How the science of persuasion could change the politics of climate change

MIT Technology Review reports:

Jerry Taylor believes he can change the minds of conservative climate skeptics. After all, he helped plant the doubts for many in the first place.

Taylor spent years as a professional climate denier at the Cato Institute, arguing against climate science, regulations, and treaties in op-eds, speeches, and media appearances. But his perspective slowly began to change around the turn of the century, driven by the arguments of several economists and legal scholars laying out the long-tail risks of global warming.

Now he’s president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning Washington, DC, think tank he founded in 2014. He and his colleagues there are trying to build support for the passage of an aggressive federal carbon tax, through discussions with Washington insiders, with a particular focus on Republican legislators and their staff.

A small but growing contingent of fiscal conservatives and corporate interests are arguing for similar policies in the United States. They include party elders like former secretary of state George Shultz, energy giants like Exxon Mobil, and nearly two dozen college Republican groups. Taylor and others believe it’s conversations like these—with political elites, and focused on policies they can justify in conservative terms—that could eventually lead to real action on climate change.

While much of the research and debate today focuses on figuring out the right mix of clean energy sources, or on developing better and cheaper technologies, the real breakthrough that’s required might lie in the science of persuasion. We’ll never generate enough clean energy to dramatically cut emissions in the next few decades—while abandoning fossil-fuel plants that still work perfectly well—as long as so many political leaders adamantly deny even the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

As it happens, the academic literature offers insights on what drives such shifts in political sentiment, and it very much conforms with the approach that the Niskanen Center and other groups are taking. [Continue reading…]

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She tried to report on climate change but Sinclair told her to be more ‘balanced’

BuzzFeed reports:

Sinclair Broadcast Group executives reprimanded and ultimately ousted a local news reporter who refused to seed doubt about man-made climate change and “balance” her stories in a more conservative direction.

Her account, detailed in company documents she provided to BuzzFeed News, offers a glimpse at the inner workings of a media giant that has sought to both ingratiate itself to President Donald Trump and cast itself as an apolitical local news provider — a position the documents undermine.

In one 2015 instance, the former news director of WSET-TV in Lynchburg, Virginia, Len Stevens, criticized reporter Suri Crowe because she “clearly laid out the argument that human activities cause global warming, but had nothing from the side that questions the science behind such claims and points to more natural causes for such warming.”

In recent months, Sinclair has garnered intense national attention for forcing stations across the country to carry pro-Trump “must run” segments and instructing anchors to read statements touting conservative talking points. Sinclair, which owns local TV stations “affiliated” with name-brand networks like Fox or ABC, has defended the segments and noted they are a small part of its stations’ overall coverage — but Crowe’s experience as a general assignment reporter demonstrates how the parent company’s ideology can permeate throughout local news reporting. [Continue reading…]

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Ocean heat waves are becoming more common and lasting longer

The Washington Post reports:

Heat waves over the world’s oceans are becoming longer and more frequent, damaging coral reefs and creating chaos for aquatic species. A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found a 54 percent increase in the number of days in which heat waves have cooked the oceans since 1925.

The rise in these marine heat waves has occurred while ever more heat is stored in the ocean because of accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The ocean heat content in 2017 was the highest in recorded history, noted Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth said in an email that ocean heat waves will necessarily increase given the building stockpile of heat, which has been measured from the surface down to more than a mile deep (2,000 meters).

Tuesday’s Nature study concurred that “we can expect further increases in marine heatwave days under continued global warming.”

The detection of a rise in heat waves over the ocean is unsurprising because they’ve already been documented over land thanks to global warming. Many studies have examined the potential consequences of increasing land heat waves including an uptick in heat-related illnesses and deaths, in the absence of adaptation. Extreme heat can also worsen air quality, stress infrastructure and decrease the productivity of outdoor workers, among other effects.

But far less attention has been paid to heat waves over the ocean, which can have consequences of their own for both the marine environment and people. [Continue reading…]

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The oceans’ circulation hasn’t been this sluggish in 1,000 years. That’s bad news

The Washington Post reports:

The Atlantic Ocean circulation that carries warmth into the Northern Hemisphere’s high latitudes is slowing down because of climate change, a team of scientists asserted Wednesday, suggesting one of the most feared consequences is already coming to pass.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation has declined in strength by 15 percent since the mid-20th century to a “new record low,” the scientists conclude in a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature. That’s a decrease of 3 million cubic meters of water per second, the equivalent of nearly 15 Amazon rivers.

The AMOC brings warm water from the equator up toward the Atlantic’s northern reaches and cold water back down through the deep ocean. The current is partly why Western Europe enjoys temperate weather, and meteorologists are linking changes in North Atlantic Ocean temperatures to recent summer heat waves.

The circulation is also critical for fisheries off the U.S. Atlantic coast, a key part of New England’s economy that have seen changes in recent years, with the cod fishery collapsing as lobster populations have boomed off the Maine coast.

Some of the AMOC’s disruption may be driven by the melting ice sheet of Greenland, another consequence of climate change that is altering the region’s water composition and interrupts the natural processes.

This is “something that climate models have predicted for a long time, but we weren’t sure it was really happening. I think it is happening,” said one of the study’s authors, Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “And I think it’s bad news.” [Continue reading…]

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Environmental Defense Fund is launching satellite to measure methane from oil and gas operations

The Washington Post reports:

When the Environmental Defense Fund told commercial space guru Tom Ingersoll that it wanted to launch a satellite to measure methane from oil and gas operations, he says his reaction was “Whoa! You guys want to do what?”

Yet that’s what the EDF is doing. It is well on its way toward raising about $40 million. It has tapped into the work of Harvard University researchers to fine tune sensors. And it has reached out to Ingersoll and others in the commercial space business to create a device that will be able to measure methane emissions on a 125-mile wide swath with pixel resolution of less than five-eighths of a mile.

EDF will also get support from TED Talks, which hopes to spur fundraising for a variety of causes through its “Audacious Project.”

The satellite will enable EDF to more accurately measure methane emissions, which account for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. The results could be sobering. In February, EDF estimated methane emissions from Pennsylvania’s shale oil and gas sites may be more than five times higher than what oil and gas companies reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The EDF analysis estimates Pennsylvania’s oil and gas operators emit more than 520,000 tons of methane a year, primarily from leaky, outdated and malfunctioning equipment.

This wasted gas causes the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants and results in nearly $68 million worth of wasted energy resources, the environmental group said. [Continue reading…]

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Apple now runs completely on renewable energy. Here’s how it got there

Fast Company reports:

You have to see Apple’s Reno, Nevada, data center from the inside to truly understand how huge it is. It’s made up of five long white buildings sitting side by side on a dry scrubby landscape just off I-80, and the corridor that connects them through the middle is a quarter-mile long. On either side are big, dark rooms–more than 50 of them–filled with more than 200,000 identical servers, tiny lights winking in the dark from their front panels. This is where Siri lives. And iCloud. And Apple Music. And Apple Pay.

Powering all these machines, and keeping them cool, takes a lot of power–constant, uninterrupted, redundant power. At the Reno data center, that means 100% green power from three different Apple solar farms.

The nearest one, and the first one built, is the Fort Churchill solar farm an hour southeast in desolate country near the town of Yerington, Nevada, where there’s nothing but flat, dry land bordered by low, jagged hills and blue desert sky. From the main road you can walk up to the fence and look down the seemingly endless lines of solar modules on the other side, with long concave mirrors catching and focusing the sun’s energy into the line of small black photo cells sitting just behind them.

Churchill is representative of the growing number of renewable energy sources that have popped up around Apple’s data centers in recent years. Since these massive computing machines use more power than any other kind of Apple facility, the company worked hard to get them powered by 100% renewable energy, reaching that goal in 2014.

Now Apple says it’s finished getting the rest of its facilities running on 100% green power–from its new Apple Park headquarters, which has one of the largest solar roofs on the planet, to its distribution centers and retail stores around the world. Though the 100% figure covers only Apple’s own operations–not those of of the suppliers and contract manufacturers which do much of the work of bringing its ideas to life–it’s also convinced 23 companies in its supply chain to sign a pledge to get to 100% renewable energy for the portion of their business relating to Apple products.

The achievement is the culmination of a furious effort over the past six years that involved financing, building, or locating new renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind farms, near the company’s facilities Apple says it now has 25 operational renewable energy projects–with 15 more now in construction–in 11 countries. Just eight years ago, only 16% of its facilities were powered by renewable energy. By 2015 that number had increased to 93%, then to 96% in 2016. [Continue reading…]

In America’s new civil war, one side must win


Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira write:

This is no ordinary political moment. Trump is not the reason this is no ordinary time — he’s simply the most obvious symptom that reminds us all of this each day.

The best way to understand politics in America today is to reframe it as closer to civil war. Just the phrase “civil war” is harsh, and many people may cringe. It brings up images of guns and death, the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers.

America today is nowhere near that level of conflict or at risk of such violence. However, America today does exhibit some of the core elements that move a society from what normally is the process of working out political differences toward the slippery slope of civil war. We’ve seen it in many societies in many previous historical eras, including what happened in the United States in 1860.

America’s original Civil War was not just fought to emancipate slaves for humanitarian reasons. The conflict was really about the clash between two very different economic systems that were fundamentally at odds and ultimately could not coexist. The Confederacy was based on an agrarian economy dependent on slaves. The Union was based on a new kind of capitalist manufacturing economy dependent on free labor. They tried to somehow coexist from the time of the founding era, but by the middle of the 19th century, something had to give. One side or the other had to win.

America today faces a similar juncture around fundamentally incompatible energy systems. The red states held by the Republicans are deeply entrenched in carbon-based energy systems like coal and oil. They consequently deny the science of climate change, are trying to resuscitate the dying coal industry, and recently have begun to open up coastal waters to oil drilling.

The blue states held by the Democrats are increasingly shifting to clean energy like solar and installing policies that wean the energy system off carbon. In the era of climate change, with the mounting pressure of increased natural disasters, something must give. We can’t have one step forward, one step back every time an administration changes. One side or the other has to win.

Another driver on the road to civil war is when two classes become fundamentally at odds. This usually takes some form of rich versus poor, the wealthy and the people, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The system gets so skewed toward those at the top that the majority at the bottom rises up and power shifts.

The last time America was in that position was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. We were on the road of severe class conflict that could have continued toward civil war, but we worked out a power shift that prevented widespread violence. Franklin Roosevelt, the so-called traitor to his class, helped establish a supermajority New Deal coalition of Democrats that rolled all the way through the postwar boom. The conservative Republicans who had championed a politics that advantaged the rich throughout the 1920s and promoted isolationism in the 1930s were sidelined for two generations — close to 50 years.

Today’s conservative Republicans face the same risk. Since 1980, their policies have engorged the rich while flatlining the incomes of the majority of Americans, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through to last December’s tax overhaul, which ultimately bestows 83 percent of the benefits over time to the top 1 percent. Make no mistake: A reckoning with not just Trump, but conservatism, is coming.

The differences between two economic systems or two classes that are fundamentally at odds could conceivably get worked out through a political process that peacefully resolves differences. However, culture frequently gets in the way. That’s especially true when pressures are building for big system overhauls that will create new winners and losers.

Two different political cultures already at odds through different political ideologies, philosophies, and worldviews can get trapped in a polarizing process that increasingly undermines compromise. They see the world through different lenses, consume different media, and literally live in different places. They start to misunderstand the other side, then start to misrepresent them, and eventually make them the enemy. The opportunity for compromise is then lost. This is where America is today.

At some point, one side or the other must win — and win big. The side resisting change, usually the one most rooted in the past systems and incumbent interests, must be thoroughly defeated — not just for a political cycle or two, but for a generation or two. [Continue reading…]

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Shell scientists foresaw a storm like Sandy, as well as climate lawsuits


E&E News reports:

Two decades ago, a group of researchers envisioned a violent storm ripping through the East Coast with such force that it would transform young people into climate activists, spark lawsuits and cause government leaders to turn on fossil fuel companies.

They were only off by two years. They also worked for Shell Oil Co.

In 1998, Shell researchers wrote an internal memo about future scenarios that could harm their business. They determined that “only a crisis can lead to a large-scale change in this world,” according to the memo, recently uncovered by De Correspondent with a trove of company documents.

The scenario planning process was based on climate science, political realities and economic projections. It suggested that a major storm on the East Coast in 2010 could turn public opinion against Shell and other oil and gas conglomerates, while pushing governments toward strict environmental regulations and investments in renewable energy.

“Following the storms, a coalition of environmental [nongovernmental organizations] brings a class-action suit against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done,” the Shell researchers wrote. “A social reaction to the use of fossil fuels grow, and individuals become ’vigilante environmentalists’ in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action.”

They came close to predicting Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in 2012, killing at least 147 people and causing more than $70 billion in economic damages. The storm hit particularly hard in New York City, inspiring Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to undertake aggressive climate policies. Other states followed. Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sued Shell and four other major oil companies as a way to make them “take full responsibility for the devastation they have wrought” for contributing to climate change. Separately, other parties are suing the federal government for promoting oil and gas consumption in a period of rising temperatures. [Continue reading…]

How Lyme disease the first epidemic of climate change

Mary Beth Pfeiffer writes:

In the tally of species that will evolve or perish as temperatures rise, now consider the moose. The lumbering king of the deer family, known for antlers that can span six feet like giant outstretched fingers, the moose faces a litany of survival threats, from wolves and bears to brain worms and liver fluke parasites. But in the late 1990s in many northern states and Canada, something else began to claim adult cows and bull moose and, in even greater numbers, their single or twin calves.

Lee Kantar is the moose biologist for the state of Maine, which means that he makes a living climbing the rugged terrain of north-central Maine when a GPS collar indicates a moose has died. A lean man with a prominent salt-and-pepper moustache who wears flannel shirts and jeans to work, Kantar tagged 60 moose in January of 2014 around Moosehead Lake in the Maine Highlands. By the end of that year, 12 adults and 22 calves were dead – 57 per cent of the group. When biologists examined the carcasses, they found what they thought was the cause. Calves not even a year old harboured up to 60,000 blood-sucking arthropods known as winter ticks. In Vermont, dead moose were turning up with 100,000 ticks – each. In New Hampshire, the moose population had dropped from 7,500 to 4,500 from the 1990s to 2014, the emaciated bodies of cows, bulls and calves bearing similar infestations of ticks. These magnificent animals were literally being bled to death. [Continue reading…]

Land degradation by human activities pushing Earth into sixth mass extinction and undermining well-being of 3.2 billion people

 

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): Worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. It is also a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict, according to the world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration.

The dangers of land degradation, which cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual gross product in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, are detailed for policymakers, together with a catalogue of corrective options, in the three-year assessment report by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, launched today.

Produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the report was approved at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia. IPBES has 129 State Members.

Providing the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions, the report draws on more than 3,000 scientific, Government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. Extensively peer-reviewed, it was improved by more than 7,300 comments, received from over 200 external reviewers.

Serious Danger to Human Well-being

Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world, the report says.

“With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction,” said Prof. Robert Scholes (South Africa), co-chair of the assessment with Dr. Luca Montanarella (Italy). “Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth and to ensure human well-being.”

“Wetlands have been particularly hard hit,” said Dr. Montanarella. “We have seen losses of 87% in wetland areas since the start of the modern era – with 54% lost since 1900.”

According to the authors, land degradation manifests in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.

Underlying drivers of land degradation, says the report, are the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization – typically leading to greater levels of land degradation.

By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands. Less than 25% of the Earth’s land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activity – and by 2050, the IPBES experts estimate this will have fallen to less than 10%.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface, with recent clearance of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet.

The report says increasing demand for food and biofuels will likely lead to continued increase in nutrient and chemical inputs and a shift towards industrialized livestock production systems, with pesticide and fertilizer use expected to double by 2050.

Avoidance of further agricultural expansion into native habitats can be achieved through yield increases on the existing farmlands, shifts towards less land degrading diets, such as those with more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, and reductions in food loss and waste.

Strong Links to Climate Change

“Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental damage,” said Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES.

“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”

The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.

Given the importance of soil’s carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.

Projections to 2050

“In just over three decades from now, an estimated 4 billion people will live in drylands,” said Prof. Scholes. “By then it is likely that land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate. Decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability – particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict.”

Dr. Montanarella added: “By 2050, the combination of land degradation and climate change is predicted to reduce global crop yields by an average of 10%, and by up to 50% in some regions. In the future, most degradation will occur in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – the areas with the most land still remaining that is suitable for agriculture.”

The report also underlines the challenges that land degradation poses, and the importance of restoration, for key international development objectives, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. “The greatest value of the assessment is the evidence that it provides to decision makers in Government, business, academia and even at the level of local communities,” said Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES. “With better information, backed by the consensus of the world’s leading experts, we can all make better choices for more effective action.”

Options for Land Restoration

The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation.

In croplands, for instance, some of these include reducing soil loss and improving soil health, the use of salt tolerant crops, conservation agriculture and integrated crop, livestock and forestry systems.

In rangelands with traditional grazing, maintenance of appropriate fire regimes, and the reinstatement or development of local livestock management practices and institutions have proven effective.

Successful responses in wetlands have included control over pollution sources, managing the wetlands as part of the landscape, and reflooding wetlands damaged by draining.

In urban areas, urban spatial planning, replanting with native species, the development of ‘green infrastructure’ such as parks and riverways, remediation of contaminated and sealed soils (e.g. under asphalt), wastewater treatment and river channel restoration are identified as key options for action.

Opportunities to accelerate action identified in the report include:

  • Improving monitoring, verification systems and baseline data;
  • Coordinating policy between different ministries to simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption practices of land-based commodities;
  • Eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management; and
  • Integrating the agricultural, forestry, energy, water, infrastructure and service agendas.

Making the point that existing multilateral environmental agreements provide a good platform for action to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation and promote restoration, the authors observe, however, that greater commitment and more effective cooperation is needed at the national and local levels to achieve the goals of zero net land degradation, no loss of biodiversity and improved human well-being.

Knowledge Gaps

Among the areas identified by the report as opportunities for further research are:

  • The consequences of land degradation on freshwater and coastal ecosystems, physical and mental health and spiritual well-being, and infectious disease prevalence and transmission;
  • The potential for land degradation to exacerbate climate change, and land restoration to help both mitigation and adaptation;
  • The linkages between land degradation and restoration and social, economic and political processes in far-off places; and
  • Interactions among land degradation, poverty, climate change, and the risk of conflict and of involuntary migration.

Environmental and Economic Sense

The report found that higher employment and other benefits of land restoration often exceed by far the costs involved. On average, the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes), and, for regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action.

“Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity,” said Dr. Montanarella, “It’s also economically prudent and increasingly urgent.”

Echoing this message, Sir Robert Watson, said: “Of the many valuable messages in the report, this ranks among the most important: implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act.”