Category Archives: Climate Change

The next energy revolution is here – Gao Jifan.

Over the period of one decade, the capitalized cost of generating solar energy in 2015 has decreased to as low as one sixth the cost in 2005, and I believe it will not take long for solar energy generation to be economically cheaper than thermal power generation worldwide.

Every year at the World Economic Forum, energy consumption and climate change are always hot topics.

Looking back at the history of human civilisation, for a long time, firewood was the primary source of energy; however, back then, energy ultilization was low and as such air pollution emissions were also low.

The invention of the steam engine in the 18th century marked the beginning of the industrial revolution, which led to the mining and consumption of coal on a large scale. In 1920, coal accounted for 62% of primary energy consumption, indicating that the world had entered the Coal Age.

In 1965, petroleum replaced coal as the most consumed energy, which led the world into the “petroleum age”. In 1979, petroleum contributed 54% of the world energy consumption, marking the second energy revolution from coal to petroleum. Up until now, fossil fuels have continued to dominate as our energy resource.

With each new age, the use and efficiency of energy have increased significantly — as have, unfortunately, levels of severe environmental pollution. Our future energy system must therefore be clean and low-carbon to ensure the sustainable development of human civilisation.

We are now embarking on a new era of energy revolution. The energy system of the future should have the following three features:

Low carbon energy production. Fossil fuels have to be burned to release energy, which caused emissions and environmental pollution. The existing intensive industrial usage of fossil fuels has significantly harmed the environment. Meanwhile, for most economically under-developed countries around the world, the cost of clean energy is too high to be affordable.

Solar power, however, is one of the best solutions. Not only is solar energy production clean, it may also soon become a much more affordable source of energy, as technology development and innovation continues to reduce the cost of solar power generation.

……. continued at Medium.com

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Gao Jifan, President , China Photovoltaic Industry Association

The Ends of the World. Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions – Peter Brannen.

“As often as I have seen beds of mud, sand, and shingle, accumulated to the thickness of many thousand feet, I have felt inclined to exclaim that causes, such as the present rivers and the present beaches, could never have ground down and produced such masses. But, on the other hand, when listening to the rattling noise of these torrents, and calling to mind that whole races of animals have passed away from the face of the earth, and that during this whole period, night and day, these stones have gone rattling onwards in their course, I have thought to myself, can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste?”

Charles Darwin

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It is the dawn of a new geological age. A teeming swarm of Homo sapiens gathers on the banks of an estuary at the edge of the North American continent. The glaciers have retreated; the seas have risen more than 400 feet since the last ice age; and the gleaming new steel-and-glass hives of Manhattan rise up from the marshes. 

Looming over the confident city, just across the Hudson River, is the sheer cliff face of the Palisades. The gigantic columns of basalt sit in unimpressed, stony silence, as they have for 200 million years. These cliffs, covered in highway weeds and graffiti, are monuments to an ancient apocalypse. They’re made of magma that once fed burbling fountains of lava at the surface – lava that once smothered the planet from Nova Scotia to Brazil.

The eruptions flooded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide at the end of the Triassic period, roasting the planet and acidifying the oceans for thousands of years. Brief blasts of volcanic smog punctuated this super-greenhouse with cold. The runaway volcanism covered more than 4 million square miles of the planet and killed off more than three-quarters of animal life on earth in a geological instant.

I struggled to keep up with Columbia University paleontologist Paul Olsen as he bounded up the scraggly path leading from the banks of the Hudson to the base of the Palisades. In front of us, smothered under this enormous wall of now-solid magma, were the remains of a quarter-billion-year-old lake bottom, complete with exquisitely preserved fish and reptile fossils. Behind us, faintly droning, was the skyline of New York City.

I asked Olsen whether the city across the river would be preserved for future geologists to discover, like this peaceful Triassic diorama at the bottom of the rocks. He turned to consider the scenery. “You might have a layer of stuff,” he said dismissively, “but it’s not a sedimentary basin, so eventually it would erode away to nothing. You’d have bits that would make it out into the ocean and would be buried and might show up—some bottle caps, maybe. There would be some pretty heavy-duty isotopic signals. But the subway system wouldn’t fossilize or anything. It all would erode away fairly quickly.”

It is from this disorienting perspective that geologists operate: to them, millions of years run together, seas divide continents, then drain away, and great mountain ranges erode to sand in moments. It’s an outlook that’s necessary to cultivate if one wants to get a handle on the staggering depths of geological time, which recedes behind us hundreds of millions of years and stretches out before us to infinity.

If Olsen’s attitude seems dispassionate in the extreme, it’s a symptom of a lifetime’s immersion in Earth’s history, which is both vast beyond comprehension and, in some exceedingly rare moments, tragic beyond words. Animal life has been all but destroyed in sudden, planetwide exterminations five times in Earth’s history. These are the so-called Big Five mass extinctions, commonly defined as any event in which more than half of the earth’s species go extinct in fewer than a million years or so.

We now know that many of these mass extinctions seem to have happened much more quickly. Thanks to fine-scale geochronology, we know that some of the most extreme die-offs in earth history lasted only a few thousand years, at the very most, and may have been much quicker.

A more qualitative way to describe something like this is Armageddon. The most famous member of this gloomy fraternity is the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, which notably took out the (nonbird) dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

But the End-Cretaceous is only the most recent mass extinction in the history of life. The volcanic doomsday whose stony embers I saw exposed in the cliffs next to Manhattan – a disaster that brought down an alternate universe of distant crocodile relatives and global coral reef systems – struck 135 million years before the death of the dinosaurs.

This disaster and the three other major mass extinctions that preceded it are invisible, for the most part, in the public imagination, long overshadowed by the downfall of T.rex. This isn’t entirely without reason. For one thing, dinosaurs are the most charismatic characters in the fossil record, celebrities of earth history that paleontologists who work on earlier, more neglected periods scoff at as preening oversized monsters. As such, dinosaurs hog most of the popular press spared for paleontology. In addition, the dinosaurs were wiped out in spectacular fashion, with their final moments punctuated by the impact of a 6-mile-long asteroid in Mexico.

But if it was a space rock that did in the dinosaurs, it seems to have been a unique disaster. Some astronomers outside the field push the idea that periodic asteroid strikes caused each of the planet’s other four mass extinctions, but this hypothesis has virtually no support in the fossil record. In the past three decades, geologists have scoured the fossil record looking for evidence of devastating asteroid impacts at those mass extinctions, and have come up empty.

The most dependable and frequent administrators of global catastrophe, it turns out, are dramatic changes to the climate and the ocean, driven by the forces of geology itself. The three biggest mass extinctions in the past 300 million years are all associated with giant floods of lava on a continental scale – the sorts of eruptions that beggar the imagination.

Life on earth is resilient, but not infinitely so: the same volcanoes that are capable of turning whole continents inside out can also produce climatic and oceanic chaos worthy of the apocalypse. In these rare eruptive cataclysms the atmosphere becomes supercharged with volcanic carbon dioxide, and during the worst mass extinction of all time, the planet was rendered a hellish, rotting sepulcher, with hot, acidifying oceans starved of oxygen.

But in other earlier mass extinctions, it might have been neither volcanoes nor asteroids at fault. Instead, some geologists say that plate tectonics, and perhaps even biology itself, conspired to suck up CO2 and poison the oceans. While continental-scale volcanism sends CO2 soaring, in these earlier, somewhat more mysterious extinctions, carbon dioxide might have instead plummeted, imprisoning the earth in an icy crypt. Rather than spectacular collisions with other heavenly bodies, it has been these internal shocks to the earth system that have most frequently knocked the planet off course. Much of the planet’s misfortune, it seems, is homegrown. 

Luckily, these uber-catastrophes are comfortingly rare, having struck only five times in the more than half a billion years since complex life emerged (occurring, roughly, 445, 374, 252, 201, and 66 million years ago).

But it’s a history that has frightening echoes in our own world – which is undergoing changes not seen for tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions, of years. “It’s pretty clear that times of high carbon dioxide – and especially times when carbon dioxide levels rapidly rose – coincided with the mass extinctions,” writes University of Washington paleontologist and End-Permian mass extinction expert Peter Ward. “Here is the driver of extinction.” As civilization is busy demonstrating, supervolcanoes aren’t the only way to get lots of carbon buried in the rocks out into the atmosphere in a hurry.

Today humanity busies itself by digging up hundreds of millions of years of carbon buried by ancient life and ignites it all at once at the surface, in pistons and power plants – the vast, diffuse metabolism of modern civilization. If we see this task to completion and burn it all – supercharging the atmosphere with carbon like an artificial supervolcano – it will indeed get very hot, as it has before. The hottest heat waves experienced today will become the average, while future heat waves will push many parts of the world into uncharted territory, taking on a new menace that will surpass the hard limits of human physiology.

If this comes to pass, the planet will return to a condition that, though utterly alien to us, has made many appearances in the fossil record. But warm times aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The dinosaur-haunted Cretaceous was significantly richer in atmospheric CO2, and that period was consequently much warmer than today. But when climate change or ocean chemistry changes have been sudden, the result has been devastating for life. In the worst of times, the earth has been all but ruined by these climate paroxysms as lethally hot continental interiors, acidifying, anoxic oceans, and mass death swept over the planet.

This is the revelation of geology in recent years that presents the most worrying prospect for modern society. The five worst episodes in earth history have all been associated with violent changes to the planet’s carbon cycle.

Over time, this fundamental element moves back and forth between the reservoirs of biology and geology: volcanic carbon dioxide in the air is captured by carbon-based life in the sea, which dies and becomes carbonate limestone on the seafloor. When that limestone is thrust down into the earth, it’s cooked and the carbon dioxide is spit out by volcanoes into the air once more. And on and on. This is why it’s a cycle. But events like sudden, extraordinarily huge injections of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans can short-circuit this chemistry of life. This prospect is one reason why past mass extinctions have become such a vogue topic of late in the research community. Most of the scientists I spoke with over the course of reporting this book were interested in the planet’s history of near-death experiences, not just to answer an academic question, but also to learn, by studying the past, how the planet responds to exactly the sorts of shocks we’re currently inflicting on it.

This ongoing conversation in the research community is strikingly at odds with the one taking place in the broader culture. Today much of the discussion about carbon dioxide’s role in driving climate change makes it seem as though the link exists only in theory, or in computer models. But our current experiment – quickly injecting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – has in fact been run many times before in the geological past, and it never ends well. 

In addition to the unanimous and terrifying projections of climate models, we also have a case history of carbon dioxide-driven climate change in the planet’s geologic past that we would be well advised to consult. These events can be instructive, even diagnostic, for our modern crises, like the patient who presents to his doctor with chest pains after a history of heart attacks. But there’s a risk of stretching the analogy too far: Earth has been many different planets over its lifetime, and though in some salient and worrying ways our modern planet and its future prospects echo some of the most frightening chapters in its history, in many other ways our modern biocrises represent a one-off, a unique disruption in the history of life.

Thankfully, we still have time. Though we’ve proven to be a destructive species, we have not produced anything even close to the levels of wanton destruction and carnage seen in previous planetary cataclysms. These are absolute worst-case scenarios.

The epitaph for humanity does not yet have to include the tragic indictment of having engineered the sixth major mass extinction in earth history.

In a world sometimes short on it, this is good news.

Like many kids, I came to the topic of mass extinctions early. As the son of a children’s librarian, I grew up in a house that was often brimming with cardboard boxes of books – the surplus of the most recent book fair. Perhaps to my mom’s frustration, I would pass over copies of Where the Red Fern Grows and The Giver and go straight for the pop-ups. Tyrannosaurs and cycads leapt from the page as I obsessed over the strange Latinate names and the even stranger creatures they described. Here an artist had decided to spangle a bizarre-looking animal called parasaurolophus in neon, while another illustrator had oviraptors draped in zebra stripes. It was irresistible: a world of sci-fi monsters that had actually existed.

But Disney’s Fantasia illuminated for me as a child an even stranger fact about this world: that it had all occurred in the past, to the music of Stravinsky’s orchestra, the dinosaurs lurched to their deaths over a cauterized landscape, and the world ended in tragedy. It was no more. Later obsessions, like the movie and book versions of Jurassic Park, only reinforced for me the melancholy of living in a world that had lost its dragons.

In the past few decades, geologists have started filling in the rough sketches of the Big Five mass extinctions with gruesome detail, but the story has largely eluded the public imagination. Our conception of history tends to stretch back only a few thousand years at most, and typically only a few hundred. This is a scandalously shortsighted appreciation of what came before – like reading only the last sentence of a book and claiming to understand what’s in the rest of the library. 

That the planet has nearly died five times over the past 500 million years is a remarkable fact, and as we, as a civilization, push the chemistry and temperature of the climate-ocean system into territory not seen for tens of millions of years, we should be curious about where the hard limits are. Just how bad could it get?

The history of mass extinctions provides the answer to this question. Visiting Earth’s turbulent and unfamiliar past provides a possible window into our future. Forgotten worlds spill from the sides of highways, from beach cliffs, and from the edges of baseball fields, hiding in plain sight. This was perhaps the central revelation to me as I began to accompany paleontologists in the field to learn more about the five major mass extinctions. I didn’t have to talk my way onto expeditions to the Arctic or the Gobi Desert to find the strange stratigraphy of long-past worlds. We live on a palimpsest of earth history. 

The lesson of geology is that we inherit this world – this “antique planet with a brand new civilization,” as Carl Sagan put it – from countless vanished ages. To see the world through the lens of geology is to see the world for the first time.

In North America, fossils are found not only in the mythic Southwest and in exposed Arctic mountainsides but hidden under Walmart parking lots, in quarries, and in road cuts on the interstate. Underneath Cincinnati is an endless fossil bas-relief of tropical sea life in the early oceans of the Ordovician period, which ended half a billion years ago in the second worst extinction in Earth’s history. 

There are plesiosaurs in riverbanks in downtown Austin, saber-toothed cats in Los Angeles, and killer crocs from the Triassic under Dulles Airport outside of Washington, DC. In Cleveland’s riverbanks are the armor-plated remains of a guillotine-mouthed, titanic fish from the Devonian period, 360 million years old. The wreckage from the Big Five mass extinctions lies on remote, verdant islands in the Canadian Maritimes, on icier patches in Antarctica and Greenland, under Mayan temples in Mexico, strewn across the desolation of South Africa’s Karoo Desert, and on the edges of farmland in China.

But this legacy of disaster is also visible next to skyscrapers in New York City and in the shales of the Midwest (so profitable for frackers and environmental fundraisers alike) that were forged in the chaos of the Late Devonian mass extinctions. Rising out of the deserts of West Texas are the Guadalupe Mountains, a haunted monument built almost entirely from ancient sea animals in the full bloom of life before the single worst chapter in the planet’s history: a period of crises capped by a carbon dioxide–driven global warming catastrophe that killed off 90 percent of life on Earth.

Life on earth constitutes a remarkably thin glaze of interesting chemistry on an otherwise unremarkable, cooling ball of stone, hovering like a sand grain in an endless ocean of empty space. This sheet of life that coats the planet – a feature of our world that has been almost miraculously durable over Earth’s history – is perhaps unique in the galaxy. But viewed through the lens of mass extinctions, it’s also remarkably fragile: when crises push the planet outside a narrow set of surface conditions, it has been nearly sterilized.

Much has been made of the search beyond our planet for spectacular external threats like asteroids, but we should be equally vigilant about the subtler threats from within. As the roster of lifeless planets in our solar system attests, the agreeable chemistry and conditions on the surface of the earth are incredibly unusual. And as the history of mass extinctions demonstrates, they’re not a given. 

In researching these ancient disasters, I expected to find a story as neat and tidy as the one about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. What I found instead was a frontier of discovery with much left to be unearthed, and a story still largely obscured by the fog of deep time. In my travels I became acquainted with whole worlds, still called “Earth”, that I had scarcely known existed, brought low by a suite of world-ending forces far subtler, but just as ominous, as asteroids.

This book is a woefully incomplete testament to the ingenuity of those who have labored to piece this fractured, and still unfinished – puzzle together, as well as a survey of the unfamiliar geography of deep time that surrounds us. It’s also an exploration of the turbulent centuries to come and the long-term prospects for life on this strangely hospitable but vulnerable planet that hurtles through a perilous universe. 

After hiking the Palisades, Olsen and I hit up one of the dozens of Vietnamese pho restaurants in the nearby Fort Lee neighborhood, where a snarl of highways branch out of the George Washington Bridge. Contemplating the history of the region and the ancient hellscape created by the rocks underneath us, I found it difficult not to wonder about the future. Currently the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere hovers at around 400 parts per million (ppm) – probably the highest it’s been since the middle of the Pliocene epoch 3 million years ago. 

What will life be like on the planet at 1,000 parts per million, which some climate scientists and policymakers project for the coming decades if we continue to take a business-as-usual approach to emissions? “The last time anything like that occurred, we had no polar ice at all and sea levels were hundreds of feet higher,” Olsen said, noting that crocodiles and lemur-relatives inhabited the tropical northern shores of Canada. “Ocean temperatures in the tropics were possibly 40 degrees Celsius on average, which would be completely alien to us now. “The interior of continents,” he continued, “endured persistently lethal conditions.” 

I put the question a little more bluntly, asking him whether we might be at the beginning of another mass extinction. “Yeah,” he said, resting his chopsticks for a moment. “Yeah. Although the one that would be obvious in the fossil record happened over a 50,000-year interval from the time that humans spread out of Africa and wiped out all the megafauna. That’s the one that will show up like gangbusters in the fossil record. Someday they might say that the industrial spread of humans was just the coup de grâce.” 

***

The Ends of the World. Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions. 

by Peter Brannen.

get it at Amazon.com

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Is It Time To Take Away The Carbon Punch Bowl? – Josh Ryan-Collins. 

Climate change poses serious financial risks. Perhaps the biggest systemic risk is a disorderly transition to a low carbon economy. As noted in the Bank of England’s, current forecasts suggest that to keep global average temperatures below 2 degrees, around two-thirds of current fossil reserves must be left in the ground. Companies with carbon-intensive business models are facing large potential losses since their activities and current market value rest upon the future extraction of what is, in effect, ‘unburnable’ carbon. 

Banks and other financial institutions which make loans to these companies may face higher than expected default rates and non-performing loans because a large part of these companies’ future income – needed to repay loans – is dependent on the use of these ‘stranded assets’.

Although only a small percentage of banks’ loans go directly to carbon-intensive industries (such as energy companies), transition risk might also affect a range of other industries such as transport, construction as well as households, to which banks are much more exposed.

For example, environmental taxes and regulations imposed on diesel cars could have a disastrous impact on car finance companies whose leasing models are dependent on the ability to sell on second hand cars at a reasonable value.

Eco Stress Tests

A recent attempt to conduct a climate change stress test on Eurozone banks found their exposures to this wider range of sectors to be similar in size to their existing capital base.

Yet the main approach of central banks and financial regulators, ministries of finance and international bodies such as the Financial Stability Board to the problem of stranded assets has been to rely upon market-based solutions.

In particular, there have been major initiatives to encourage the voluntary disclosure of fossil fuel assets and exposures by both companies and financial institutions. The hope is that with better information, financial institutions will naturally adjust their investment and lending behavior away from carbon intensive activities, leading to a gradual fall in value of such assets.

Whilst better market information is to be welcomed, the financial crisis of 2007-08 made clear the danger of relying on the market and financial institutions’ ability to judge and price risk themselves.

This prompted central banks to take a new approach: ‘macroprudential policy’. This recognizes that market actors may be blind to certain forms of economy-wide systemic risk – including for example the build-up of mortgage debt and house prices relative to incomes. Regulators have a duty to step in when markets are becoming overheated and risk is not properly priced into asset prices.

In more colourful terms, central banks have a duty to ‘take away the punch bowl as the party was getting out of control’. 

Credit rating agencies, equity and bond analysts typically focus on the relatively short term, e.g. 1-5 years, and assume linear returns on investment. But climate change, as Mark Carney has noted, poses a longer term, systemic risk with potentially non-linear impacts involving very rapid price adjustments to carbon-assets.

Green Macroprudence

What then might ‘green’ macroprudential policy look like? Most obviously, it might require banks to hold more capital against carbon-intensive (‘brown’) loans given the increased forward-looking risk of default.

The EU high level expert group on sustainable finance backed this idea in its recent interim report, arguing that a ‘brown-penalising’ factor would ‘yield a constellation in which risk and policy considerations go in the same direction’. 

Other options could involve quantitative caps on debt-financing of firms heavily dependent on carbon assets in line with a below 2 degrees temperature scenario; or some form of counter-cyclical measure, whereby capital requirements would be raised if lending to carbon-intensive sectors began to increase. All these tools are currently in use by a number of central banks to guard against excessive real estate exposures.

The most common argument against interventions of this type is that it is the job of the government, not the independent central bank, to impose policies to repress or support particular sectors of the economy.

Again, however, this seems inconsistent with macroprudential policy. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, independent central banks took on responsibility for interventions in the mortgage market precisely because it was felt politicians, ministries of finance and the market itself would find it harder to ‘Take away the Punchbowl’ given political pressures. For example, in countries where the majority of voters are home-owners or would like to become so, policies that restrict mortgage credit or reduce house price growth are likely to be highly unpopular.

Before The Deluge

The same issues apply to the problem of stranded assets. Politicians and ministers of finance are under enormous pressure not to regulate against large companies locked into unsustainable industries. The lobbying power of these organisations is evident in the still enormous subsidies they receive – far outweighing the subsidies flowing into renewable energy.

There is, as with house prices, also pressure from voters. The introduction of a carbon tax for example would almost certainly push up the cost of the majority of household’s energy bills.

This is not to say that governments should not also be going much further much faster to address the risks from climate change. It is rather to say that central banks have a duty to take financial stability risk seriously, whatever sector of the economy it is coming from.

No doubt designing effective green macroprudential policy will be challenging and have some unintended side effects. But many pension companies and other long-term institutional investors are already developing sophisticated green investment strategies upon which central banks and regulators could build.

Ultimately, it is surely better to have imperfect regulatory frameworks that begin to steer finance in the right direction and deflate the carbon bubble than clean up what could be a very big financial mess after the event.

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About Josh Ryan-Collins

Josh Ryan-Collins is a Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation where he leads work on macroeconomics and finance. He is the lead author of two books: Where Does Money Come From? and Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing. He has broadcast experience on the BBC, Sky News and Radio 4 and his work has featured in the Guardian and Wall Street Journal.

Social Europe

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What Exxon Mobil Didn’t Say About Climate Change – Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes. 

Scrutiny is mounting on the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company. On multiple legal fronts the question is being asked: Did Exxon Mobil’s communications about climate change break the law?

That’s what some of Exxon Mobil’s current and former employees think. In February, they filed a lawsuit arguing that the company deceived them by making false and misleading statements about the financial risks of climate change, which they argue affected the value of shares they bought as part of a company-sponsored savings plan. Other Exxon Mobil shareholders are bringing similar charges against the company in a separate class-action securities fraud case.

And just last month, three California communities sued 37 oil, coal and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, for contributing to sea level rise while engaging in a “coordinated, multifront effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats.” At the same time, the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general continue to investigate whether Exxon Mobil may have violated racketeering, consumer protection or investor protection statutes. And the federal Securities and Exchange Commission started a probe of its own last fall, asking the company about its longstanding policy of not writing down the value of its oil reserves, as other companies had done.

The question dominating these cases is whether the company misled consumers, shareholders or the public about the environmental or business risks of climate change, or about the risk that oil and gas reserves might become stranded assets that won’t be developed, affecting shareholder value.

Part of the impetus for these suspicions was reporting by Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times in 2015 that concluded Exxon Mobil had long known about the risks of climate change but denied them in public. The company responded that the allegations were false and “deliberately cherry-picked,” and that anyone who looked into the matter would see that.

“Read the documents,” the company said, “and make up your own mind.”

A year ago we took up this challenge. We have read all of the documents, analyzed them according to established social science methods, and made up our minds. Today, we are publishing the results of our peer reviewed analysis in the journal Environmental Research Letters. To our knowledge, this is the first academic, empirical analysis of Exxon Mobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. (Our research was funded by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which also helped finance the reporting by Inside Climate News and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which published its examination of Exxon Mobil with The Los Angeles Times.)

Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public.

We applied an empirical method known as content analysis to all relevant, publicly available internal company files that have led to allegations against Exxon Mobil, as well as all peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications offered by the company in response. We also analyzed 36 of the company’s paid “advertorials” about climate change that appeared as editorial-style advertisements on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times between 1989 and 2004.

In total, we analyzed 187 documents generated between 1977 and 2014. We coded each document to characterize its positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious and solvable. (Research has shown that these four factors are key predictors of public support for climate policies. Not coincidentally, they also underpin most narratives of climate skepticism and denial.) We found that, from as early as the 1970s, Exxon Mobil (and its predecessors Exxon and Mobil) not only knew about emerging climate science, but also contributed research to it. Scientific reports and articles written or cowritten by Exxon Mobil employees acknowledged that global warming was a real and serious threat. They also noted it could be addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, meaning that fossil fuel reserves might one day become stranded assets.

For the most part their research was highly technical, hidden behind the walls of Exxon Mobil offices, or reported in academic publications with access only through a paywall.

In contrast, the company’s advertorials in The New York Times discussing climate change were designed to reach and influence the public, and the potential readership was in the millions. Each advertorial cost roughly $31,000. They overwhelmingly emphasized scientific uncertainties about climate change and promoted a narrative that was largely inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including Exxon Mobil’s own.

In 1997, for instance, in an ad titled “Reset the Alarm,” the company argued: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.” The company added, “We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

Some advertorials conflicted with Exxon Mobil research published the very same year.

In some cases, they included explicit factual misrepresentation, for instance, directly contradicting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and presenting data in a very misleading way, according to the independent researcher who produced that data, Lloyd Keigwin, a senior scientist in geology and geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In short, Exxon Mobil contributed quietly to climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it. We found that, accounting for reasonable doubt given the state of the science at the time of each document, roughly 80 percent of the company’s academic and internal papers acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. But 81 percent of their climate change advertorials in one way or another expressed doubt.

Of course, any analysis of words is subject to interpretation. It’s for this reason that we used established social science methods and subjected our analysis to peer review, to verify that our claims are supported by evidence, were analyzed according to tested methods and are not just a matter of our opinion.

Exxon Mobil will no doubt challenge our peer-reviewed study, just as it has challenged three decades of peer-reviewed climate science. (In a comment, Exxon Mobil disagreed with our conclusion and said that its statements on public policy and climate science “have always reflected the global understanding of the issue.”) But while we can debate the details, the overall picture is clear: Even while Exxon Mobil scientists were contributing to climate science and writing reports that explained it to their bosses, the company was paying for advertisements that told a very different tale.

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Geoffrey Supran is a postdoctoral fellow and Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science, both at Harvard.

New York Times 

When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans? Heat Death – David Wallace Wells. 

The bahraining of New York.

Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem; in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

Climate-change skeptics point out that the planet has warmed and cooled many times before, but the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history. At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually. This century, and especially in the tropics, the pain points will pinch much more quickly even than an increase of seven degrees. The key factor is something called wet-bulb temperature, which is a term of measurement as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the heat registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air (since the moisture evaporates from a sock more quickly in dry air, this single number reflects both heat and humidity). At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees. What is called heat stress comes much sooner.

Actually, we’re about there already. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today.

As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change : What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Air-conditioning can help but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem; plus, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely plausible to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the world, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks. Of course, heat stress promises to pummel us in places other than our kidneys, too. As I type that sentence, in the California desert in mid-June, it is 121 degrees outside my door. It is not a record high.

III. The End of Food

Praying for cornfields in the tundra.

continue reading: New York Magazine

When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans? Doomsday – David Wallace Wells. 

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines). Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination, a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.

II. Heat Death

The bahraining of New York.

continue reading: New York Magazine

G20: Does Donald Trump’s awkward performance indicate America’s decline as a world power? – Chris Uhlmann. 

The G20 became the G19 as it ended. On the Paris climate accords the United States was left isolated and friendless.

It is, apparently, where this US President wants to be as he seeks to turn his nation inward.

Donald Trump has a particular, and limited, skill-set. He has correctly identified an illness at the heart of the Western democracy. But he has no cure for it and seems to just want to exploit it.

He is a character drawn from America’s wild west, a travelling medicine showman selling moonshine remedies that will kill the patient.

And this week he underlined he has neither the desire nor the capacity to lead the world.

Given the US was always going to be one out on climate change, a deft American President would have found an issue around which he could rally most of the leaders.

He had the perfect vehicle — North Korea’s missile tests.

So, where was the G20 statement condemning North Korea? That would have put pressure on China and Russia? Other leaders expected it and they were prepared to back it but it never came.

There is a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Mr Trump with the thoughts of the man himself.

He did make some interesting, scripted, observations in Poland about defending the values of the West.

And Mr Trump is in a unique position — he is the one man who has the power to do something about it.

But it is the unscripted Mr Trump that is real. A man who barks out bile in 140 characters, who wastes his precious days as President at war with the West’s institutions — like the judiciary, independent government agencies and the free press.

He was an uneasy, awkward figure at this gathering and you got the strong sense some other leaders were trying to find the best way to work around him.

Mr Trump is a man who craves power because it burnishes his celebrity. To be constantly talking and talked about is all that really matters. And there is no value placed on the meaning of words. So what is said one day can be discarded the next.

So, what did we learn this week?

We learned Mr Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the US as a global leader. He managed to diminish his nation and to confuse and alienate his allies.

He will cede that power to China and Russia — two authoritarian states that will forge a very different set of rules for the 21st century.

Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it is gone.

And that is the biggest threat to the values of the West which he claims to hold so dear.

ABC