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Climate Change


Everything you need to know about Tropical Storm Debby, and more

"Debby" is not a popular name, having never been in the top 1,000 baby names in America over the past 100 years. Its variant spelling, "Debbie," rose as high as America's 20th most-popular in 1959, before falling off the charts in 1992.

There was a movie in the 1970s that didn't help this trajectory.

It is, though, more popular as a name for storms. "Debby" has six times been used as a name for a tropical storm or hurricane; Debbie, four. In 1969, the most recent Hurricane Debbie was seeded with silver iodide in an experiment designed to test whether or not storms could be weakened. The tests were ultimately deemed failures.

Projected path of Debby.

Nor is "Debby" a particularly intimidating name, as befits 2012's Tropical Storm Debby, currently stalled in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida. It's noteworthy not for its expected impact, but for marking the first time since 1851 that four storms have formed before July. In the future, we'll look back on this and say things like, "Only four?" and then laugh as we put hurricane protection over windows in Wichita.

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Earthlings: Bad at not emitting carbon dioxide

If CO2 were degrees. (Photo by Joe Chung.)

From The Guardian:

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen by even more than previously thought, according to new data analysed by the Guardian, casting doubt on whether the world can avoid dangerous climate change. ...

In 2010, the latest year for which figures have been compiled, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said the world emitted 31.8bn tonnes of carbon from energy consumption. That represents a climb of 6.7% on the year before and is significantly higher than the previous best estimate, made by the International Energy Agency last year, that in 2010 a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide were released from burning fossil fuel.

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Adapting to climate change: Necessary but difficult and expensive

There is no longer any question of preventing climate change. Some 98 percent of working climate scientists agree that the atmosphere is already warming in response to human greenhouse-gas emissions, and the most recent research suggests that we are on a path toward what were once considered “worst case” scenarios.

That chipper sentiment marks the beginning of my new piece for Popular Science. It's an introduction/scene-setter for their recent issue, which has a package of pieces focused on climate adaptation in shelter, food, water, and more. Go read the whole thing!

There won't be much new material in it for my 12 loyal readers, especially those who have read my "brutal logic" posts or watched my TEDx talk. It's all that ol' doom-and-gloom, again.

If there's any shift in emphasis, it's just that avoiding serious disruptions is no longer really an option, even if we go gangbusters on mitigation. Adjusting to severe weather, rising sea levels, desertification, and diminished agricultural output is something we will do, period.

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The New York Times’ unwarranted attack on my air conditioner

This is my actual air conditioner. Adorable, no?

There was a report in the Times this morning that outlines the various ways in which the coolant gases in air conditioners are bad for the environment. Here's the key section:

The leading scientists in the field have just calculated that if all the equipment entering the world market uses the newest gases currently employed in air-conditioners, up to 27 percent of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050.

So the therapy to cure one global environmental disaster is now seeding another. “There is precious little time to do something, to act,” said Stephen O. Andersen, the co-chairman of the treaty’s technical and economic advisory panel.

For me, sitting in New York City where the temperature is still hot (as I won't shut up about), this article is basically like The New York Times decided to tell me that my best friend is the world's biggest jerk. I know that, New York Times. I know my best friend is a jerk. But he is my best friend.

What's next, New York Times? An expose about how sitting can kill you? Oh, you already covered that. Great.


Some like it hot (or cold): How weather affects carbon emissions

As we take climate change more seriously, we'll need better ways of measuring carbon emissions. That doesn't just mean reporting and monitoring systems, but also better conceptual models, a sense of how best to compare emissions between regions or countries.

Among other things, better metrics will allow us to craft more sophisticated policy. The Kyoto arrangement -- "let's all go back to where we were in 1990" -- is, to put it kindly, a blunt weapon, insensitive to participating countries' varying levels of wealth, population trajectories, native industries, and energy needs. Expectations for any country to reduce its carbon emissions ought to be sensitive to its individual circumstances.

So we need richer, more nuanced ways of figuring out who's doing well on carbon and who's doing poorly. That brings us to an interesting recent paper in American Scientist called "Accounting for Climate in Ranking Countries' Carbon Dioxide Emissions," by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle. Their insight is simple: Carbon emission rankings ought to be adjusted to account for local climates. Sweden uses more energy to keep people at a comfortable temperature than, say, Greece does, but that doesn't mean Greece is doing better than Sweden on climate policy. It just means Sweden is really cold! That's not Sweden's fault. We need some way of comparing Sweden and Greece that doesn't give Greece an unfair advantage for the happy accident of being located on the Mediterranean.

So Sivak and Schoettle have developed rankings that take into account "the general heating and cooling demands that are imposed by the climate of a given country." How does that change things?

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Today in weather events that are clearly not related to climate change

The High Park fire in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of the National Guard.)

It doesn't make sense to me why we are so painstaking in not attributing severe weather events directly to climate change. I don't mean intellectually; I get that climate change is a macro trend and that we can't ascribe specific outliers to it. I've seen the walking dog video.

I mean more that I don't get why we just don't do it anyway. Point to something and say: "That's climate change." What are deniers going to say in response? "Scientifically, you can't say that with certainty"? Because if that were the response, I would respond with a sober, academic, "LOL oh, now you are super respectful of science? SMH."

But I know. We can't say these things are due to warming. It's intellectually dishonest. So with that I present to you:

Today in weather events that are clearly not related to climate change

Wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico

This is time-lapse video of the Little Bear fire near Ruidoso, N.M. To date, the fire has burned over 41,000 acres and destroyed 242 residential structures. Caused by lightning, it's about 60 percent contained.

Then there's the High Park fire in Colorado. Since we last checked in on it, 8,000 more acres have burned for a total of almost 70,000. It's about 55 percent contained. It, too, was started by lightning.


NYC’s first day of summer: White hot, hungry for power

Photograph of the author, taken today.

It's hot on the East Coast today. Very hot. To the extent that I'm fairly confident that my brain isn't working properly. The first day of summer is saying, "Hey, everyone! I'm here! Look at me!" Yeah, we see you, summer.

Temperatures in New York and Washington, D.C., are still over 90 degrees F. A local station in Baltimore reported that it was 775 degrees there, but that seems a little high. These are the days when we look wistfully at our air conditioners, appreciating all that they do for us even as we know that we shouldn't use them, but we use them anyway. (Love you, air conditioner!) (Need tips on buying one? Voila.)

Here's how the temperatures in New York between yesterday and today compare. (The gap is missing data, probably obviously.)

Here's a chart of the average temperature for June 20 in New York.

Image courtesy of

Today's temperature is somewhere above and outside the graph.


Look at this picture of the Arctic now, because it’s probably your last chance

Photo courtesy of NASA.

This image (click to embiggen, click here to embiggen A LOT) was stitched together from photos taken by NASA's Suomi NPP satellite. It shows the Arctic in all its glory -- or anyway, all its remaining glory. The ice cover there has been decreasing fast enough that within 20 years, a photo of the Arctic taken at this time of year would show no floating sea ice at all.

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Updates from the Rio Earth Summit, day one

The Earth Summit in Rio begins today. What's that? You thought it started weeks ago? Very understandable.

You can watch the plenary sessions here, or streaming below.

Later today, 17 year-old Brittany Trilford will speak to the assembly. (You can read Greg Hanscom's interview with her here.) We'll update this post after she does.


Are our 15 seconds of fame up, geologically speaking?

Photo by Krissy Venosdale.

Four and a half billion years is a hard number to digest. That’s the age of the Earth, and a lot has happened in that time. The geologic record contains dramatic climate swings, the formation of entire continents, the proliferation of new species -- as well as mass extinctions. But no matter what has happened in the past, life goes on. Well, in the case of mass extinctions, at least some life does ...

To help people get their heads around our role in all this, geologists use the analogy of a clock: If you compress all of the Earth's history into a single day, humans do not show up on the scene until a minute before midnight.