On the Path to “Hothouse Earth”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Aug. 14, 2018 Excerpts from "Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene" Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Sarah E. Cornell, Michel Crucifix, Jonathan F. Donges, Ingo Fetzer, Steven J. Lade, Marten Scheffer, Ricarda Winkelmann, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber PNAS August 14, 2018 115 (33) 8252-8259; published ahead of print August 6, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115 Edited by William C. Clark, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved July 6, 2018 (received for review June 19, 2018) Abstract We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be. If the threshold is crossed, the

“We’ve never seen anything like this…”

In case you haven’t noticed, several new words and phrases have become more common in newspapers and on the evening news lately. They are used so often, in fact, that they are replacing “war torn nation” and “’tis the season” as the tritest phrases in the news business. This would be trivial except for one thing: The words reveal something very important about our times and about our upcoming elections. Here are some of them: Unprecedented Record-breaking Not in my lifetime Disaster Tragic Loss Victims Deaths Homeless Floods Heat Wildfire Firefighter Drought Evacuation Everything lost New normal These are part of the emerging lexicon of climate change.  We don’t have to rely on computer models and climatologists anymore to know whether global warming is real. Millions of Americans, as well as billions of people worldwide, are experiencing it first-hand. The people who still deny that climate change is real -- including the President of the United States, his Cabinet and more than half of the members of Congress -- are looking more and more ridiculous, like the proverbial ostriches with

DNR for Old Coal Plants

By William S. Becker Donald Trump is having a tough time keeping his campaign promise to save the coal industry. More than 20 coal-fired power plants have closed during his presidency so far. His problem is pretty obvious: He is fighting against very strong market forces. And despite his claims to the contrary, his efforts to promote coal and fossil fuels in general will make the United States weaker and more vulnerable. Trump is anachronistic when it comes to energy, At a time when the world must turn away from fossil fuels because of global climate change -- and every nation except the United States has promised to do so -- the president wants the U.S. to become the planet’s leading producer of oil, coal and natural gas. He is trying to push us back into last century's fossil energy economy by relaxing pollution standards and opening new lands and coastal waters for oil and gas production. He seems to have a special interest in coal. He and Energy Secretary Rick Perry are contriving ways to keep this dirtiest of

What Does Clean Air Cost? Wrong Question.

Scott Pruitt has created another dustup in environmental circles with an announcement that his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will cast a wider net for information about the impacts of enforcing the nation’s landmark Clean Air Act. The announcement set off alarm bells because Pruitt is hell-bent on weakening if not eliminating environmental regulations that are a cost or inconvenience for industry. Pruitt has more motivation than ever to trash EPA. It’s what has kept him in his job so far despite the many recent revelations of his abuses of taxpayer money. But neither the EPA nor the Clean Air Act were created to serve industry; their overriding mission is to protect public health. Google searches failed to turn up a copy of Pruitt’s new directive, but the Associated Press reported, “EPA will ask its advisory committees to consider and advise Pruitt on how enforcement affects the economy, health and welfare, energy and society, and will seek input from state and local government, Indian tribes and others on the pollution limits.” That innocent-sounding directive is controversial, the AP explained, because “Federal

May 24th, 2018|Articles|

Getting America Back on Course

By William S. Becker With important elections coming up this fall and in 2020, the American people will have opportunities to correct the mistake of putting Donald Trump in the White House, where he has used his office to undermine some of our most important institutions and laws. Trump’s damage has been widespread. Others have spoken about his impact on international relations; the stewardship of public lands; the press and the courts; the government’s divorce from science; and so on. Of special importance to those of us in the environmental sector is Trump’s great leap backward on environmental protection, energy policy and climate change. The question now is what we can do to rebuild what Trump and his minions have weakened or destroyed. On these and other issues, there seems to be three levels of volume in national politics right now. There is virtually no sound coming from the Democratic Party. It seems to have no message beyond an implicit “We’re not Trump”. Perhaps party strategists are content to remain quiet and hope that Trump will hang himself along with

More Mosquito Bites? Blame Coal

By William S. Becker I’ve said it before: If you follow the latest information about global climate change, you’ll get the impression that it might cause everything from swimmers’ itch to male- pattern baldness. The speculation can seem ridiculous. However, it is true that the consequences of climate change are ubiquitous and pervasive. After all, climate determines the weather and the weather is everywhere all the time. The impacts get as small as those mosquito bites you’ll get this summer. That’s the buzz from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of many agencies around the world that monitor “vector-borne diseases”, the illnesses spread by insects such as fleas, mosquitoes and ticks. Climate scientists have warned for many years that warmer weather would allow the insects to thrive in places that used to be too cold for them. As a result, more Americans are falling ill from diseases that we associate with the tropics. The CDC reported this week that the number of Americans who get diseases from these insects has tripled since 2004. About 300,000 people

Wrong Driver, Wrong Road

Donald Trump has acquired several nicknames since he decided to run for president, but the one he most deserves today is “President Pollution”. With the help of a willing Congress, he is presiding over the biggest rollback of federal regulations in a generation. This week's rollback involves the tailpipe emissions from our cars and pickups. During Trump’s first year in office, his Administration scaled back, reversed or attempted to reverse more than 60 environmental rules ranging from protection for whales to anti-dumping regulations for coal companies. Whether killing a regulation is good or bad depends on the benefits and costs of the regulation. But Trump’s criteria seem to be whether a) the Obama Administration developed the rule or b) oil industry CEOs and shareholders might lose money. To understand the consequences of this week's decision, a little background is in order. Tailpipe emissions from today’s vehicles include particulates that can cause illness or death from heart disease, asthma or lung cancer. They also include CO2, the pollutant most responsible for global climate change, a crisis that is no less real because

Part 2: What’s Really at Stake This Fall

As Mardi Gras parades took over the streets in New Orleans last February, more than 1,000 people, mostly Millennials, gathered at Tulane University to share ideas about ending corruption in America’s political system. They weren’t talking about isolated cases of shady shenanigans by elected officials. They were talking about systemic subversions of democracy that deny some Americans of the right to vote or that rig the electoral system in favor of one party or another. They discussed how the fabric of democracy is being torn by powerful elites who want to keep the power they have and to gain more. In more formal terms, these perversions of democracy are known as voter suppression, voter erasure, disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, uncontrolled campaign finance, the Electoral College, and “Trojan media” where foreign governments, hackers and other saboteurs disguise themselves to influence the outcome of our elections. By one estimate, there are more than 80 organizations in the United States working to “unrig the system”. Many of them attended the Tulane conference to show solidarity and fire each other up about creating a bipartisan, inclusive

February 12th, 2018|Articles, Commentary|

We Need an Intervention for Our Carbon Addiction

December 2015 - by William S Becker - via Huffington Post. This is Part 1 in a two-part post. Part 2 is at this link. There is an old saying for people who are stuck in an unhealthy situation: If you want to get out of a hole, stop digging. There is a corollary for a world addicted to fossil fuels: If you want to cure the addiction, stop subsidizing the drug. Indian pedestrians walk near smog enveloped government offices on Rajpath in New Delhi on December 1, 2015. India's capital, with 18 million residents, has the world's most polluted air with six times the amount of small particulate matter (pm2.5) than what is considered safe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The air's hazardous amount of pm2.5 can reach deep into the lungs and enter the blood, causing serious long term health effect, with the WHO warning India has the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases. India, home to 13 of the world's top 20 polluted cities, is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases

December 18th, 2015|Articles|

The Climate Deal: A Boon or Bust?

December 2015 - byWilliam S Becker - via Huffington Post. It was inevitable that the chattering classes would find a feast of disagreement about the importance of the climate agreement achieved last weekend in Paris. Was it a breakthrough of historic importance on the existential issue of our age? Or was it a collective whimper from the global community? Questions like these are especially appealing to my former colleagues in journalism, where a good clean controversy is always better reading than a muddy middle ground. Ben Adler, a Grist blogger whose work I greatly admire, wrote apost-mortem this week that "There's a surprising large range of opinion among progressives, both advocacy groups and elected officials." The blog is headlined, "Green groups are deeply divided on whether the Paris agreement is a win or a loss." Actually, the range of opinion is not at all surprising. The Paris outcome is a classic case of interpreting the glass as half empty or half full. It is less than many of us hoped and more than we've ever achieved before. It is without question

December 16th, 2015|Articles|

The World Has Spoken in Paris

This article was originally published on Huffington Post, on December 12, 2015, by William S Becker.   PARIS - The world made history at approximately 7:25 p.m. Paris time on Saturday when 195 nations did something that had never been done before. They all agreedon something. The "something" is really something: a global commitment to confront global climate change after 21 years of diplomatic wrangling. In the plenary hall at a former airport in Paris, there were tears among the hundreds of delegates and support staff who worked for years toward this achievement, climaxing in more than two weeks of around the clock effort to reach that moment on Saturday. Among them were a tired Secretary of State John Kerry and an obviously delighted Al Gore, who has dedicated years of his life and has taken enormous abuse for his efforts to persuade the world that climate action threatens our survival. The talking heads around the world will talk for weeks to come about whether the agreement is strong or weak, aggressive or reticent, the pinnacle of diplomacy or another

December 12th, 2015|Articles|

Voters to GOP: ‘I’m not a scientist’ won’t cut it on climate change

October 2015 - by Edward Maibach - via Los Angeles Times If the Republican Party wants to win the White House in 2016, it should take climate change seriously. In the 2012 presidential campaign, global warming didn't come up in any of the three debates between Mitt Romney and President Obama. That won't be the case this campaign season, with wide swaths of America suffering through climate change-fueled record heat, rampant wildfires and historic droughts. Voters understand what's happening, and they want the government to take action. The question is, have Republicans gotten the message? Not quite. In a poll conducted this spring by me and my colleagues at Yale and George Mason universities, 70% of Americans support placing strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions at existing coal-fired power plants. We also found that 75% of adults, including 63% of Republicans, support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. And yet Republicans have been making the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan their latest punching bag. That may help primary candidates, but it will cost the GOP in the general election. The most

October 16th, 2015|Articles|