El Niño is one of Earth's most influential climatic phenomena. Its occasional arrival, heralded by warming in parts of the eastern Pacific Ocean, can be a harbinger of floods in Peru, droughts in Australia, harsh winters in Europe, and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Yet we know precious little about it.
But this week, two separate scientific studies chipped away at the mystery.
One study reveals that the El Niño phenomenon has been occurring more frequently as the globe has warmed. The other paper promises to dramatically improve our ability to foretell the weather pattern's arrival.
As if the increased threat of catastrophic weather events weren’t enough, climate change also has to mess with us in ways less apocalyptic but arguably more frustrating on a daily basis. Like by making our allergies way worse.
More CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth and pollen production, and as a result, allergy doctors across the country are reporting increases in patient visits -- new ones who have never before experienced symptoms as well as longtime sufferers getting more miserable each year.
Quest Diagnostics, which tests for allergies, reported a 15 percent increase in ragweed allergies from 2005 to 2009, according to USA Today. Scientists are straightforward about the climate connection:
"The link between rising carbon dioxide and pollen is pretty clear," says Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a top researcher in the field.
His lab tests show that pollen production rises along with carbon dioxide. It doubled from 5 grams to 10 grams per plant when CO2 in the atmosphere rose from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 370 ppm in 2000. He expects it could double again, to 20 grams, by 2075 if carbon emissions continue to climb. The world's CO2 concentration is about 400 ppm.
Not only is pollen more prevalent, but longer growing seasons mean allergens stay around for more of the year. And some scientists see pollen counts doubling much sooner than 2075.
In the wake of the tragic news that 19 heroic members of an elite "Hotshot" firefighting team were killed in Arizona, there's been renewed discussion about climate change and how it is worsening wildfires. In particular, there's considerable evidence that Western fire seasons are getting longer and more destructive, and that this is tied to more extreme heat and drought.
But does the same dynamic make the act of wildland firefighting riskier? There are reasons to suspect that it does.
Nick Sundt is a former Western smoke jumper -- a firefighter who literally parachutes in to combat blazes, often in remote locations, acting as a kind of first line of defense. He fought fires from Alaska to New Mexico for a decade during the 1980s. Now, he's the communications director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund. No wonder that he has focused much of his attention of late on how Western fires, and conditions for his fellow firefighters, are getting worse.
Federal and state "Hotshot" crews, explains Sundt, are composed of highly trained specialists who are at the top of their physical game -- for instance, they have to be able to hike three miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack. They are dispatched to fight fires that grow beyond the capacity of first arrivers -- such as smokejumpers -- to combat. What follows is often intense, dangerous labor for 16 hours at a time or even longer.
As Sundt explains, members of these teams are "arguably the most physically fit and well organized crews of firefighters" that governments have at their disposal. But that doesn't mean that they're ready for every situation.
In the case of the Arizona team, the emergency shelters that Hotshots take with them -- to protect from heat, and preserve oxygen -- appear to have been insufficient, for unknown reasons. Such shelters, it is important to note, are not able to resist direct exposure to flames.
With fire dynamics changing and overall temperatures rising, meanwhile, even the best-prepared firefighters may be facing greater risks.
Last week I looked at the coal industry’s failed PR efforts, which even Luke Popovich, the head of the National Mining Association, admits has not worked: “Anyway, ‘war on coal’ never resonated with much conviction among ordinary Americans. For them, the EPA keeps the air and water clean, their kids safe.” One of the problems, of course, is that coal is Americans’ “least favored” energy source, according to a recent Gallup poll. Despite the silly “war” rhetoric, most people understand that we need to move away from coal and the damage it does to our health, environment, and climate. So …
"Shhhh ... don't tell anybody how much we're wrecking the climate ... that's a trade secret."
Energy and chemical companies are urging the Obama administration to dump a proposal on greenhouse gas emissions reporting. They say new reporting requirements could put their trade secrets at risk. From The Hill:
The White House is currently reviewing a proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that could require companies to publicly release the information they use to calculate the emissions, like the volume of production or raw materials that are used.
Companies and market regulators worry that that data can be "reverse-engineered and reverse-calculated to basically give away trade secrets," according to Lorraine Gershman, director of the environmental, regulatory and technical affairs office of the American Chemistry Council.
At the time of the Arab oil export embargo in the 1970s, the importing countries were beginning to ask themselves if there were alternatives to oil. In a number of countries, particularly the United States, several in Europe, and Brazil, the idea of growing crops to produce fuel for cars was appealing. The modern biofuels industry was launched. This was the beginning of what would become one of the great tragedies of history. Brazil was able to create a thriving fuel ethanol program based on sugarcane, a tropical plant. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, however, in the United …
Last week Arnold Schwarzenegger, chairman of the R20 Regions of Climate Action, signed an agreement in Algeria to address waste and sustainable energy challenges in the Mediterranean and North Africa. At the same time, a meeting of officials in Bahrain examined technologies and strategies to help that nation evolve into one of the most energy and water efficient economies in the world. Are there lessons in those examples for the U.S. now that President Obama has reignited the debate over climate change policy? The governments of Algeria and its Oran region have realized the potential of energy efficiency measures, development …
The state of Hawaii has become a lot like the island of Dr. Moreau. Except that instead of Dr. Moreau -- the mad scientist in H.G. Wells's 1896 novel who vivisected animals into beast-people -- Hawaii is ruled by the GMO industry.
Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, and BASF use the Pacific archipelago as open-air testing grounds for their experimental genetically modified crops, and they spray those crops with herbicides and other chemicals to test how they respond.
But now many residents, including lawmakers, are saying they have had enough of this science-fictionesque madness.
Many of Obama’s nominees have not been popular with Republicans in the Senate, but Gina McCarthy has faced a particularly tough fight. GOP senators boycotted a committee vote on her nomination two months ago, mostly because of their knee-jerk hatred of all things related to the EPA (or, as some prefer to call it, the job-killing organization of America).
McCarthy has a reputation as a tough and experienced policymaker committed to fighting climate change, whose work as Massachusetts’ top environmental advisor contributed to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 ruling giving EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. She's worked for Republicans as well as Democrats and collaborated constructively with industry, but that background hasn't calmed GOP worries about what the EPA might do on climate change.
Over recent months, McCarthy repeatedly assured senators that the EPA was not working on carbon regulations for existing power plants. But then last week, Obama announced in his big climate speech that he planned to order EPA to develop just such regulations. Politico reported last week that this could further endanger McCarthy's nomination because GOP lawmakers might accuse her of misleading them or argue that she was out of touch and incompetent (although the only people Politico quoted to support that theory were an oil-industry lobbyist and a GOP energy strategist).
But now, a week later, Politico reports that, on the contrary, a McCarthy confirmation is looking increasingly likely.