June 21, 2024

Earth, Wind, and Fire On Day of Onrushing Climate Risks

The accelerating consequences of the warming Earth, the hazards associated with increasing reliance on fossil fuels, the promise of big clean energy projects, and the difficulties in advancing a national climate and energy policy fit for the 21st century came into sharp focus today in Washington and across the nation.


In Boston, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that aftter nine years of public confrontation, the United States had reached a decision to approve crucial permits to build 130 utility-scale windmills off the coast of Nantucket in Massachusetts. The Interior secretary’s decision, according to U.S. regulators, may help speed construction of the first offshore wind farm in the United States. But that is not at all assured as an alliance of local environmental organizations and Indian tribes who see the windfarm as an intrusion vow to press their opposition in the courts.

Salazar’s announcement was made within minutes of a statement by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was preparing to ignite a portion of the huge oil slick from last week’s explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to test whether burning some of the crude might prevent oil from reaching the Louisiana Coast.

In Washington, a new EPA assessment of how climate change is affecting precipitation, growing seasons, bird migrations, and 21 other indicators served as a kind of insistent background music to the raw and clamorous political combat that has blocked a trio of Senators from New England and South Carolina from introducing of a bipartisan climate and energy bill they have worked on for months.

There is still no clear indication that the disruption that caused the delay this week  – a bid by the Democratic Senate majority leader to consider immigration reform before the climate and energy bill — will be resolved. But news organizations are reporting that the draft bill has been sent to the EPA for analysis, a crucial step required for full Senate floor debate.

Bound Up In The Ropes of Economic, Political Circumstance
Though today’s events occurred separately, they nevertheless formed the political, environmental, and scientific boundary lines of an era of economic transition that is leadng the U.S. to a place it has rarely been before – uncertain, wavering, and for every potentially small step forward, three steps are in retreat in the face of onrushing risks. Those include what the EPA on Tuesday called “indisputable evidence” that human activities are producing sweeping alterations to the planet’s environment.

The federal approval of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, and the test burn in Louisiana served as the big climate and energy news of the day. Arguably, though, the more durable and significant advance of the week was the EPA’s new assessment, “Climate Change Indicators in the United States,” which was released on Tuesday.

“Over the last several decades, evidence of human influences on climate change has become increasingly clear and compelling,” said the report’s authors, which included five U.S. departments and agencies, six American research universities, three non-profit organizations, and contributions from government researchers in Japan, Australia, and Bermuda. “There is indisputable evidence that human activities such as electricity production and transportation are adding to the concentrations of greenhouse gases that are already naturally present in the atmosphere. These heat-trapping gases are now at record-high levels in the atmosphere compared with the recent and distant past.”

Indicators – Not Good
The EPA study, which was made public a week after the State Department released a 193-draft report that argued climate change posed a grave threat to the global economy, describes the accelerating consequences in the United States and globally of a warming planet. Those include rising sea levels, melting glaciers, lengthening growing seasons, intensifying lethal storms,  steadily raising temperatures, aggravating heat-related illnesss, draining snowpacks of moisture, and wildlife pushed outside their traditional ranges.

Though many of the details are not new, the compendium of scientific evidence, rigorously gathered and compellingly presented, strengthen the narrative of swift change in the natural world that opponents of climate science have tried for years to dismiss. “These indicators show us that climate change is a very real problem with impacts that are already being seen,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

A Sampling of Consequences The 24 climate change indicators and a sampling of the agency’s findings are:

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: From 1990 to 2008, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities increased 14 percent to nearly 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities rose 26 percent from 1990 to 2005, to 38 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. CO2, which accounts for three-quarters of all global greenhouse gas emissions, increased 31 percent.

Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases: Levels of CO2 are higher now than they have been in thousands of years, “even after accounting for natural fluctuations.” Concentrations have risen from 270 ppm to almost 390 ppm.

Climate Forcing: From 1990 to 2008, scientists calculated a 26 percent increase in the absorption of energy in tge atmosphere, or “radiative forcing.”

U.S. and Global Temperature: Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental U.S. have occurred since 1990, and the last 10 five-year periods have the warmest five-year periods on record. The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record worldwide. Average temperatures in the lower 48 states have risen an average 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1901, and the rate of increase has accelerated over the last 30 years.

Heat Waves: The frequency of heat waves and the percentage of the United States experiencing heat waves has increased since the 1970s. The Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s remains the record-holder for heat waves.

Drought: During the first decade of the 21st century 30 to 60 percent of the U.S. experienced drought, but the indicator is too new to determine whether droughts are increasing or decreasing.

U.S. and Global Precipitation: Average rain and snowfall has increased in the U.S. and globally. In the continental U.S. precipitation has increased at a rate of 6.4 percent per century since 1901, Globally, precipitation has increased 2 percent per century. Conditions vary within regions. Parts of the Southwest, and Hawaii have seen a decrease in precipitation.

Heavy Precipitation: Intense “single-day events” or very heavy rainfall is increasing. Eight of the 10 worst years for extreme rainfall in the United States have occurred since 1990.

Tropical Cycle Intensity: The intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is increasing. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.

Ocean Heat: Since the 1950s the level of heat stored in the world’s oceans has risen. EPA notes that the data interpretations vary as scientists are working with different measuring techniques.

Sea Surface Temperature: Temperatures rose an average of 0.12 degrees per decade from 1901 through 2009, with the fastest rise over the past 30 years.

Sea Level: Oceans have risen an average of six-tenths of an inch per decade since the 1870s.

Ocean Acidity: Ocean acidity has increased.

Arctic Sea Ice: The Arctic is melting. The expanse of Arctic ice in 2009 was 24 percent less than the area covered on average from 1979 to 2000.

Glaciers: Glaciers globally are receding at a quickening pace and have lost more than 2,000 cubic miles of water since 1960, contributing to the rise in sea level.

Lake Ice: Lakes in the northern U.S. are staying ice-free about one to two days longer each decade since the late 1800s.

Snow Cover: North American snow cover has decreased steadily, from 3.4 million square miles in the 1970s to 3.18 million in the first decade of this century.

Snowpack: The depth of snow in early spring has, on average, decreased in the western U.S., with some areas seeing a decline of more than 75 percent between 1950 and 2000.

Heat-Related Deaths: Heat-related illnesses caused over 6,000 deaths in the U.S. since 1980. But the data classifying deaths as heat-related is new, and the EPA acknowledges there is considerable year-to-year variability and it is difficult to discern long-term trends.

Length of Growing Season: Earlier spring warming and later fall frosts have increased the average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states by about two weeks since the start of the 20th century. The trend is most apparent in the West.

Plant Hardiness Zones: Higher winter temperatures since 1990 in most parts of the country have shifted northward the region where species of plants are able to thrive.

Leaf and Bloom Dates: Leaves are emerging, and lilacs and honeysuckle are blooming slightly earlier than a century ago. EPA notes that it’s difficult to determine if the observations are statistically meaningful.

Bird Wintering Ranges: Studies have found birds in North America have shifted their wintering grounds an average of 35 miles northward over the past half century, and a few species are moving hundreds of miles farther north and further inland.

“I have seen most of these data before, but it’s extremely useful to have it all in one place and presented in a visually appealing—and appalling—fashion,” wrote Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center in Washington.  “Over the last two decades scientists have patiently assembled the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle into a crystal clear picture of how our planet is changing. Professional climate science deniers will continue to focus on the handful of pieces that have been misplaced or lost under the sofa. But for everyone else there is no denying that this picture spells trouble.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and communications strategist, is director of media and communications at the US Climate Action Network. Reach him at kschneider@climatenetwork.org.

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