The Climate Report: August 31, 2012

Historic auto efficiency standards from President Obama, a hidden stockpile of climate-unfriendly methane—and more.

Sunlight shines just after midnight on a fjord near the Norwegian Arctic town of Longyearbyen, April 26, 2007. (Photo: Francois Lenoir / Reuters)

Amy Luers, Director of Climate Change at Skoll Global Threats Fund.

The GOP appears to be a gambling party. Would you play the same odds if your children’s health and well-being were at stake?

What were they thinking, planning the Republican National Convention in Florida in late August? Did the GOP not know that this is peak hurricane season, or were they just betting on chance? You can see from the cool interactive graph (below), which was developed by gohydrology.org, that the odds are pretty darn good Florida will be hit by a hurricane in August, and by a potentially devastating one.

Apparently, Tampa city officials were concerned enough to develop numerous contingency plans for evacuation, but the GOP chose to proceed anyway. Fortunately, Florida was not hit as hard as it could have been. Still, the Republicans were rolling the dice.

It seems leaving it to chance is what the GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney also wants to do with our children’s climate, but the odds are against him. The scientific community has presented us with the risks of continued global warming pollution, and what we can do to minimize those risks.  However, Romney has chosen to ignore these projections: His energy plan doesn’t even mention climate change, just as the GOP ignored the risk of Florida hurricanes. The problem is, when it comes to climate change, the stakes are higher—our children’s health and security.

I, for one, am not willing to gamble my son’s future.

You can find a cool interactive version of this map at gohydrology.org.

What people are saying:

The Washington Post – Republican National Convention cancels Monday event because of Tropical Storm Isaac

New Orleans Times-Picayune – Isaac makes for a stormy Hurricane Katrina anniversary: editorial

LA Times – Is Tropical Storm Isaac a divine message to Republicans in Tampa?

Daily Beast – Why do we leave New Orleans dangerously exposed to the Next Big Storm?

NYT Dot Earth Revkin - Hurricane Isaac is a rainmaker for a parched Heartland


Obama takes historic step to put U.S. on the road to energy independence and energy security.

This week the Obama administration took a historic step to spur innovation and put the nation on a path to energy independence. The new fuel efficiency standard finalized on Tuesday will require new cars to get 54.5 mpg by 2025.  That is double the current standards. As the late Neil Armstrong might have said: This new fuel standard is one small step for consumers, one giant step for the nation’s economy and security, and the biggest step America has ever taken to reduce carbon pollution and combat climate change. 

Here is what the plan gives us:

OUR CONSUMERS: Saves consumers $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and $8,000 over the life of a model year 2025 vehicle,

OUR ECONOMY: Increases profits for automakers and creates 570,000 new jobs across the nation between 2017-2025.

OUR SECURITY: Cuts oil use by as much as 3.1 million barrels per day by 2030, roughly the amount we import from the Persian Gulf and Venezuela combined.

OUR CLIMATE: Reduces U.S. global warming pollution by as much as 570 million metric tons in 2030, equivalent to taking 85 million of today’s cars off the road or shutting down 140 coal-fired power plants.

Given all these clear benefits, it is not surprising that the American public and automakers are supportive of this new standard. This new fuel economy program stands in stark contrast to the Romney Energy Plan, which does not even mention the concepts of energy efficiency and conservation anywhere. The Romney plan for U.S. energy independence is to ask Americans to open up their pocket books and pay for more oil.  In contrast, the Obama administration has kickstarted an innovative way for Americans to ween ourselves off our expensive oil addiction.

What people are saying:

New York Times – Obama unveils tighter fuel efficiency standards

Los Angeles Times - New fuel economy standards would boost average car to 54.5 mpg

Washington Post - EPA issues new fuel-efficiency standard; autos must average 54.5 mpg by 2025


Our air conditioner is dying just when we need it most!

Amidst this summer’s record heat, it is extremely disconcerting to hear the news of the record-low Artic Sea ice, which acts as an air conditioner of sorts for the globe.

How does this work? Well, it’s like those bright silver car windshield sun shades, which some people use to reflect the sun away from their car so the car doesn’t heat up while sitting in a hot parking lot. The Artic Sea is a huge sun shield for the Warth; all that ice reflects 80 percent of the sun coming in, which would otherwise go into to heating the planet.

This record low, which amounts to a 40 percent decline since satellite tracking began in the late 1970s, is alarming mostly because it is part of a long trend of sea ice loss in the Arctic. This trend has consequences all over the globe, beyond just amplifying the average mean temperature.

For example, a recent study in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters ties rapid changes in the Artic climate to extreme weather events in the U.S. and Europe. The reason is because the temperature difference between the icy Arctic and the warmer mid-latitudes drives the powerful jet stream winds, which play a large role in determining global weather patterns.

This trend in Artic sea ice loss is likely the result of global warming pollution resulting from human activities such as burning gasoline and coal and cutting down forests. While this trend is consistent with scientists’ projections, the rapid rate of loss is at the far end of the projections.

This is an important reminder about what “uncertainty range” mean for scientists—the interval in which any result is expected to lie. When it comes to climate change, it is the large uncertainty range around a number of projections that are the scariest, since they indicate the impact could be a lot worse than average projections suggest.

What people are saying:

Christian Science Monitor – Arctic ice reaches record low, could worsen global warming

New York Times –Sea ice in Arctic measured at record low

Washington Post - Arctic sea ice just hit a record low. Here’s why it matters

ThinkProgress – Arctic Sea ice reaches lowest extent ever measured

The Atlantic – The mystery at the heart of this year’s record-setting Arctic ice melt


It’s the feedbacks, stupid!

While politicians may have “it’s the economy stupid!” ringing in their heads, climate scientists’ minds ring with “it’s the feedbacks!”

Feedbacks in the climate system refer to changes that occur as a result of warming, and which themselves then lead to even more warming (“positive feedback”) or less warming (“negative feedback”). 

It’s the positive feedbacks that we worry about!

And this week, scientists identified a possible new source of a powerful positive feedback: methane gas under the Antarctic ice sheet.

According to a study published this week in Nature, large volumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, might be trapped under the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Over the millennia, microbes living in oxygen-depleted environments, under the ice, might have produced large amounts of this gas without it being released to the atmosphere. Melting the ice would let it out.

The release of this methane gas, which is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, would be a new feedback not yet accounted for in the climate projections.

What people are saying:

Reuters – Antarctic methane could worsen global warming: scientists

Time – Antarctica: a greenhouse gas hotspot?                  

Bloomberg – Antarctic study finds hidden carbon under ice, threat to climate

BBC – Antarctic may host methane stores

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