proven attractive to oil prospectors.)

The dark dash in the Italian limestone isn’t far from a more famous rock outcrop where Walter and Luis Alvarez described a younger line in the rocks marking the dinosaurs’ eventual extraterrestrial doomsday. Like that later boundary, the dreadful delineation of OAE2 shows up in similar blemishes of the same age around the world, from rock outcrops in Germany and Morocco, to drill cores in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, testifying to Late Cretaceous seas everywhere briefly seized by suffocation.

Nielsen’s team, led by Chadlin Ostrander at Arizona State along with Jeremy Owens at Florida State, decided to study one such core, this one drilled off the coast of Suriname. They wanted to illuminate, in high-res, the grisly timetable of this global asphyxiation, and doing so required a stroll through the lonelier reaches of the periodic table. The group knew that when there’s oxygen in the ocean, the seafloor becomes littered with magnesium oxides. These minerals precipitate out of oxygen-rich seawater all over the world today, coating sand grains and forming hunks of the stuff on the seabed—and providing an irresistible trove of rare metals for the burgeoning industry of seafloor mining.

The group also knew that when magnesium oxides form, they just so happen to suck up the sea’s reserves of heavy thallium as well. So by studying the ratio of heavy to light thallium in the ancient Suriname mud, the group was able to reconstruct—over a fine-scale timespan of tens of thousands of years—exactly how fast oxygen dwindled in an ancient ocean shrouded by 94 million years of history.

When Nielsen described this forensic legerdemain to me in his office on Cape Cod, I shook my head in awe.  Who ever came up such an ingenious system? He winced and laughed, seeming to conceal years of academic trauma. “That’s basically what I’ve been working on for the last 15 years.”

What his team found (and published in a recent paper in Science) was that OAE2 itself lasted for almost half a million years. But it took only on the order of thousands of years of diminishing oxygen to reach its choking crescendo. “The rates between now and OAE2 are actually pretty comparable,” he said. “Dead zones today are expanding at a global scale, pretty much everywhere you see around the world. Around the continental shelves you see larger and more persistent dead zones, and that’s what you’d expect if the ocean is losing its oxygen.”

* * *

OAE2 marked something of an end for a strange, broader era of stress in Earth’s oceans, a history hinted at by the disaster’s sequel status (Ocean Anoxic Event 2: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…). Almost 30 million years before, the similarly dramatic Early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event throttled ancient ocean life, as did a number of lesser events peppered throughout the Cretaceous. Even earlier, the Jurassic period suffered its own anoxic spasms.

Each summer, Rowan Martindale, from the University of Texas at Austin, ventures to ancient seafloors in Slovenia and Morocco to study the so-called Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event of 183 million years ago, a disaster fueled once again by CO2-spewing volcanism as Antarctica tore from Africa—a crisis that wiped out strange reef-building bivalves, corals, and a slew of other ocean critters. It’s a disaster she says has many of the hallmarks of other mass extinctions.

“You have your initial eruption, which puts a massive amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” she says. “This causes your atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise and temperature to rise, which can result in a whole other host of environmental changes, like the release of terrestrial methane and methane clathrates on the seafloor, ocean acidification, and all of these other knock-on effects. So we see warming and expanded oxygen-minimum zones, which manifest as oceanic anoxic events in the rock record.”

But after the late Cretaceous, and that black line in the Furlo Gorge of Italy, the age of mass suffocation was largely over. “OAE2 is really the last big one,” says Lowery, the University of Texas paleontologist.

As the continents carried on their eternal wander, vast new oceans opened up between them. Others closed. It may have been that 94 million years ago, this roaming world accidentally created a planet uniquely primed to go anoxic. Though Pangaea had long since blown to pieces, it took time for the great continental migration to reshape the planet, and the continents still huddled closely around their growing Atlantic toddler. Where New Jersey and Morocco once described the same unbroken expanse, the widening gulf between them had, by now, become a proper North Atlantic Ocean. But the South Atlantic remained little more than a narrow channel—the jigsaw puzzle of South America and Africa only slightly jostled.

“Before the South Atlantic opened up, the North Atlantic and the [proto-Mediterranean and Indian Ocean] were kind of these little, fairly restricted seas,” Lowery says. “And so it kind of lets you build up these low oxygen areas where you’re not having a lot of circulation and current coming through and aerating the water. But then after the South Atlantic opened, global circulation changed and everything was just kind of freshened up. So you lost the preconditions for having worldwide oceanic anoxic events.”

Today, the preconditions might be back, though in a form unlike anything in Earth history. It’s not nearly as warm as it was during the Cretaceous greenhouse, a circumstance that helped lead the oceans closer to the edge—though that may change in the coming centuries. And the continents are arranged more favorably than in the stagnant bathtub of the Late Cretaceous. Only a global technological civilization of billions of people, drenching the world’s shallow seas with phosphorus and nitrogen and blasting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, could summon OAE2 back from the fossil record.

The circumstances of the Earth’s ancient anoxic events might have been strange, but not nearly strange as our modern world. As with global warming, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification, humanity still has time to avoid the grislier scenarios promised by spreading anoxia. But as Nielsen, Ostrander, and Owens write: “Ancient OAE studies are destined to become uncomfortably applicable in the not-so-distant future.”  In other words, our project as a species may well ultimately be the same as that of a large igneous province—producing in our eruptions of carbon dioxide and nutrient pollution an increasingly tenantless and sickly ocean beloved by bacteria.

Press link for more: The Atlantic

Rising Seas Could Shrink Australia #auspol #ClimateChange #StopAdani

How rising sea levels could shrink Australia and spark a coastal exodus

By Sean Ulm, Alan Williams, Chris Turney and Stephen Lewis

PHOTO Australia’s coastline has moved before thanks to changes in sea level.Flickr: Travellers Travel Photobook, CC BY 2.0

With global sea levels expected to rise by up to a metre by 2100, we can learn much from archaeology about how people coped in the past with changes in sea level.

In a study published this week in Quaternary Science Reviews, we looked at how changes in sea level affected different parts of Australia and the impact on people living around the coast.

The study casts new light on how people adapt to rising sea levels of the scale projected to happen in our near future.

Living on the coast

More than eight out of every 10 Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global sea levels are set to increase by the equivalent of 12 millimetres per year, four times the average of the last century.

A major challenge for managing such a large increase in sea level is our limited understanding of what impact this scale of change might have on humanity.

While there are excellent online resources to model the local physical impacts of sea level rise, the recent geological past can provide important insights into how humans responded to dramatic increases in sea level.

The last ice age

At the height of the last ice age some 21,000 years ago, not only were the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets larger than they are today, but three-kilometre-high ice sheets covered large parts of North America and northern Europe.

This sucked vast amounts of water out of our planet’s oceans. The practical upshot was the sea level was about 125 metres lower, making the shape of the world’s coastlines distinctly different to today.

As the world lurched out of the last ice age with increasing temperatures, the melting ice returned to the ocean as freshwater, dramatically increasing sea levels and altering the surface of our planet.

Arguably nowhere experienced greater changes than Australia, a continent with a broad continental shelf and a rich archaeological record spanning tens of millennia.

A bigger landmass

For most of human history in Australia, lower sea levels joined mainland Australia to both Tasmania and New Guinea, forming a supercontinent called Sahul.

The Gulf of Carpentaria hosted a freshwater lake more than twice the size of Tasmania (about 190,000 square kilometres).

Our study shows that lower sea levels resulted in Australia growing by almost 40 per cent during this time — from the current landmass of 7.2 million square kilometres to 9.8 million square kilometres.

The coastlines also looked very different, with steep profiles off the edge of the exposed continental shelf in many areas forming precipitous slopes and cliffs.

Imagine the current coastline where the Twelve Apostles are on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and then extend them around much of the continent.

Many rivers flowed across the exposed shelf to the then distant coast.

The 12 Apostles Great ocean road Victoria

When things warmed up

Then between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago, global climate warmed, leading to rapid melting of the ice sheets, and seeing sea levels in the Australian region rising from 125 metres below to two metres above modern sea levels.

Tasmania was cut off with the flooding of Bass Strait about 11,000 years ago. New Guinea was separated from Australia with the flooding of Torres Strait and creation of the Gulf of Carpentaria around 8,000 years ago.

We found that 2.12 million square kilometres, or 20–29 per cent of the landmass — a size comparable to the state of Queensland — was lost during this inundation.

The location of coastlines changed on average by 139 kilometres inland. In some areas the change was more than 300 kilometres.

Much of this inundation occurred over a 4,000-year period (between 14,600 and 10,600 years ago) initiated by what is called Meltwater Pulse 1A, a period of substantial ice sheet collapse releasing millions of cubic litres of water back into the oceans.

During this period, sea levels rose by 58 metres, equivalent to 14.5 millimetres per year. On the ground, this would have seen movement of the sea’s edge at a pace of about 20–24 metres per year.

Impacts of past sea level rise

The potential impacts of these past sea-level changes on Aboriginal populations and societies have long been a subject of speculation by archaeologists and historians.

Photo: Map of Australia showing sea-level change and archaeological sites for selected periods between 35,000 and 8,000 years ago. (Supplied: Sean Ulm)

In his 1970s book Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia, the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey hypothesised that:

“Most tribal groups on the coast 18,000 years ago must have slowly lost their entire territory […] a succession of retreats must have occurred. The slow exodus of refugees, the sorting out of peoples and the struggle for territories probably led to many deaths as well as new alliances.”

Archaeologists have long recognised that Aboriginal people would have occupied the now-drowned continental shelves surrounding Australia, but opinions have been divided about the nature of occupation and the significance of sea-level rise.

Most have suggested that the ancient coasts were little-used or underpopulated in the past.

Our data shows Aboriginal populations were severely disrupted by sea-level change in many areas.

Perhaps surprisingly the initial decrease in sea level prior to the peak of the last ice age resulted in people largely abandoning the coastline, and heading inland, with a number of archaeological sites within the interior becoming established at this time.

During the peak of the last ice age, there is evidence on the west coast that shows people continued to use marine resources (shellfish, fish etc) during this time, albeit at low levels.

Photo: Fish traps at Oyster Harbour, near Albany. (Supplied: South Coast NRM)

A shrinking landmass

With the onset of the massive inundation after the end of the last ice age, people evacuated the coasts causing markedly increased population densities across Australia (from about 1 person for every 355 square kilometres 20,000 years ago, to 1 person every 147 square kilometres 10,000 years ago).

Rising sea levels had such a profound impact on societies that Aboriginal oral histories from around the length of the Australian coastline preserve details of coastal flooding and the migration of populations.

We argue that this squeezing of people into a landmass 22 per cent smaller — into inland areas that were already occupied — required people to adopt new social, settlement and subsistence strategies.

This may have been an important element in the development of the complex geographical and religious landscape that European explorers observed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the stabilisation of the sea level after 8,000 years ago, we start to see the onset of intensive technological investment and manipulation of the landscape (such as fish traps and landscape burning).

We also see the formation of territories (evident by marking of place through rock art) that continues to propagate up until the present time. All signs of more people trying to survive in less space.

So what are the lessons of the past for today? Thankfully, we can show that past societies survived rapid sea level change at rates slightly greater than those projected in our near future, albeit with population densities far lower than today.

But we can also see that sea level rise resulted in drastic changes to where people lived, how they survived, what technology they used, and probable modifications to their social, religious and political ways of life.

In today’s world with substantially higher population densities, managing the relocation of people inland and outside Australia, potentially across national boundaries, may provide to be one of the great social challenges of the 21st century.

Sean Ulm is deputy director at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University.

Alan N Williams is an associate investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW.

Chris Turney is chief investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW.

Stephen Lewis is principal research officer at James Cook University.

Originally published in The Conversation

Press link for more: ABC.NET.AU

#ClimateChange is first & foremost a threat to human society. #StopAdani #auspol

By Ryan Cooper

NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com.

His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

Climate change is first and foremost a threat to human society.

That fact has been somewhat obscured in regular discourse, in favor of a false dichotomy portraying climate policy as an upper-middle-class noblesse oblige idea for anxious birders and other environmentalist types, and hardheaded economists who think building up yet more wealth is more important.

In reality, one obvious way that threat to humanity is going to be expressed is through economic damage.

In other words, unchecked climate change is going to be terrifically expensive.

Now, its exact cost is basically impossible to predict.

Contrary to people who would confidently rely on cost damage estimates for 2100, economic projections tend to be wildly inaccurate over even five years.

Furthermore, the amount of damage will depend greatly on what humans do in the future, and there have been few studies on what damage would be like under higher warming scenarios of 3 degrees or above.

But we can say the damage is going to be very large — indeed, it’s already quite bad.

NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information estimates that 2017 was America’s most expensive year for climate disasters of all time, with 16 disasters costing over $1 billion (more than three times the 1980-2017 average, after accounting for inflation) and a total cost of over $300 billion. That’s about 1.5 percent of total GDP — or enough to pay for a $300 per month child allowance for every parent in America, with some left over.

This year is already off to a bad climate start as well.

There is a severe precipitation shortfall in parts of the Southwest, with some Colorado drainages at less than 30 percent of the median snowpack. Southern California has also been rather dry — with the exception of severe rains that hammered parts of the region over the last few days, causing flooding and multiple mudslides that have killed at least 20 people.

Even the blizzard that recently struck the Northeast may have been influenced by climate change. Contrary to the notions of President Trump, who appears to believe that climate science predicts it will never be cold again anywhere at any time, it seems warming disrupts the “polar vortex,” or the belt of cold air that circles around the poles of the Earth.

With a weak polar vortex, frigid Arctic air can make it further south than usual — while warmer air can make it further north, leading to the paradoxical result of Anchorage occasionally being warmer than New York, or even Jacksonville.

The dramatic and rapid increase in climate damages over the last decade suggests that disasters may increase nonlinearly with warming — that is, a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations might lead to more than twice the quantity of disasters.

The only way to be sure about that is after the fact, but it’s still wise to assume it might be true, due to the larger downside risk.

If not, then we have decarbonized our society more rapidly than we might otherwise have. But if it is true and we don’t take action, the result could be catastrophic.

Now, a few caveats are in order.

First, of course we cannot say with ironclad certainty that these weather disasters are 100 percent caused by climate change, because climate change isn’t the sort of phenomenon that causes individual events.

What we can say is that these are just exactly the sort of weather disasters that are predicted to become more common and worse as the planet continues to warm.

Don’t let careerist debate pedants mix you up on this point. (And in fact, preliminary work on Hurricane Harvey found that climate change significantly increased its amount of rainfall.)

Second, expense is a highly problematic metric for measuring the overall world damage to climate change.

The countries most vulnerable to climate change are generally poor, and so devastating climate disasters aren’t going to show up as costing very much in dollar terms.

Indeed, by far the worst disasters of 2017 happened outside the United States.

As Rachel Cleetus at the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, over 11,000 people were killed by weather disasters in 2017, including 2,700 in South Asia — as against perhaps 1,400 or so in the United States (the vast majority in Puerto Rico).

Nevertheless, climate disasters really are going to be hugely expensive for the United States — and not just in dollar terms.

For example, the refusal from President Trump and the Republican Congress to properly rebuild Puerto Rico has not just killed probably over 1,000 people, it has also led to a severe shortage of IV bags, no doubt killing many more.

It drives home the fact that dawdling on climate policy, as Democrats did when they had majorities in 2009-10 — or denying it’s even necessary, as virtually every person of consequence in the Republican Party does — is not going to be some profitable venture. Poor countries will be hit worse, but American cities will be wrecked, much critical infrastructure will be destroyed, and many insurance companies and programs will be bankrupted. It will require endless expensive bailouts and reconstruction packages simply to stay ahead of the damage.

Conversely, the faster we move on climate policy, the cheaper it will be.

The International Energy Agency has roughly estimated that every year of delay adds $500 billion to the world total of necessary investment to head off climate change. (A stitch in time saves nine, as the saying goes.)

On the most important issue facing humanity, the United States is becoming dangerously close to a rogue state. Let us hope we can soon rejoin the world community and start acting like sensible, moral adults again.

Press link for more: The Week

Renewables cheaper than fossil fuels. #StopAdani #auspol #qldpol

Renewable energy set to be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020, according to new report

Josh Gabbatiss Science CorrespondentMonday 15 January 2018 16:00 GMT

Some solar energy projects are expected to deliver electricity by 2p or less by next year Getty

Renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels in two years, according to a new report.

Experts predict that investment in green infrastructure projects will lead to decreases in the cost of energy for consumers.

Continuous technological improvements have led to a rapid fall in the cost of renewable energy in recent years, meaning some forms can already comfortably compete with fossil fuels.

The report suggests this trend will continue, and that by 2020 “all the renewable power generation technologies that are now in commercial use are expected to fall within the fossil fuel-fired cost range”.

Of those technologies, most will either be at the lower end of the cost range or actually undercutting fossil fuels.

“This new dynamic signals a significant shift in the energy paradigm,” said Adnan Amin, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA), which published the report.

“Turning to renewables for new power generation is not simply an environmentally conscious decision, it is now – overwhelmingly – a smart economic one.”

The report looked specifically at the relative cost of new energy projects being commissioned.

As renewable energy becomes cheaper, consumers will benefit from investment in green infrastructure.

“If the stuff you’re building to generate electricity costs less, the end effect of that is having to pay less for the electricity that comes from it,” Jonathan Marshall, energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) told The Independent.

“The cheaper you install it, the better it is for everyone.”

The current cost for fossil fuel power generation ranges from around 4p to 12p per kilowatt hour across G20 countries.

By 2020, IREA predicted renewables will cost between 2p and 7p, with the best onshore wind and solar photovoltaic projects expected to deliver electricity by 2p or less next year.

Other methods of producing renewable energy, such as offshore wind farms and solar thermal energy, are not yet as competitive as fossil fuels.

However, the results of recent renewable power auctions for projects to be commissioned in the coming years suggest these forms too are due to drop in price.

Auctions provide a useful means of predicting the future cost of electricity.

“These cost declines across technologies are unprecedented and representative of the degree to which renewable energy is disrupting the global energy system,” said Mr Amin.

The new report comes after 2017 was declared the UK’s “greenest year ever” by WWF, when data from the National Grid revealed 13 different renewable energy records had been broken.

However, current UK policy may hamper the development of renewable energy capacity.

“Under current policy, the UK is at risk of being left behind as other countries take full advantage of the relentless fall in the cost of renewable energy,” said Mr Marshall.

Notably, the subsidy ban for new onshore wind farms has been singled out, with the ECIU predicting it could add £1bn onto energy bills over five years.

“If the Government is serious about achieving the lowest cost electricity in Europe, the ban on onshore wind has to be first in the firing line,” said Mr Marshall.

“Until this happens – and all low-carbon electricity sources are allowed to compete on equal footing – the gap between the cost of electricity in the UK and elsewhere will prevail; to the ire of politicians, businesses and household bill payers.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the Government could still support onshore wind where there is local support, such as on the Scottish islands.

“We are pleased to see that established technologies, such as onshore wind and solar, are driving costs down for consumers,” they said.

“If this continues, and they have local support, they may play a significant role in the energy mix in future.

“Since 2010, the UK has invested more than £52bn in renewable energy and in October, we confirmed that up to £557m would be made available for future clean power auctions.”

Press link for more: Independent

#ClimateChange 2017 should send shivers down the spines of policy makers. #auspol #StopAdani

by David Spratt

Much of what happened in 2017 was predictable: news of climate extremes became, how can I put it … almost the norm.

There was record-breaking heat on several continents, California’s biggest wildfire (extraordinarily in the middle of winter), an ex-tropical cyclone hitting Ireland (yes, Ireland) in October, and the unprecedented Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria that swept through the Atlantic in August.

The US government agency, the NOAA, reported that there were 16 catastrophic billion-dollar weather/climate events in the USA during 2017.

And 2017 “marks the first time some of the (scientific) papers concluded that an event could not have occurred — like, at all — in a world where global warming did not exist.

The studies suggested that the record-breaking global temperatures in 2016, an extreme heat wave in Asia and a patch of unusually warm water in the Alaskan Gulf were only possible because of human-caused climate change”, Reuters reported.

At both poles, the news continues to be not good.

At the COP23 in Bonn, Pam Pearson, Founder and Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, warned that the cryoshere is becoming “an irreversible driver of climate change”. She said that most cryosphere thresholds are determined by peak temperature, and the length of time spent at that peak, warning that “later, decreasing temperatures after the peak are largely irrelevant, especially with higher temperatures and longer duration peaks”.

Thus “overshoot scenarios”, which are now becoming the norm in policy-making circles (including all 1.5°C scenarios) hold much greater risks.

As well, Pearson said that  2100 is a misleading and minimising measure of cryosphere response: “When setting goals, it is important to look to new irreversible impacts and the steady state circumstances. The end of the century is too soon to show that before but inevitable response especially for sea level rises.” Pearson added that: “What keeps cryosphere scientists up at night are irreversible thresholds, particularly West Antarctica and Greenland. The consensus figure for the irreversible melting of Greenland is at 1.6°C.”

So what did we learn about the climate system in 2017? Here’s three that stand out, that should send shivers down the spines of policy makers.

1.  2017 was the second hottest year on record and the hottest non-El Nino year on record

Whilst not all sources have yet released data on annual warming for last year, the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the first major international weather agency to report global 2017 temperatures, said they averaged 1.2°C above pre-industrial times. 2017 was slightly cooler than the warmest year on record, 2016, and warmer than the previous second warmest year, 2015, Reuters reported.

Other organisations have unofficial figures which either agree with this assessment, or say that 2017 has tied with 2015. And last year was Australia’s third-warmest year on record.

It is no surprise that the last three years have been the hottest on the instrumental record. What is remarkable is that 2017 was as hot, or hotter than 2015, because 2015 and 2016 were both El Nino years, and the evidence shows that El Nino years are, on average, about 0.15°C warmer than La Nina years.

In fact, a remarkably hot 2017 crushed the old record for hottest non-El Niño year (2014) by an astounding 0.17°C.

The underlying temperature trend is being driven by continuing high levels of climate pollution: The UN says carbon dioxide levels grew at record pace in 2016. The atmospheric carbon dioxide  averaged 403.3 parts per million (ppm) over the year, up from 400 ppm in 2015. The growth rate was 50 percent faster than the average over the past decade.

And global carbon emissions are headed up again after three years in which human-caused emissions appeared to be levelling off. A two percent increase is projected overall, with the highest rise coming in China, according to new research presented at the climate talks in Bonn.

In 2017 we also learned that there was no pause in global warming: the so-called ’slow down’ in climate change between 1998 and 2012 was caused by a lack of data from the Arctic.

2. It is likely to get hotter than we think

Two significant pieces of work released towards the end of 2017 suggest that warming is likely to be greater than the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on which climate policy-making and carbon budgets are generally based.

This is because what is called Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS), an estimate of how much the planet will warm for a doubling in the level of greenhouse gases, is higher than the median of the IPCC’s modelling analysis.

In “Greater future global warming inferred from Earth’s recent energy budget” published in Nature in December 2017, Brown and Caldeira compared the performance of a wide range of climate models (raw model projections) with recent observations (especially on the balance of incoming and outgoing top-of-the-atmosphere radiation that ultimately determines the Earth’s temperature), in order to assess which models perform best.

The models that best capture current conditions (the “observationally-informed” models) produce 15% more warming by 2100 than the IPCC suggests, hence reducing the “carbon budget” by around 15% for the 2C target.

For example, they find the warming associated by the IPCC with RCP 4.5 emissions scenario would in fact “follow the trajectory previously associated with (higher emissions) RCP 6.0” scenario.

They also find that the observationally-informed ECS prediction has a mean value of 3.7°C (for a doubling of the atmospheric greenhouse gas level), compared to 3.1°C used in raw models, and in the carbon budget analyses widely used by the IPCC, the UN and at climate policy conferences.

In “Well below 2C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes”, published in September 2017, Xu and Ramanathan look at what are called the “fat tail” risks. These are the low-probability, high-impact (LPHI) consequences (“fat tails”) of future emission scenarios; that is, events with a 5% probability at the top end of the range of possible outcomes.

These “top end” risks are more likely to occur than we think, so “it is important to use high-end climate sensitivity because some studies have suggested that 3D climate models have underestimated three major positive climate feedbacks: positive ice albedo feedback from the retreat of Arctic sea ice, positive cloud albedo feedback from retreating storm track clouds in mid-latitudes, and positive albedo feedback by the mixed-phase (water and ice) clouds.”

When these are taken into account, the researchers find that the ECS is more than 40% higher than the IPCC mid-figure, at 4.5-4.7°C. And this is without taking into account carbon cycle feedbacks (such as melting permafrost and the declining efficiency of forests carbon sinks), and increase methane emissions from wetlands, which together could add another 1°C to warming be 2100.

This work compliments other recent work which also suggests a higher climate sensitivity:

Fasullo and Trenberth found that the climate models that most accurately capture observed relative humidity in the tropics and subtropics and associated clouds were among those with a higher sensitivity of around 4°C.

Zhai et al. found that seven models that are consistent with the observed seasonal variation of low-altitude marine clouds yield an ensemble-mean sensitivity of 3.9°C.

Friedrich et al. show that climate models may be underestimating climate sensitivity because it is not uniform across different circumstances, but in fact higher in warmer, inter-glacial periods (such as the present) and lower in colder, glacial periods. Based on a study of glacial cycles and temperatures over the last 800,000 years, the authors conclude that in warmer periods climate sensitivity averages around 4.88°C. Professor Michael Mann, of Penn State University, says the paper appears “sound and the conclusions quite defensible”.

Lauer et al. found that climate models that most accurately simulate recent cloud cover changes in the east Pacific point to an amplifying effect on global warming and thus a more sensitive climate.

And the bottom line?

If this work is correct, then the pledges made under the Paris Accord would not produce warming of around 3°C as is widely discussed, but a figure closer to and even above  4°C.

And the total carbon budget would a quarter smaller than is generally accepted, or even less.

3. Climate models under-estimate future risks

This year, the Breakthrough Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne, published What Lies Beneath, on the scientific understatement of climate risks. The report found that human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation, yet much climate research understates climate risks and provides conservative projections. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that are crucial to climate policymaking and informing public narrative are characterised by scientific reticence, paying limited attention to lower-probability, high-risk events that are becoming increasingly likely. (Disclosure: I was a co-author of this report.)

But don’t take my word.  At the climate policy conference in Bonn, Phil Duffy, the Director of the Woods Hole Institute, explained the scientific reticence regarding the biggest system feedback issues:

The best example of reticence is permafrost…  It’s absolutely essential that this feedback loop not get going seriously, if it does there is simply no way to control it… The scientific failure comes in because none of this is in climate models and none of this is considered in the climate policy discussion… climate models simply omit emissions from the warming permafrost, but we know that is the wrong answer because that tacitly assumes that these emissions are zero and we know that’s not right…

And the problems of underestimation of future climate impacts from current models was explicitly recognised by the US government in its Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment. In a chapter on “Potential Surprises: Compound Extremes and Tipping Element”, two key findings were:

• Positive feedbacks (self-reinforcing cycles) within the climate system have the potential to accelerate human-induced climate change and even shift the Earth’s climate system, in part or in whole, into new states that are very different from those experienced in the recent past (for example, ones with greatly diminished ice sheets or different large-scale patterns of atmosphere or ocean circulation). Some feedbacks and potential state shifts can be modeled and quantified; others can be modeled or identified but not quantified; and some are probably still unknown. (Very high confidence in the potential for state shifts and in the incompleteness of knowledge about feedbacks and potential state shifts).

• While climate models incorporate important climate processes that can be well quantified, they do not include all of the processes that can contribute to feedbacks, compound extreme events, and abrupt and/or irreversible changes.

For this reason, future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out (very high confidence). Moreover, the systematic tendency of climate models to underestimate temperature change during warm paleoclimates suggests that climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate the amount of long-term future change (medium confidence).

The problem is that the notion that future climate changes may be faster and hotter than those projected by climate models is one rarely understood by climate policy-makers, and rarely discussed by those who do understand.

If climate policymaking is to be soundly based, a re-framing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework is now urgently required.

This must be taken up not just in the work of the IPCC, but also in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations if we are to address the real climate challenge.

Press link for more: Climate Code Red