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Reducing the danger by half
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
Earlier this month I visited California with the goal of learning about the state’s carbon market and seeking opportunities for WHRC to help in its implementation. As useful as that was, what most impressed me was how fearlessly California continues to move forward in addressing climate change.
As you may remember, California’s carbon market was created by the Global Warming Solutions Act, known as AB32, which was signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2006. AB32 set the target of limiting statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 to the level of 1990 and gave the Air Resources Board (ARB) very wide latitude to determine how to do that. The state is on pace to meet this goal and has set ambitious new targets for 2030, including obtaining 50% of electric power from renewable sources. Other provisions of SB350, signed in 2015, include more charging stations for electric vehicles and an improved electricity transmission grid, which will be helpful when there is more wind and solar power. (A provision to reduce petroleum use by 50% failed after strong opposition by the oil industry.)
If reducing GHG emissions is harmful economically, as many backward-thinking politicians claim, that news hasn’t reached California. Since the passage of AB32 in 2006, GHG emissions in California have fallen by 7%, while GDP has grown by 5%. This relatively modest economic growth results of course from the Great Recession. What may be more telling is that since that recession ended, California’s GDP has grown by about 10% while emissions have fallen slightly. More broadly, I can’t resist pointing out that California’s long-standing history of leadership on a host of environmental issues has certainly not seemed to harm its economic vitality.
Of course, one might legitimately argue that what is possible in California might not work elsewhere, due to a host of characteristics that make that state unusual (exceptional educational institutions, a generally benign climate, high agricultural output, etc.). I was very interested to learn, therefore, that the Canadian province of Ontario, which is slated to join the California ETS, has also made great progress. This is an interesting example, because Ontario’s economy, unlike California’s, depends heavily on manufacturing, and because its climate (global warming notwithstanding) is not a major draw for immigrants or tourists. As Glen Murray, the province’s Minister of Environment and Climate, pointed out, when under conservative leadership Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol because its emissions reductions targets were supposedly unattainable, Ontario had actually already exceeded those targets. Since 2005, Ontario’s GHG emissions have declined by nearly 20%, whereas in Alberta, whose economy depends on the fossil fuel industry, emissions have grown by nearly the same proportion.
These two examples, however intriguing, don’t prove that economic growth would not have been even greater absent aggressive climate policies. The real point is that leaders in California and Ontario view addressing climate change as an opportunity, not a problem. Rather than using fear and unsubstantiated arguments to support clinging to 19th-century technologies, they are working to improve climate, air quality, and human health, and they are benefitting economically while doing so. As Churchill said, “One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.”
WHRC scientists featured at Ford Foundation event on Paris Agreement
On the eve of Earth Day and the signing of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, environmental leaders held a briefing at the Ford Foundation in New York. Scientists, celebrities, and indigenous leaders discussed the critical role that proper management of tropical forests can have in limiting global warming to 2°C.
WHRC President Philip Duffy and Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton were on hand to emphasize the specifics of their April Science Update, including that aggressive management of tropical forests would increase by 10-15 years the time available to eliminate fossil fuel use.
Recent findings by Dr. Houghton and others suggest that investments in protecting tropical forests and in reforesting degraded lands in Africa, Asia and Latin America, could provide desperately needed time to scale up technologies that replace fossil fuels.
Speaking at the Ford Foundation, Dr. Duffy said, “By acting to end tropical deforestation and encourage reforestation of formerly forested lands, the world could give itself more time to transform the global energy system.” And, he added, “It is clear that it will be impossible to limit global warming to 2° at this point if we try to do it entirely by reducing fossil fuel use. We will have to stop emissions from land use and remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Proper management of tropical forests – stopping their destruction and reforesting previously cleared areas – can do that. At present there is no other way to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere, at any price.”
Webcast of the Ford Foundation briefing: fordfoundation.org/the-latest/ford-live-events/forests-for-climate
Fire cancels fieldwork in Fort McMurray
WHRC’s Brendan Rogers and his collaborators had been carefully planning fieldwork in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a Canadian town of about 90,000. The team was set to arrive and set up automated aerosol samplers for the summer with the goal of measuring smoke, and in particular black carbon, from regional fires. Black carbon is a potent climate warming agent, especially when deposited on snow and ice in boreal and arctic zones.
Dr. Rogers and his colleagues were about to arrive just when an intense wildfire broke out in the nearby forest and quickly destroyed large areas of the town. At least 2,400 buildings in the oil sands ‘boom town’ were burned to the ground, and the entire population was forced to evacuate and is still unable to return. While aid agencies work to cope, the burned landscape is nothing short of a tragedy for the residents whose lives have been completely upended.
Dr. Rogers, who was just named an assistant scientist at WHRC, focuses his research on ways in which the vast boreal forest ecosystem is being affected by climate change and how changes in these forests feed back to climate warming. Fire is a major component of this, and the last few years have seen extreme fires in Siberia, Northwest Canada, and Alaska. This year, his team had planned to assess what controls carbon and smoke emissions from the under-studied forests of central Canada, an area that has seen rather striking increases in fire frequency over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, the region’s third warmest and second driest winter in 70 years contributed to the early Fort McMurray fire, and scientists say it could heighten fire risk for months to come.
Dr. Rogers and his colleagues are brainstorming on a ‘plan B,’ but their instruments remain in the abandoned town, having arrived less than 24 hours before the blaze struck. They will still be able to conduct some of their field measurements, unless of course another catastrophic wildfire threatens field operations.
Arctic workshops prepare science teams for the wilderness
In preparation for their summer field work, 29 scientists and students recently came to WHRC to attend an Arctic Field Training course taught by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Polar Field Services. That course was followed by a two-day course on Wilderness First Aid taught by a physician and wilderness professionals from the University of Colorado, who covered such topics as hypothermia and bear safety. The courses provided essential background and tools for teams headed for this summer’s arctic field work in Cherskiy, Siberia, and the Alaskan Yukon River Delta.
WHRC scientists Susan Natali and Max Holmes and their colleagues will lead varying groups of high-school students, undergraduates, and graduate students at these locations to install systems for measuring carbon emissions from soil during the winter, and to examine the impacts of vegetation on permafrost temperatures, the effects of fire on ground thaw, and the long-term effects of fire on permafrost thaw and carbon cycling.
Funding for this work is provided by NASA and NSF.
WHRC contributes to controversial report on deforestation in Papua New Guinea
A recent report has highlighted major threats from deforestation and forest degradation caused by large-scale logging in the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Analysis of National Circumstances in the Context of REDD+ and Identification of REDD+ Abatement Levers on Papua New Guinea was co-authored by WHRC’s Glenn Bush and colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The paper outlines the drivers of forest loss and the resulting increase in CO2 emissions over the last 15 years. The report findings have already stimulated an important national debate as different government agencies have either concurred with the findings or raised concerns about the validity of results, with one agency suggesting that, according to its data, there has been no deforestation for the last 20 years! Importantly, the report has been endorsed by the country’s key climate change authority. The abatement levers in the PNG report include recommended actions, such as setting a standard for sustainable logging practices, promoting a local wood products industry, and implementing land-use plans with improved farming techniques and sustainably certified palm oil plantations.
If the UNFCCC’s program for Reducing Emissions of Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) is appropriately applied in Papua New Guinea, the rates of forest loss can be reduced and biodiversity protected. In the end, Dr. Bush contends that “the inconsistencies in viewpoints highlighted as a result of our findings bring opportunities to debate and seek an effective, efficient and equitable means toward managing PNG’s forests as a cornerstone for its green economy.”
Projet Equateur launches website
WHRC’s pilot REDD+ Projet Equateur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has just launched its new website, projetequateur.org.
The team has produced a wealth of information on the project’s history, current activities, and goals. The website provides a valuable resource and a much-needed window on the challenges of sustainable development in the heart of Africa. A French language version is in preparation to improve accessibility for DRC stakeholders.
Dedicated friends of WHRC make a legacy gift
After moving to Plymouth a decade ago, David Hoover and Carol Swenson quickly began attending community events and lectures at WHRC. Just a few months ago, they established a six-figure planned gift with the goal of helping to build the Center’s endowment, and also providing them with an income stream with associated tax benefits. Here, Carol and Dave share their experience in deciding to make a generous legacy gift to WHRC.
We have always been committed to social justice issues, but recently we have come to see that environmental issues underlie social justice concerns. If we don’t have a planet that is safe, healthy, and protected, no one can survive. As long-term scuba divers, we have witnessed the increasing vulnerability of the oceans to storms and such effects as coral bleaching. We worry about the melting of polar ice and permafrost and forest degradation. We strongly believe that human-induced climate change is the primary cause of these changes we see around us.
We first learned about WHRC from a close friend about 20 years ago and have followed its activities ever since. We began to contribute to the Center because we felt that it was an organization that is making a real difference in what we see as the most critical issue for the survival of humans on this planet. There are several things about the Center that we particularly appreciate. One is the impact that the Center is having on public policy, from the international level down to local communities in the tropics and the Arctic. Another is the fact that WHRC is so highly regarded in the science community, having been rated the #1 climate change think tank for the past two years. We are impressed with the combination of research, policy analysis, and education that the Center pursues.
Most of all, we felt enthusiastic about contributing to an organization where a modest gift can have a substantial impact. And, finally, they are a terrific group of people to know! As a result, we are so pleased to make a gift annuity that will help the Center move toward its goal of maintaining an endowment that can support its work for generations to come.
Pioneering paper selected
The editors of the journal Environmental Research Letters announced the selection of the article “Measurement and monitoring needs, capabilities and potential for addressing reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation under REDD+” for inclusion in its exclusive ‘Highlights of 2015’ collection. The editors chose 25 pioneering articles on the basis of referee endorsement, novelty, scientific impact and breadth of appeal.
The paper was led by WHRC Senior Scientist Scott Goetz and co-authored by Senior Scientist Richard A. Houghton, Associate Scientist Wayne Walker and others. It presents the capabilities that currently and will soon exist to measure, monitor and verify the carbon stock of tropical forests to meet the needs required by the UN REDD+ program, which attained a high level of importance with the Paris Agreement.
Crazy weather and the arctic meltdown: How are they connected? was the topic of a recent WHRC lecture by Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University. Dr. Francis studies how changes in the Arctic, specifically warming-induced loss of sea ice, may be driving extreme weather events in the mid-latitudes. Her work received a great deal of attention during the winter of 2014-2015, when she hypothesized that sea ice loss in the Arctic might be the cause of the tremendous accumulation of snow in New England, including here on Cape Cod. The packed audience was treated to a thought-provoking and engaging presentation by Dr. Francis, who graciously fielded questions during the reception that followed.
Bay State Bike Week
For several years WHRC has registered a team for Bay State Bike Week’s Mass Commute Challenge. From May 14-22, WHRC bikers will register their commuting miles to compete for a top position. In keeping with the WHRC mission and small carbon footprint, on any given day all year long, one-fifth of the WHRC staff can be found pedaling to work. The incentive of bike week and warmer weather should boost that number to over three-fourths for the next several months.
WHRC to be featured at MV film festival
On Sunday, May 29 at 4:00 pm, the Martha’s Vineyard Environmental Film Festival will screen Merchants of Doubt by director Robert Kenner. The film tells the troubling story of how a handful of industry-backed scientists, and supposed scholars willfully obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. This documentary lifts the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver-tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities, yet have the contrary aim of spreading confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from toxic chemicals to climate change. The film, based on the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, will be shown at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, 79 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. Visit mvfilmsociety.com/nature-as-inspiration for information and tickets. President Phil Duffy will be on hand for a post-screening Q & A.
Summer film series at WHRC
An environmental film series has been announced for July, August and September at WHRC. The films will be shown in the early evening, beginning with a wine and cheese social and ending with a Q & A led by a WHRC expert. Details will follow in the June newsletter.
WHRC in the news
Natural Beauty at Risk: Preparing for Climate Change in National Parks is featured on the NASA website. A team of scientists, including WHRC’s Patrick Jantz, Brendan Rogers, and Scott Goetz, is using remote sensing and computer models to help US national parks adapt to climate change. Their work in Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks is discussed at earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/NationalParksClimate.
Even for the fast-melting Arctic, 2016 is in ‘uncharted territory’ appeared in The Washington Post and quotes WHRC scientists Max Holmes and Sue Natali on what we might expect in terms of the fire season in a year that has already seen Alaska’s highest recorded temperatures.
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.