Back in 1998, a little-known climate scientist named Michael Mann and two colleagues published a paper [PDF] that sought to reconstruct the planet's past temperatures going back half a millennium before the era of thermometers -- thereby showing just how out of whack recent warming has been. The finding: Recent Northern Hemisphere temperatures had been "warmer than any other year since (at least) AD 1400." The graph depicting this result looked rather like a hockey stick: After a long period of relatively minor temperature variations (the "shaft"), it showed a sharp mercury upswing during the last century or so ("the blade").
The report moved quickly through climate science circles. Mann and a colleague soon lengthened the shaft [PDF] of the hockey stick back to the year 1000 AD -- and then, in 2001, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prominently featured the hockey stick in its Third Assessment Report. Based on this evidence, the IPCC proclaimed that "the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years."
On Feb. 17, more than 40,000 climate change activists -- many of them quite young -- rallied in Washington, D.C., to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport dirty tar-sands oil from Canada across the heartland. The scornful response from media centrists was predictable. Joe Nocera of the New York Times, for one, quickly went on the attack. In a column titled “How Not to Fix Climate Change,” he wrote that the strategy of activists “who have made the Keystone pipeline their line in the sand is utterly boneheaded.”
Nocera, who accepts the science of climate change, made a string of familiar arguments: The tar sands will be exploited anyway, the total climate contribution of the oil that would be transported by Keystone XL is minimal, and so on. Perhaps inspired by Nocera-style thinking, a group of 17 Democratic senators would later cast a symbolic vote in favor of the pipeline, signaling that opposing industrial projects is not the brand of environmentalism that they, at least, have in mind.
Join us for a Climate Desk Live event focused on the Keystone XL: Thursday, April 18, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. To attend, please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or watch the live stream here.
The Keystone activists, not surprisingly, were livid. Not only did they challenge Nocera’s facts, they utterly rejected his claims as to the efficacy of their strategy: Opponents of the pipeline have often argued that it is vital to push the limits of the possible -- in particular, to put unrelenting pressure on President Obama to lead on climate change. Van Jones, the onetime Obama clean-energy adviser and a close supporter of 350.org founder and Keystone protest leader Bill McKibben, has put it like this: “I think activism works … The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement kept pushing on the question of marriage equality, and the president came out for marriage equality, which then had a positive effect on public opinion and helped that movement win at the ballot box and in a number of states, within months.”
This article is about the emotionally charged dispute between climate activists and environmental moderates, despite their common acceptance of the science of climate change. Why does this sort of rift exist on so many issues dividing the center from the left? And what can we actually say about which side is, you know, right?
On Feb. 17, more than 40,000 people rallied in Washington, D.C., to convince the president to reject the Keystone XL, a proposed 875-mile pipeline running from the Canadian border into Nebraska and slated to transport oil from tar sands (which is 17 percent more greenhouse-gas intensive than standard crude oil). The crowds outside the White House provided overwhelming proof that opposing Keystone has mobilized a new and powerful grassroots constituency.
But in the U.S. Senate, the mood was different. In a non-binding vote, 62 senators -- including 17 pro-Keystone Democrats -- voted to approve the pipeline. Just 37 senators voted against it. In fact, the amendment was co-sponsored by four Democrats, including Max Baucus of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
So are activists' efforts all in vain? What will happen to the environmental movement if President Obama ultimately lets Keystone go forward?
And more broadly: What does this say about the best strategy for fighting climate change? Does compromise, horse-trading, and winning industry allies ultimately work best -- or do you have to push the limits of the possible? You're invited to the next Climate Desk Live event -- hosted by myself -- for a debate and discussion between some of the leading voices on this issue:
George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular Game of Thrones saga -- whose third season just launched on HBO -- is, on the broadest level, a story driven by climatic change. “Winter is coming,” warn the ill-fated Starks, a family of northern nobles who help guard the realm from the frozen beyond. In Martin’s world, winters and summers vary in length and can for last years or even a generation -- and as the books advance, a devastating winter begins to descend, forcing southward migrations and an intense test of mettle to see who can literally stand against the cold.
Back on Planet Earth, our own weather has felt distinctly Game of Thrones-like lately -- depending heavily, of course, upon where you live. But if you’re in the northeastern U.S., 2012 felt like a long summer, with scarce any winter at all -- whereas early 2013 featured a snowy winter that has felt like it won’t end (though it finally does now seem to be letting up). See here for a graphic of March temperature anomalies in 2012 and 2013, courtesy of Climate Central, proving this perception isn’t merely subjective:
The U.K. -- a kind of homeland for Game of Thrones, in that the books are inspired by England’s historic “Wars of the Roses," and the gigantic ice wall in the north of the fictional Westeros is modeled on Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman emperor to protect against tribes of Britons -- is also undergoing a staggering winter this year. A recent Daily Mail report features disturbing pictures and video of sheep frozen to death in giant snow drifts, noting that the current freeze is threatening to persist throughout April.
So what’s going on here? Could climate change actually give us a Game of Thrones world with longer, or at least more variable, winters and summers? On an admittedly much more modest scale -- we’re working with mere physics here, not a recurring meteorological conflagration between good (heat) and evil (cold) -- the answer may be yes.
Last week, a much discussed new paper in the journal Nature seemed to suggest to some that we needn’t worry too much about the melting of Greenland, the mile-thick mass of ice at the top of the globe. The research found that the Greenland ice sheet seems to have survived a previous warm period in Earth’s history -- the Eemian period, some 126,000 years ago -- without vanishing (although it did melt considerably).
But Ohio State glaciologist Jason Box isn’t buying it.
At Monday’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., Box, who has visited Greenland 23 times to track its changing climate, explained that we’ve already pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide 40 percent beyond Eemian levels. What’s more, levels of atmospheric methane are a dramatic 240 percent higher -- both with no signs of stopping. “There is no analogue for that in the ice record,” said Box.
And that’s not all. The present mass-scale human burning of trees and vegetation for clearing land and building fires, plus our pumping of aerosols into the atmosphere from human pollution, weren’t happening during the Eemian. These human activities are darkening Greenland’s icy surface, and weakening its ability to bounce incoming sunlight back away from the planet. Instead, more light is absorbed, leading to more melting, in a classic feedback process that is hard to slow down.
“These giants are awake,” said Box of Greenland’s rumbling glaciers, “and they seem to have a bit of a hangover."
Jason Box speaks the language of Manhattans. Not the drink -- the measuring unit.
As an expert on Greenland who has traveled 23 times to the massive, mile-thick northern ice sheet, Box has shown an uncanny ability to predict major melts and breakoffs of Manhattan-sized ice chunks. A few years back, he foretold the release of a “4x Manhattans” piece of ice from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, one so big that once afloat it was dubbed an “ice island.” In a scientific paper [PDF] published in February of 2012, Box further predicted “100% melt area over the ice sheet” within another decade of global warming. As it happened, the ice sheet’s surface almost completely melted just a month later in July -- an event that, in Box’s words, “signals the beginning of the end for the ice sheet.”
Box, who will speak at next week’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., pulls no punches when it comes to attributing all of this to humans and their fossil fuels. “Those who claim it’s all cycles just don’t understand that humans are driving the cycle right now, and for the foreseeable future,” he says. And the coastal consequences of allowing Greenland to continue its melting -- and pour 23 feet worth of sea level into the ocean over the coming centuries -- are just staggering. “If you’re the mayor of Hamburg, or Shanghai, or Philadelphia, I think it’s in your job description that you think forward a century,” says Box. “They’re completely inundated by the year 2200.”
Unless, that is, something big changes -- something big enough to start Greenland cooling, shifting its “mass balance” from ice loss to ice gain once again. But that would require us to reverse global climate change, in an ever-dwindling time frame for doing so.
Everybody who's written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They're predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science -- sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities. To cite a recent example:
What part of "we haven't warmed any in 16 years" don't you understand? Heh. "Cherry-picking" as defined by you alarmists: any time period selected containing data that refutes your hysterical hypothesis. Can be any length of time from 4 billion years to one hour. Fuck off, little man!
It was reasonably obvious already that these folks were doing nothing good for the public's understanding of the science of climate change (to say nothing of their own comprehension). But now there's actual evidence to back this idea up.
In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion U.S. industry [PDF]). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were "civil" -- e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: "If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you're an idiot."
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
Van Jones is a leading environmental and human rights advocate, President Obama’s former “green jobs” special adviser, a CNN contributor, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Green Collar Economyand Rebuild the Dream. Chris Mooney spoke with him by phone as part of our ongoing coverage of how Obama can tackle the climate issue -- and lead -- in his second term.
Q.Obama and global warming -- decode his signals for us. Is he really going to take the lead here in the next four years, and prioritize this issue?
A. I think it’s not clear sometimes how America is prioritizing the issue. Four years ago, both presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, ran as climate champions. The only thing that they agreed on was that global warming was real, caused by humans, could be fixed by cap-and-trade, and that that would lead to jobs. Four years ago, that was common ground, and the only common ground. And four years ago, people were still impacted by Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.
Well, all of the horrible things that were shown in Al Gore’s film in 2007, you can see on the Weather Channel in 2012. And yet you don’t see people marching down the street, even in the wake of Sandy, even in the face of the drought, demanding change. So I think that’s a factor in Washington, D.C., not being as vocal or as visible.
Now that said, I think that’s starting to change, and I think this president is going to have to deal both with the worsening science, and the returning public will to act. And I credit Bill McKibben and 350.org for coming on so strong since the election was over, and also the shock of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, for I think creating a new moment for climate solutions to take center stage.
Superstorm Sandy -- and its revival of the issue of climate change, most prominently through Michael Bloomberg's sudden endorsement -- probably aided Obama's reelection victory last night. But at the same time, there has been a vast debate about the true nature of the storm's connections to global warming (as well as plenty of denialism regarding those connections). In fact, there has even been the suggestion, by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, that if we all stopped thinking about causation as something direct (I pushed him, he fell) and rather as something systemic (indirect, probabilistic), then we really could say with full accuracy that global warming caused Sandy. Systemically.
Following this debate, I've been struck by the strong impression that people are making things too complicated. Here's the simple truth: Leaving aside questions of systemic causation -- and sidestepping probabilities, loaded dice, atmospheres on steroids, and so on -- we can nevertheless say that global warming made Sandy directly and unmistakably worse, because of its contribution to sea-level rise.
"I keep telling people the one lock you have here is sea-level rise," meteorologist Scott Mandia explained to me recently. "It's the one thing that absolutely made the storm worse that you can't wiggle out of."
In 2007, I published a book called Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. It was inspired by what my family had been through in Hurricane Katrina (I’m from New Orleans), but at the end, I looked forward to what other families and other cities might have to experience -- if we don’t start to think in a much broader way about our society’s stunning vulnerability to hurricane disasters.
As I wrote:
Even as we act immediately to curtail short term vulnerability, every exposed coastal city needs a risk assessment that takes global warming scenarios into account ... Scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York have been studying that city’s vulnerability to hurricane impacts in a changing world, and calculated that with 1.5 feet of sea level rise, a worst-case-scenario Category 3 hurricane could submerge “the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, lower Manhattan, and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano Bridge.” (Pause and think about that for a second.)
No need to pause and think any longer -- last night, just over five years later, much of it came to pass. And indeed, climate change, a topic embarrassingly ignored in the three recent presidential debates, made it worse.