As the year draws to a close, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the last 12 months of the climate movement—the impacts, the activism and the action.
Looking back on 2013, we hope to better understand the complex landscape in which we are trying to build a safe and sustainable future, and where the climate movement stands as we move into a new year.
1. 400 ppm: World Crosses Sobering Climate Milestone
In May, scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii confirmed that concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) had passed the ominous milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm)—concentrations not seen for more than 3 million years. According to experts, the last time our planet was exposed to equivalent levels of greenhouse gases, global temperatures were 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter and sea levels were 5-40 meters higher than today.
“It is symbolic, a point to pause and think about where we have been and where we are going,” said Professor Ralph Keeling from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii on this historic milestone. "It’s like turning 50. It’s a wake up to what has been building up in front of us all along.”
2. A Year of Extreme Weather
2013 was the seventh warmest year on record. As of November it also had the second highest number of billion-dollar weather disasters around the globe since accurate records begun in 2000.
China, Russia, Europe, North America, Indonesia and India were plagued with floods while China, Portugal, Hungary, Finland and the UK all experienced heat waves. In the Uttarakhand state of India, flooding left 5,700 lives presumed lost and many more devastated. At the other extreme, California’s Death Valley saw temperatures hit 54 degrees Celsius—the hottest temperature ever record on Earth in June—while Australia got so hot, the country’s heat map needed a new color added.
The Pacific saw some of its worst storms on record this year. In October, Cyclone Phallin carved a path of damage across India’s Odisha region—with storm surges reaching as high as 3.5 meters (11 feet). In November, it was the turn of the Philippines, when Typhoon Haiyan brought winds of 315 km/hr and gusts up to 380 km/hr. It was recognized as the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in modern history, and the storm’s death toll currently stands at more than 6,000.
“To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of you armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian Ocean,” urged Filippino climate commissioner, Yeb Sano in the wake of the storm. “And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines.”
3. Increasing Human Costs of Climate Change
This year has seen storm surges engulfing large parts of the low lying Marshall Islands and who villages in Fiji already being forced to relocate because of rising seas. This year has also seen a court case in New Zealand where an immigrant from the Pacific Island of Kiribati fought—and failed—for climate refugee status, arguing that sea level rises made it too dangerous to return home.
In its Turn Down the Heat report back in June, the World Bank painted a stark picture of our warming world. They warned that millions would be left trapped in poverty as temperatures rise, with two degree Celsius and four degrees Celsius of warming expected to put serious strain on agricultural production, water resources and coastal communities.
Other warnings this year include the threat of persistent flooding impacting development in Pakistan and climate change’s impact food production around the world—including in the UK and Ghana—and the potential for increased numbers of climate refugees in the Sahel region of Africa.
4. Governments Backtrack on Climate Pledges
When Australia’s new government came to power in September, the first major act of the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was to scrap the Climate Commission—an independent climate research body. The government has also started to repeal the country’s carbon pricing laws, replacing it with a direct action plan, which experts say is uneconomical and could cause a rise in the country’s emissions.
Canada’s emissions continue to rise this year, as the country’s government blindly pursues the expansion of its tar sands industry, approving the construction of a highly controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to export tar sands and conducting fierce lobbying tours to sell the industry to the U.S. and Europe.
Japan has also joined this year’s climate villains list as days into November’s UN climate talks, the government announced a change in its climate commitment which will see the country’s emissions rise three percent on 1990 levels by 2020—a big jump from their promised 25 percent cut.
5. Climate Activists Increasingly at Risk
In a much publicized saga, the Arctic 30—28 of who were Greenpeace activists—faced 15 years in a Russian prison after being faced with piracy this year, for protesting at a Gazprom drilling rig. The activists spent two months in jail before being given amnesty by the Russian parliament this week.
U.S. activist Tim DeChristopher was released from jail after a twenty-one month prison term for disrupting a land auction which would have sold off leasing rights to oil and gas companies, while Australian activist Jonathan Moylan is facing jail time following a fake press release blamed for setbacks on the approval of the $776 million dollar Maules Creek coal mine.
And more and more activists are paying the ultimate price to give the world a better future, with reports showing the murder of environmentalists—particularly in the global south—is on the rise, and far too many deaths reported in 2013.
While this list offers a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go as a movement, 2013 has also been a year of great wins for the environmental movement and of positive shifts that show the issue is beginning to resonate with all sectors of society.
Do not despair yet, look for climate movement highlights of 2013 next.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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