Glaciologist Jason Box describes a post-warming world that you won’t even be able to recognize.
Last week, a much discussed new paper in the journal Nature seemed to suggest to some that we needn’t worry too much about the melting of Greenland, the mile-thick mass of ice at the top of the globe. The research found that the Greenland ice sheet seems to have survived a previous warm period in Earth’s history—the Eemian period, some 126,000 years ago—without vanishing (although it did melt considerably).
But Ohio State glaciologist Jason Box isn’t buying it.
At Monday’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., Box, who has visited Greenland 23 times to track its changing climate, explained that we’ve already pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide 40 percent beyond Eemian levels. What’s more, levels of atmospheric methane are a dramatic 240 percent higher—both with no signs of stopping. “There is no analogue for that in the ice record,” said Box.
And that’s not all. The present mass scale human burning of trees and vegetation for clearing land and building fires, plus our pumping of aerosols into the atmosphere from human pollution, weren’t happening during the Eemian. These human activities are darkening Greenland’s icy surface, and weakening its ability to bounce incoming sunlight back away from the planet. Instead, more light is absorbed, leading to more melting, in a classic feedback process that is hard to slow down.
“These giants are awake,” said Box of Greenland’s rumbling glaciers, “and they seem to have a bit of a hangover.”
To make matters worse, there’s also Antarctica, the other great planetary ice sheet, which 10 times as much total water as Greenland—all of which could someday be translated into rising sea level. That includes the West Antarctic ice sheet, which is marine- rather than land-based, making it highly vulnerable to melting.
While Greenland is currently contributing twice as much water to sea level rise as Antarctica, situation could change in the future. According to Box, it’s kind of as though we’re in a situation of “ice sheet roulette” right now, wondering which one of the big ones will go first.
Box also provided a large-scale perspective on how much sea level rise humanity has already probably set in motion from the burning of fossil fuels. The answer is staggering: 69 feet, including water from both Greenland and Antarctica, as well as other glaciers based on land from around the world.
Scientists like Box aren’t sure precisely when, or how fast, all that water will flow into the seas. They only know that in past periods of Earth’s history, levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and sea levels have followed one another closely, allowing an inference about where sea level is headed as it, in effect, catches up with the greenhouse gases we’ve unleashed. To be sure, the process will play out over vast time periods—but it has already begun, and sea level is starting to show a curve upward that looks a lot like…well, the semi-notorious “hockey stick.”
So what can we do? For Box, any bit of policy helps. “The more we can cool climate, the slower Greenland’s loss will be,” he explained. Cutting greenhouse gases slows the planet’s heating, and with it, the pace of ice sheet losses.
In the meantime, to better understand where we’re headed, Box has launched a scientific project called “Dark Snow,” which seeks to crowdfund a Greenland expedition to help determine just how much our darkening of the great ice sheet in this unprecedented “Anthropocene” era will push us well beyond Eemian territory. The video for that project is below. If the remote, dangerous science of ice sheets intrigues you enough (or scares you enough), then you definitely will want this research to succeed:
The writing is on the wall—Greenland is melting, and faster than expected, due to climate change. If it fully melts, it will raise global sea levels by seven meters, leading to even more dramatic losses of coastal land around the world, including in many major cities.
The question is not whether this is happening, but whether we’re too late to stop it. What is accelerating the melting and what research must we undertake to better understand the situation? Will cutting emissions even help save Greenland?
Join us on Monday, January 28 at 9:30 a.m. for Climate Desk Live as we explore these questions with Jason Box, the Ohio State University glaciologist recently featured in the acclaimed documentary Chasing Ice.
Box has traveled to Greenland 23 times, spending over a year on the ice there. He authored or coauthored 50 scientific papers related to Greenland, led the composition of the Arctic Report Card for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was closely involved in the Extreme Ice Survey, using time-lapse cameras to measure Greenland’s changes.
Date: Monday, January 28, 2013, 9:30 a.m.
Location: The University of California, Washington Center
1608 Rhode Island Avenue, NW
Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
The green-jobs guru believes that Obama has an opportunity to tackle global warming. Will he take it?
Van Jones is a leading environmental and human rights advocate, President Obama’s former “green jobs” special advisor, a CNN contributor, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Green Collar Economy and Rebuild the Dream. Chris Mooney spoke with him by phone as part of our ongoing coverage of how President Obama can tackle the climate issue—and lead—in his second term.
Climate Desk: Obama and global warming—decode his signals for us. Is he really going to take the lead here in the next 4 years, and prioritize this issue?
Van Jones: I think it’s not clear sometimes how America is prioritizing the issue. Four years ago, both presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, ran as climate champions. The only thing that they agreed on was that global warming was real, caused by humans, could be fixed by cap and trade, and that that would lead to jobs. Four years ago, that was common ground, and the only common ground. And four years ago, people were still impacted by Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.
Well, all of the horrible things that were shown in Al Gore’s film in 2007, you can see on the Weather Channel in 2012. And yet you don’t see people marching down the street, even in the wake of Sandy, even in the face of the drought, demanding change. So I think that’s a factor in Washington, DC, not being as vocal or as visible.
Now that said, I think that’s starting to change, and I think this president is going to have to deal both with the worsening science, and the returning public will to act. And I credit Bill McKibben and 350.org for coming on so strong since the election was over, and also the shock of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, for I think creating a new moment for climate solutions to take center stage.
CD: What would real climate leadership look like? You gave President Obama a “B” or “B-“ on the environment in his first term, what would he have to do to earn an “A” in the second one?
VJ: An “A” would be a major energy and climate bill as a centerpiece of his legacy. He obviously has to deal with the economy and the budget issues that the Tea Party keeps trying to politicize. And there’s a question of immigration reform, which is critical as a major part of the progressive coalition. But, ten years from now, twenty years from now, the only thing people are going to be asking of this president is either, why he didn’t find the courage to do something on climate change, or they’re going to be asking how he found the courage. I think from the viewpoint of history, this is going to be the issue that he’s judged on.
CD: What are the chief actions that you think he can take?
VJ: I’m a board member for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and we just put a piece out this week, talking about ways to use the Clean Air Act to sharply reduce carbon pollution from the existing power plants…that would make a tremendous difference.
The other thing he can do is use the power he has as the president of the United States to force a national conversation. We’ve seen a lot of conversation about this fiscal cliff, which is an invented, manufactured crisis, but very little talk about the climate cliff, which is a real, unavoidable crisis. So if we can have the president of the United States on TV every day talking about the manufactured fiscal cliff, then he can use all of those resources to put pressure on Congress to do something about the real climate cliff.
I also think that it is still the case that the best possible way to get the economy moving is to move in a greener direction. You get on an airplane, you fly coast to coast, you look down, and you see a million rooftops that don’t have solar panels on them. You fly over the plain states, acre after acre, you don’t see wind farms and solar farms, even in places that they could exist. There is just tremendous opportunity to home-grow our energy, and put people to work. You land in any city, you are driving past buildings that are leaking energy, because they aren’t using modern energy efficiency technologies. There’s tremendous opportunity there.
So if you look at the economic case, as we begin to move in a greener direction, and you look at a the climate case, this should be more salient than it is. It should be more salient for the public, and I think that’s starting to change, and it should be more pressing for the president—and I hope that that will change.
CD: Do you think environmentalists trying to push President Obama further, through protests over the Keystone XL pipeline or, now, the new fossil fuel divestment campaign, actually works? What’s the evidence?
VJ: I think activism works. You look at the last term, the Latino community kept pushing hard on immigration, and the president came out for the Dream Act. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement kept pushing on the question of marriage equality, and the president came out for marriage equality, which then had a positive effect on public opinion and helped that movement win at the ballot box and in a number of states, within months.
So I think it takes two keys to unlock the door to change: It takes public activism and action, and it takes presidential leadership. But what we’re seeing now is the return of public action and public concern. 350.org is leading that process. The aftershocks of Sandy are going to push that process forward.
Let’s not forget, we have dust bowl conditions developing in the heartland of America, the bread basket of the world, just as Al Gore predicted. That is happening right now. So as the urgency of these disasters moves public attention, and as you see activists marching again, I think there’s an obligation for the president to meet the people on this issue.
The next four years are key to dealing with climate change. Here’s what lawmakers can do.
“It’s good for us here, right now. But over time, it’s going to have catastrophic effects.”
The unseasonably warm December day—over 70 degrees in the D.C. area; the previous day had set a new temperature record—provided an apt backdrop for Rep. Ed Markey’s remarks, which drew detailed parallels between two separate “cliffs”—fiscal, and climatic. Co-author of the Waxman-Markey bill, former head of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and currently ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, Markey had been writing energy legislation since before some members of his audience were breathing. And as he noted, Washington seems to have been heating up lately over what ultimately looks like by far the lesser of two disasters.
“If our country goes over the fiscal cliff,” Markey explained, “we will be able to climb back up. But if our planet goes over the climate cliff, we will plunge into an abyss of impacts that we cannot reverse.”
Markey was speaking at the third Climate Desk Live briefing, headlining a panel of experts convened to discuss concrete steps that can be taken in the next four years to do something about the ever-worsening climate problem. With the World Bank releasing a scientific horror story about a planet 4 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100, and news that global carbon emissions climbed a dramatic 3 percent last year, taking action is now moving beyond a matter of mere urgency—it’s a crisis, plain and simple.
“We don’t need to go over the climate cliff to know what that plunge would look like,” Markey continued, adding that “the last two years have been filled with scenes of the other side of the climate cliff that look like they were out of the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.”
Adding some levity, he noted, “The movie I’m talking about is not the movie Thelma and Louise.”
However, Markey’s speech was not unduly pessimistic. As he noted, while global emissions are rising, the US’ are actually going down—thanks to an array of actions by the states (especially California) and the Obama administration. Moreover, there is a vast deal that President Obama can do about climate change—even faced with a intransigent Congress. Really, it’s all about whether the president wants to lead.
Presidential Climate Action Project head Bill Becker noted that the tools available to a president who really wants to get something done are pretty darn vast. “He’s the commander in chief and the CEO of 15 departments, 3 million civil employees, 1,300 agencies and 2,600 programs,” said Becker, whose organization has made a study of presidential power with respect to climate and energy policymaking.
So what kinds of actions could Obama take? Much of the climate agenda today focuses not on cutting carbon, but on adaptation and resilience—because we are already being pummeled in a new era of disasters. And here, there’s a great deal the president can do. “There are clearly opportunities to engage with regard to adaptation, and to have Congress take action on disaster spending, to try and help communities rebound in a way that’s different and more resilient in the future,” explained Vicki Arroyo of the Georgetown Climate Center.
Among other actions, Arroyo called for reinvigorating the President’s Climate Change Task Force, and for the White House to release federal agency reports on climate vulnerability across the breadth of the government. “A dedicated full time staff on the adaptation issue I think would be fabulous,” she added.
Much attention was also dedicated, notably, to the president’s recently lackluster rhetoric on climate change. Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War and a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, cited the example of how the president and White House press secretary Jay Carney recently dismissed any relationship between global warming and Hurricane Sandy. “Climate change didn’t cause Sandy, but it did make the storm stronger,” Pooley explained. “That is clear science linked to this specific storm, but the administration has not been—yet—very clear on that connection.”
Pooley, Markey, and the rest of the panel agreed on the single largest thing the president can do without needing Congress’s approval: direct the Environmental Protection Agency to toughly regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of US greenhouse gases. According to a recent analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, tough action by EPA could cut these emissions by 26 percent by the year 2020.
But for those who care about climate action, perhaps the most resonant message of the day was that the Obama administration has to be pushed along, in significant part by those who can furnish evidence and arguments behind the case for the action—and maybe, more accurate talking points to boot. “We need to create a parade the president can jump in front of,” said Becker. “But he also needs to educate, and cultivate that support. That’s what leadership is.”
At the third Climate Desk Live event, a panel of experts weighs lawmakers’ next best moves on global warming.
Tuesday morning, the third Climate Desk Live briefing considered a question on many minds: What can we reasonably expect to happen on climate change in the next four years, given the current political state of affairs?
The event, which I hosted, featured a leading member of Congress on the climate issue: Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Markey is not only the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee; he’s also author of the only climate legislation to pass a chamber of Congress—the Waxman-Markey bill.
In addition to Markey, we had a panel of expert commentators weighing the president’s options—and what can be accomplished by the executive branch. They were:
- Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War and Senior Vice President at the Environmental Defense Fund. For some of Pooley’s thoughts on Obama’s climate options, see here.
- Vicki Arroyo, Director of the Georgetown Climate Center. For Arroyo’s popular TED Talk on adapting to climate change, see here.
- Bill Becker, Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, which has just released its 2012 Presidential Climate Action Plan.