Earth’s Hottest Month Lights a Fire for Progress
By John R. Platt
Well folks, we did it. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded human history, with record-breaking temperatures in many parts of Europe, wildfires raging over tens of thousands of square miles of Arctic Alaska and Russia, and a staggering ice melt in Greenland that dumped 197 billion gallons of water into the ocean — 12.5 billion tons of which melted over a single day.
Europe's July 2019 heatwave.
European Space Agency (CC BY-SA 2.0)
All the while, the Trump administration has been actively suppressing climate science while pushing scientists and other officials out of their jobs. It also proposed weakening coal-burning power plant emissions rules, relaxed sage-grouse protection in land coveted by energy developers, continued to weaken protections for Bears Ears National Monument, and greenlit a controversial plan to allow drilling in Alaska's Cook Inlet that could harm beluga whales and other marine mammals.
The administration also appointed William Perry Pendley, a staunch foe of America's public lands, as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 250 million acres. The appointment could set the stage for the liquidation of public lands and unfettered fossil-fuel development around the country, further driving greenhouse gas emissions fueling the climate crisis.
Oh yeah, and Trump's reelection campaign also started selling plastic straws to "own the libs."
And internationally, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — often referred to as the "Trump of the South" — fired the head of the agency responsible for tracking deforestation in the Amazon, which has increased sharply under that administration. Again, this will have a devastating effect on the climate, not to mention the wildlife and Indigenous peoples who live in these forests.
All of these threats and regressive actions are terrifying and all too real.
But at the same time, there are growing cracks in the anti-environmental shell game.
The number of lawsuits against the Trump administration is on the rise, as are ethical complaints against its appointees and potential investigations into their anti-environmental agenda. Meanwhile some states are also standing up to the administration and pushing back against regulatory rollbacks, and certain judges continue to stand up for environmental issues, most recently and most notably by halting the long-planned Rosemont mega-mine in Arizona.
The climate denial machine, although still quite active and dangerous, has begun to weaken. The Heartland Institute's annual climate-denial conference was sparsely attended, full of tired retreads of old arguments, and suffered from a dramatic drop in corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, desperate climate deniers are resorting to mocking 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg's autism, earning them well-deserved derision.
On the other side of the equation, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups continued to pick up steam.
Extinction Rebellion protestors in Brisbane on Aug. 6, 2019.
Larissa Waters (Public domain)
Even businesses are taking note. Utilities are closing coal plants, investment banks are pulling out of fossil-fuel projects, and a major credit ratings agency has started to pay attention to climate risks.
And with the 2020 election looming, more Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out climate change platforms, putting themselves in stark contrast to the Denier-in-Chief. Most of the plans so far don't go nearly far enough, but they exist, and candidates actually talked about climate issues at the last presidential debate, so that's a start.
These Democratic platforms, or what comes out of these initial discussions, are not just necessary for the planet — they're also wanted by a wide range of people. Republican political strategists recently warned that the party of denial could lose voters over issues related to climate change. That's a huge shift.
All of these positive changes and trends add up, although there's still so much further to go. And of course, the power of the Trump administration and other regressive officials around the world still have us all on track to possibly irreversible devastation, so we're kind of on a tight deadline here.
But every victory, no matter how small or personal, is a chance to save — and preserve — our planet's future. Those victories matter. They create momentum. They create change. They may seem too few and too far between in the face of the coming storm, but sometimes it pays to do just what I did in this editorial — list them, add them up, and then see the shape of a more positive future starting to emerge from the flames.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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