Climate change
February 6, 2021

Back in December, reports warned that a 1,620-square-mile iceberg, which broke off from the Antarctic peninsula, was on course to collide with South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic. In doing so, scientists feared, it would crush coral, sponges, and plankton on the sea floor and also cut off seals and penguins from their normal hunting grounds, forcing them to make long and dangerous detours. As it turns out, The Wall Street Journal reports, "warmer waters and the torque of the current have shattered" the iceberg, known as A68a, into a dozen pieces, which look like they'll drift farther north and miss South Georgia Island.

If that's the case, the penguins and seals will be spared from the collision, and the drifting icebergs may instead cause more problems for humans, possibly obstructing shipping lanes. Still, there are significant risks to marine life, the Journal reports. As the icebergs melt, there would be an influx of cold fresh water into the ocean, potentially killing off phytoplankton and throwing the food chain off kilter. Without phytoplankton, the krill that feed on them would starve, which would in turn lead to "depleting populations" of fish, seals, penguins, and whales.

A research team from the British Antarctic Survey is on its way to study the affects the icebergs have on the area's marine ecology and get a sense of what to expect should more icebergs break off from the Antarctic ice shelf amid rising global temperatures. "Everyone is pulling out all the stops to make this happen," Povl Abrahamsen, an oceanographer and research team leader, told the Journal. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

December 10, 2020

With the coronavirus pandemic causing people to cut back on commuting and traveling, the world's carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 7 percent in 2020, the Global Carbon Project said.

The Global Carbon Project is a group of international scientists who track emissions. In a study published Thursday in the journal Earth System Science Data, the researchers write that preliminary figures show the world will have put 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air during 2020, down from 40.1 billion tons in 2019. This is the biggest drop ever, the authors said.

The decrease is due to car and plane travel plummeting, but even with this drop, the world on average put 1,185 tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air every second this year. Emissions were reduced 12 percent in the United States, 11 percent in Europe, and 1.7 percent in China, where there was an earlier lockdown and less of a second wave of coronavirus infections, The Associated Press notes.

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told AP even though emissions are expected to rise once the pandemic is over, "I am optimistic that we have, as a society, learned some lessons that may help decrease emissions in the future. For example, as people get good at telecommuting a couple of days a week or realize they don't need quite so many business trips, we might see behavior-related future emissions decreases." Catherine Garcia

October 27, 2020

A research team made a worrisome discovery off the Siberian coast, The Guardian reports. The scientists say they believe they are first to uncover observational evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean have started to be released after determining that methane levels at the ocean's surface were four to eight times higher than expected.

The deposits are considered "sleeping giants of the carbon cycle" and could theoretically expedite climate change, given that methane has a warming effect 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period, The Guardian notes. But while the discovery sounds alarming, it's also been met with skepticism from some climate scientists.

Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argued there is no evidence Arctic methane had a "big effect" even in earlier periods when the region was warmer than it is now.

The scientists who made the discovery, meanwhile, have acknowledged their work is preliminary, and said the scale of methane releases will not be confirmed until they return and analyze the data. Either way, "there is unlikely to be any major" climate effect "at this moment," Swedish scientist Örjan Gustafsson, told The Guardian from the research vessel. But he did maintain his stance that "the process has now been triggered." Read more at The Guardian. Tim O'Donnell

September 23, 2020

California Gov. Newsom (D) on Wednesday signed an executive order that requires all cars sold in the state to be zero-emission by 2035.

Newsom described the move as the biggest step yet in California's fight against climate change, which he has emphasized as the driving force behind the state's destructive wildfires. The transportation sector, Newsom said, is responsible for more than half of carbon pollution in the Golden State. "Our cars shouldn't make wildfires worse — and create more days filled with smoky air," he said. "Cars shouldn't melt glaciers or raise sea levels, threatening our cherished beaches and coastline."

The order is focused on new car sales, so people who own or want to sell their gas-powered cars will still be able to do so after 2035.

It's a lofty goal, but it's unclear how it will play out in reality, seeing as electric vehicles made up less than 8 percent of new car sales in 2019. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

July 14, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, on Tuesday unveiled his $2 trillion energy and climate plan, and he got a big pat on the back from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who briefly ran for president himself this cycle in the hopes of bringing climate change to the center of American politics.

Inslee would seemingly make for a tough critic since he's made climate change such a big part of a platform, but he had nothing but praise for Biden's plan, telling The New York Times it's a "triple-A rated clean energy" and "visionary" policy. "This is not a status quo plan," Inslee told the Times. "It's comprehensive. This is not some sort of, 'Let me just throw a bone to those who care about climate change.'"

The governor expanded on his approval during an appearance on MSNBC, where he explained he was pleased the plan was focused heavily on job creation.

Biden's plan consists of investing $2 trillion in carbon-free power and grid infrastructure, mass transit, efficient buildings, and sustainable housing, among other things, while shooting for 100 percent carbon-free power generation by 2035. Read more about Biden's plan at Axios and The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

July 8, 2020

Phoenix, Arizona, is already the hottest major city in the United States, and climate experts expect temperatures to keep rising to the point where there are more than an additional two dozen days per year when the thermometer hits 105 degrees or higher by 2050. That could lead to what Susan Clark, the director of the Sustainable Urban Environments Initiative at the University of Buffalo, describes as a "Hurricane Katrina"-size heat disaster in the U.S.'s fifth largest city, The Washington Post reports.

Such a scenario could be brought on by water becoming too hot, disrupting a power generation system dependent on cooling towers, or wildfires taking out power lines. Citizens would then potentially be deprived of water and air conditioning, two necessities in dangerous heat. Thankfully, there are efforts, led by both experts and community members, to make sure Phoenix is able to evade this type of disaster, the Post reports.

There's been a push to rely more on solar power, and local electric utilities are trying to install "microgrids" around the city that could serve as backup generators in case of an emergency. And Phoenix's chief sustainability officer, Mark Hartman, is developing a network of "cool corridors" which would mean no resident is more than a five-minute walk from water or shade. Another method is to plant more trees, which can lower air temperatures through a natural process called evapotranspiration; eventually, Hartman hopes the city's tree canopy expands to a quarter of its area. Similarly, there is a multi-million-dollar program to repave roads with materials that reflect rather than absorb heat as asphalt does.

Mayor Kate Gallego (D) says she hopes this all results in Phoenix becoming "the most sustainable desert city on the planet." Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

March 4, 2020

As tropical forests dwindle as a result of deforestation and climate change, the Earth is losing one of its strongest safeguards against pollution.

Tropical forests can serve as something The Guardian describes as "carbon sinks," meaning they absorb carbon from the atmosphere. But those forests, including the Amazon, are diminishing and have been absorbing fewer and fewer pollutants as the years go by. They could soon completely reverse course and become carbon sources as early as the 2060s, new research has found, per The Guardian. The reduction in tropical forests will likely accelerate a climate breakdown in a manner similar to melting ice sheets and permafrost.

"We've found that one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun," said Simon Lewis, a professor in the school of geography at Leeds University in the United Kingdom and one of the senior authors of the research. "This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models."

Lewis said forests can't keep "mopping up" pollution forever, but he did suggest that there is time for people to intervene "before the global carbon cycle starts working against us." The caveat, he said, is that time is now. Read more at The Guardian. Tim O'Donnell

February 17, 2020

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Monday that he is launching the Bezos Earth Fund, pledging to give $10 billion in grants to scientists, activists, and organizations trying to combat climate change.

Bezos said climate change is "the biggest threat to our planet," and he wants to "work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share." The grants will be issued this summer to "big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals," he added. Bezos is worth an estimated $130 billion.

Last year, Bezos signed a pledge saying that by 2030, Amazon will operate on 100 percent renewable electricity, The Washington Post reports. The company has also donated $100 million to reforestation projects, ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles, and vowed to be plastic free in India by June.

Amazon workers who are concerned about the company's carbon footprint have launched a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, and last year planned a walkout. The organization released a statement on Monday, saying Bezos' pledge is fine, but "one hand cannot give what the other is taking away. The people of Earth need to know: When is Amazon going to stop helping oil and gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells? Why did Amazon threaten to fire employees who were sounding the alarm about Amazon's role in the climate crisis and our oil and gas business? What this shows is that employees speaking out works — we need more of that right now." Catherine Garcia

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