Category Archives: Climate

My Inconvenient Truth : Reflections on Al Gore’s Impact, Ten Years On

In May of 2006, Al Gore’s now-classic climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth was released. The movie won an Oscar in the Featured Documentary category, and Gore was co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The nominating committee recognized Gore and the IPCC “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

For many, it was as if Al Gore invented global warming. Or that global warming invented Al Gore, I’m not sure which. What is certain is the enormous impact the movie and Gore’s advocacy through the years had on raising awareness about the, well, inconvenient truth of climate change.

To be perfectly candid, I think “raising awareness” is among the canon of over-hyped phrases like “paradigm shift.” Meaningful at their core, these idioms are overused, often with a pretentious tinge, to the point of diffusing much of their impact and credibility. This is ironic given that we live in transformative times ourselves, witness to a global paradigm shift of raised awareness.

It’s tricky.

I read Gore’s 1992 nonfiction book “Earth in the Balance,” so I was no stranger to his environmental advocacy. But “An Inconvenient Truth” brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness like little did before or since (except the changing climate itself), for better and worse. I can only speak anecdotally, but I believe Gore is likely the most famous straw man alive — and for some, also the most reviled. He raised awareness about global warming so masterfully that he has become synonymous with it, often not in a good way.

This may sound like I’m being critical of his work. If I do admit some ambivalence, it is not for lack of admiration and inspiration for what Gore has done and is doing in the public campaign to push for climate action. I’ve heard Gore speak on several occasions. I’ve gone through his Climate Leadership training. He is passionate and sincere about his work.

Perhaps my ambivalence is directed more toward the climate change narrative itself than to Gore’s engagement with it. It is a narrative too often oversimplified, tortured beyond all recognition of civility and imbued with an ideological fervor that has little to do with the task at hand.

And it’s for all this that I’d like to take the opportunity of the 10-year anniversary of “An Inconvenient Truth” to thank Al Gore for changing my life.

An inconvenient journey

I can’t say exactly when I first learned about climate change, but it was long before Gore’s movie. I’d also read other cautionary works like Jeremy Rifkin’s early work “Entropy,” Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb,” Robert Heinberg’s “The Party’s Over” and The Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth,” among others. 

From a very young age I was a budding Malthusian.

But while contemplating this doom, I also found great joy in the beauty of the world around me. My ambivalence was my own.

I acquired the domain name “globalwarmingisreal.com” several years earlier, but after seeing “An Inconvenient Truth” in May of 2006 I decided to focus my efforts on what I cared about most and launched the official blog GlobalWarmingisReal.com (GWIR). It was a humble launch, but 10 years on it is still going strong.

What’s more, I’ve had an opportunity to temper my general Malthusian worldview with a sense of guarded optimism. While I’ve endured over the years the expected heaving of hate and fear, I’ve also seen firsthand the hard work of many talented, passionate and brilliant people focused on moving the world toward a better future. That’s what gives me inspiration to engage with these pathfinders, tell their story and each day try a little bit harder to help light the way.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” Robert Kennedy said in a 1966 speechin South Africa, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” We all have within us the power to send out “tiny ripples of hope” that will converge into a mighty current of sweeping renewal.

Few of us have the influence or reach of Al Gore, but we all have a responsibility to pursue the harder path before us, so that others may follow. Each in our own way.

Is Al Gore the reason I am concerned about global warming? No. But Gore and his documentary helped set me out on the path I am on today, and upon which I intend to remain for the rest of my life

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”
— Adrienne Rich

Image credit: Woody Hibbard, courtesy flickr

This post originally published on TriplePundit

Suffocating the Ocean : Climate and Ocean Health

Ocean breathing

From the shallows down to its yawning depths, the ocean gets its oxygen from the surface, supplied either by the atmosphere or from the release of oxygen in phytoplankton through photosynthesis.

Scientists have long known that one expected consequence from a warming climate is a gradual drop in the amount of oxygen dissolved into ocean waters as they absorb extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gas.

Warming surface waters absorb less heat. The oxygen that does take into the surface waters has a harder time circulating down into the deeper water due to the expansion of the warmer upper layers. This expansion makes the surface water lighter than the water below it, less likely to sink and circulate.

As with all climate phenomena, ocean oxygen concentration at the surface is in constant flux from the natural variability of warming and cooling. A particularly cold winter in the North Pacific, for example, will soak up a lot of oxygen, which then mixes deep into the ocean from the naturally occurring circulation patterns.

On the other hand, an unusually warm period stifles oxygen update and circulation, which can lead to “dead zones” where fish and marine life cannot survive.

“Oxygen varies naturally in the ocean quite substantially,” said Matthew Long,  a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and lead author of new research into the impact of a warming climate impacts oxygen levels in the ocean.

“Without any human-driven climate change we could expect oxygen levels at a particular location to go up and down in such a way that low levels may be persistent for a number of years, followed by a period of high levels,” Long said in a recent press release

Historically, teasing out this natural variability in ocean oxygen from warming-driven loss has been difficult, Long explains. “Loss of oxygen in the ocean is one of the serious side effects of a warming atmosphere, and a major threat to marine life,” he said.

“Since oxygen concentrations in the ocean naturally vary depending on variations in winds and temperature at the surface, it’s been challenging to attribute any deoxygenation to climate change. This new study tells us when we can expect the impact from climate change to overwhelm the natural variability.”

Ocean oxygenation levels and climate change

Research raises new concerns for ocean health

Distinguishing ocean deoxygenation caused by natural variability from climate change is the focus of Long’s research, published this week in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

In a study titled Finding forced trends in oceanic oxygen” Long and his colleagues found that ocean deoxygenation from climate change can already be detected in the southern Indian Ocean and parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic basins. The research also determined that a more widespread loss of oxygen from climate change will likely be seen between 2030 and 2040.

Long’s team used the output from more than two dozen model runs of NCAR’s Community Earth System Model for the years 1920 to 2100 , with each subsequent run starting with tiny variations in air temperature.  As each model run progressed, these small differences grew and expanded, affording a set of simulations useful for studying questions about change and variability.

Using these simulations to study dissolved oxygen, the simulations guided the researchers on past oxygen concentration variability. With this foundation they could then determine when ocean deoxygenation is likely to become more intense than at any point in the modeled past.

With this same dataset, the research team mapped ocean oxygen levels, visually representing where waters are oxygen rich at the same time that others are oxygen starved. From this mapping researchers could determine distinct patterns between natural variability and climate change in ocean oxygenation. What’s more, the maps will serve as a useful resource for deciding where to place oxygen monitoring equipment for ongoing research, crucial for sharpening the picture of ocean health and change.

“We need comprehensive and sustained observations of what’s going on in the ocean to compare with what we’re learning from our models and to understand the full impact of a changing climate,” Long said.

One more assault on ocean health

This new study adds yet one more offense to the health of the world’s oceans. Increased uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere causes ocean acidification,  rapidly warming waters imperil coral reefs across the globe, highlighted by recent news that 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has been impacted by the most severe coral bleaching event on record.

Add to all this the persistent pollution and plastic waste in the oceans.

As oxygen levels become more pronounced, the resulting dead zones could have serious affects on marine ecosystems and sustainable fisheries.

The ocean itself is the living, breathing source of life on earth. We ignore its future health and vitality at our own peril.

Featured image credit: Narcah, courtesy flickr
Graph courtesy of AGU

Carbon Tax Explained

With the international commitment in Paris calling for the decarbonization of the global economy by the second half of this century, the task we now face is transforming that commitment into reality.

There is no magic bullet that will deliver a decarbonized, net-zero emissions economy. What is required of us stretches across all aspects of human society, from economics and technology to our relationship with each other and with nature herself.

If there is a common thread that can set in motion action on all fronts, it is arguably putting a price on carbon. In a very real sense, we already pay the cost of carbon emissions, but those costs are spread throughout society as an economic externality manifesting as damaged crops through droughts and floods, increased health care cost from heat waves or risk to communities from extreme weather and rising sea level – to name but of few of the impacts of continued and increasing carbon emissions. Quantifying a price for carbon brings the cost back to those who are responsible at the source of emissions.

Pricing carbon is about more than just climate change, it is an important step toward economic health, social justice and environmental sustainability.

How do we put a price on carbon?

Throughout this series we will explore the various mechanisms, either proposed or already implemented in some parts of the world. One of these strategies is a carbon tax, as implemented in British Columbia, Ireland, Sweden, Chile, Australia and other nations around the world.

The reflexive opposition to environmental policy initiatives in our polarized political discourse (especially here in the U.S.) is misleading and doesn’t reflect the real potential benefits of pricing carbon through a carbon tax or other potential pricing strategies. An approach actually endorsed by many conservative thinkers, a carbon tax can bring with it not only emissions reductions but increased energy efficiency and a stronger economy.

This video produced by the Carbon Tax Center introduces how a carbon tax could work to effectively reduce carbon emissions, without destroying the economy, and other “myths” as we so often hear opponents to any form of carbon mitigation or pricing.

There are many avenues we can take on our journey toward a decarbonized economy. In subsequent posts we will explore in more depth strategies for carbon pricing  and the advantages and disadvantages of each one.

This post first published in GlobalWarmingisReal.com
Featured image credit: Georgie Sharp, courtesy flickr