Andreas Späth

Fun with climate change

2015-08-12 11:52

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Ok, so ‘fun’ is probably too strong a word. Got your attention though, right? Here is a rough and ready cross-section of some of the latest news from the global warming front – bits of it encouraging, much of it depressing and some of it downright infuriating...

The Good

Renewable sources of energy are continuing to flourish. Japan, for instance, has just installed the world’s largest floating wind turbine (7 megawatts) off the coast of Fukushima and China has begun construction on the planet’s biggest solar power plant (200 megawatts) in the Gobi Desert. South Africa now has more than 40 operational sun and wind powered electricity plants of various capacities with more on the way.

President Obama launched his ‘Clean Power Plan’ last week, describing it as “the biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change” and committing his country to a 32% cut in CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants by 2030 compared to 2005. But talk is plentiful and cheap ahead of major international climate talk shops like the UN’s latest climate change conference (COP21) to be held in Paris in December. The question is: will it be enough?

Researchers believe they have found a feed supplement capable of reducing the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, emitted (read burped and farted) by dairy cows by 30%.

The Bad

In many parts of the world, including large swaths of East Africa, higher temperatures mean that the annual season for wildfires has lengthened – in some areas by more than a month compared to 35 years ago.

The North Pole may experience its first entirely ice-free summer in the 2050s, about a decade earlier than expected.

Russia has just claimed some 1.2 million square kilometres of underwater sea shelf extending for more than 650km into the Arctic Ocean – a major international target for oil and gas production.

In a controversial new discussion paper, one of the world’s leading, and possibly it’s most outspoken, climate scientists, James Hansen, together with 16 colleagues, warns that limiting the increase in global temperature to the magical figure of 2oC above preindustrial levels is not good enough.

Labelling the 2oC target as ‘highly dangerous’, they argue that it is likely to lead to significantly more rapid and severe melting of the polar ice caps, faster seal level rise and more devastating storms than previously predicted.

Hansen and company suggest that aiming to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million (from about 400 parts per million at the moment) would be a safer strategy. While I should note that their study has been received with considerable scepticism from other climate researchers, it is increasingly clear that many of the world’s coastal cities, including major US urban centres like New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are under a substantially greater threat of climate change driven flooding than forecast earlier.

A study published in May shows that it is, in fact, technologically possible to constrain temperature rise to less than 1.5oC by the end of the century provided effective carbon emission and energy efficiency actions are taken soon, but that the window to accomplish this goal is “small and rapidly closing”.

Glaciers worldwide are melting faster than ever before in recorded history, currently dropping two to three times more rapidly in thickness than the 20th century average.

The Ugly

According to the International Monetary Fund, the G20 group of countries, which comprise the world’s largest economies, spend on average US$1 000 a year per capita to prop up climate-changing fossil fuel companies. Globally, taxpayers subsidise this most profitable industry in history to the tune of a staggering US$5.3tn per year.

Salmonella-related illnesses are expected to increase, especially in coastal communities as extreme temperature and rainfall events become more frequent.

And then there is this: Dubai is slated to become the site of the world’s largest indoor ski resort featuring a 1.2km long downhill slope that eclipses the previous record-holder, also in Dubai, by 800m. A sun-drenched desert country using its excess petro-dollars to offer year-round artificial snow at an energy cost that must be astounding on a planet that struggles to keep its natural glaciers and ice caps frozen. I have no doubt it’ll turn out to be a mind-boggling yet emblematic monument to the perversity we’re perpetrating against nature.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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