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Moving past gridlock towards climate solutions
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
The spectacular and destructive rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign has limited substantive discussion of policy, and has obscured such discussion as did occur. It would be easy to argue that this has been a lost opportunity to debate important issues and work towards solutions. The truth is, however, I am not sure how much of an opportunity there ever was.
Why? Because this campaign, more than others before it, has been characterized by competing and completely irreconcilable versions of the basic facts on issue after issue. In the case of climate change, one candidate claims that the entire phenomenon is a hoax invented by the Chinese to stifle our economic growth (which is interesting, because they used to say that we invented climate change to stifle their economic growth). If the candidates can’t even agree on whether or not there’s a problem, it is difficult to imagine a productive discussion about solutions.
This is bad, because the action we need requires much broader political support than exists now. Only so much can be accomplished through executive action, which out of necessity has been the Obama administration’s primary tool on this issue. Even the most aggressive policies under discussion today wouldn’t be enough to satisfactorily control climate change. We need much more rapid deployment of renewable energy, a better electricity grid, a Manhattan project to figure out how to remove a couple of hundred billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere (and where to put it), and much more attention paid to the threats resulting from climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic. In short, we need to be much more ambitious, but that’s impossible in today’s political environment.
So how can we make progress in addressing this important and urgent challenge?
For one thing, it’s important to remember that the public is much more united about climate change than you might infer from the public “discourse.” Surveys of the US public consistently show that majorities of the public recognize the reality of human-caused climate change, and support action to address it. And these majorities seem to be growing, albeit slowly. Climate change denial continues to be over-represented in public conversations.
Another encouraging development is increasing support for climate action in the business and financial communities. I spoke last week to the Boston chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a national group of business owners and investors who promote policies that are “good for the environment and good for the economy” at state and federal levels. These are serious business people who are committed to protecting the environment. The existence of this group and others like it is encouraging, because, for better or for worse, the business community has more political influence than scientists or tree-huggers.
Speaking of being good for the economy, we now have enough experience with climate policies like carbon taxes and cap and trade systems that it is possible to empirically evaluate not only their effectiveness in controlling greenhouse gas emissions but also their economic impacts. The results are encouraging: to the extent that they can be discerned, the economic impacts of climate policies seem to be positive on balance. This is important, because nowadays the primary argument of the “climate change deniers” is not to actually deny the existence of climate change, but rather to argue that it would be “too expensive” to do anything about it. If the initial studies are correct, this argument will become less tenable as more evidence accumulates.
Finally, there is reason to hope that the idea of climate change denial as a conservative “litmus test” may have reached its apex. It wasn’t always true that conservatives were anti-environment—Nixon, after all created the EPA—and of course it makes sense for conservatives to support conservation. (We all benefit from the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, who set aside 230 million acres for conservation.) Former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, who appeared at a recent WHRC event, is dedicating himself to rallying conservatives who support fact-based energy and climate policies. It’s encouraging to see this movement among conservatives.
So, even during the most negative and vicious national campaign any of us can remember, there is reason for optimism. And whatever the outcome next month, WHRC will continue to push the frontiers of scientific understanding, and promote science-based climate policy. It has never been more important, or more urgent.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.
President Obama’s climate change focus prompts arctic science events
In 2015, President Obama visited Alaska and became the first US President to travel north of the Arctic Circle – all part of an effort to shine the spotlight on climate change impact. Last month, senior environmental officials from around the world gathered in Washington, DC, for the first ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial, a groundbreaking event driven by the President’s desire to prompt climate action as his final term in office draws to a close.
The September 28 event was hosted and led by former WHRC director John Holdren, President Obama’s senior science advisor. Holdren also leads the Office of Science and Technology Policy and chairs the federal government’s interagency Arctic Executive Steering Committee. The White House gathering focused on four key themes: Arctic Science Challenges, Strengthening and Integrating Arctic Observations and Data Sharing, Applying Expanded Scientific Understanding, and Arctic Science as a Vehicle for STEM Education and Citizen Empowerment.
Building off the momentum of the White House event, WHRC co-hosted a separate event the day before in Washington, DC, to focus specifically on the fourth theme – Arctic Science as a Vehicle for STEM Education and Citizen Empowerment.
Working with the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, WHRC brought together more than 70 attendees from arctic nations, US government agencies, universities, and indigenous groups. More than 100 others watched the meeting on a live internet broadcast. Long-time environmental journalist Suzanne Goldenberg led a panel on using arctic science to empower northern communities. The speakers, including representatives from the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Sámi Council, said that indigenous communities must be integrated into decision-making and science.
“The Arctic is at a crossroads,” said Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. She appealed to scientists at the meeting to involve local communities in their research.
WHRC Deputy Director and Senior Scientist Max Holmes led a panel on using arctic science to promote STEM education. The Arctic provides a compelling narrative that instantly engages students, according to John Wood, a science teacher from California who has conducted research with WHRC scientists through the PolarTREC program. An audience member asked Wood if it was difficult to teach Arctic science without becoming too depressing. Arctic climate impact “is not a grim message,” Wood said. “It is a challenge.”
WHRC attends Arctic Circle Assembly
The Arctic is “ground zero for climate change,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this month during the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik.
In its four-year history, the Arctic Circle Assembly has covered a wide range of regional issues, but this year’s event had a strong emphasis on climate change. Mr. Ban’s comments echoed discussions being held in panels and meetings throughout the steel and glass conference center overlooking Reykjavik’s harbor.
“Permafrost is thawing, releasing carbon and methane into the atmosphere. The Alaskan and Canadian glaciers are retreating. Changing seasons, irregular weather, all this and more is happening and deepening,” Mr. Ban said. “Scientists’ most pessimistic estimates are being overtaken by events on the ground.”
WHRC presented a plenary panel on the final day of the conference and addressed many of the issues that the Secretary-General had raised. WHRC trustee and Tuft University professor emeritus William Moomaw moderated the panel and opened by saying that the Earth was already on the cusp of 1.5°C of warming – ostensibly a limit set by the Paris climate agreement.
WHRC President Phil Duffy then spoke about the melting of Greenland’s glaciers and told the conference that we have to remove carbon from the atmosphere if we want to hold global warming below 1.5°C. Associate Scientist Sue Natali discussed the 1,500 billion tons of carbon that is stored in permafrost and said that with global action on climate change there is still an opportunity to limit the amount of permafrost thaw to 30 percent of the total.
Despite that call to action, Dr. Duffy told the conference that the Paris Agreement was a step in the right direction but would not be sufficient to limit global warming. He called for a massive effort to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Sensing respiration during the dark arctic winter
Over the past few months, Associate Scientist Susan Natali and her research team have traveled across Alaska and Siberia for their summer field work. The researchers were in Alaska in August and spent the month crisscrossing the state by truck, plane and helicopter to install a network of automated winter respiration sensors at twelve remote sites in the permafrost zone. The work is part of a project under ABoVE, NASA’s major, ten-year campaign to understand the vulnerability and resilience of the Arctic and boreal ecosystems to a changing environment.
For decades, surface air temperatures in the Arctic have increased at approximately twice the global rate, and the greatest warming in the Arctic is occurring during the winter months. Despite the dark and frozen conditions, microbial activity continues through the winter in soils that are buried under the snowpack. As winter temperatures increase, microbial activity in the frozen soil increases, which in turn triggers emissions of belowground carbon. While some data on carbon emissions in Alaska exist, few measurements have been made during the dark winter months when satellite and airborne remote sensing are not feasible, and the cold temperatures restrict many ground-based measurements. Dr. Natali’s work aims to determine how much carbon dioxide is released during the Arctic winter and to understand the drivers of winter respiration – the critical components for a heightened understanding of the changing arctic climate and its global impact.
The Natali team traveled across Alaska, from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge to Fairbanks, Toolik Lake, and Prudhoe Bay, installing automated carbon dioxide and soil temperature sensors. The sensors, developed in collaboration with colleague Dave Risk at St. Francis Xavier University, will function throughout the winter, when the temperature dips between 20 and 40 degrees (F) below zero.
Research Assistant Sarah “Ludda” Ludwig sent along these notes from the field:
Automated soil respiration systems are not novel, but ones that function continuously and well over an Alaskan winter are. In general, Alaska is a difficult place to do field research; there just aren’t many roads or cheap, fast ways to access field sites. In winter it’s even harder to get around. Add to that extremely cold temperatures … and only a couple hours of daylight, and most instrumentation just won’t work or remain powered. The systems … have hardly any moving parts, and automatically adjust sampling frequency as the daylight diminishes to maintain a continuous record. Our first morning in Fairbanks we discovered that the “brains” of the stations had been held up in customs in Tennessee (don’t ask me why shipping from Canada to Alaska has to go through Tennessee)…. So we spent the first two days doing what prep work we could, which consisted of shopping for tools to put together the stations, supplies for the rest of our sampling work…. Conveniently for us, all of these things were to be found at the same store in Fairbanks. Read more of Ludda’s Field Notes entry.
For comparison, the sensors were placed at sites that had been subject to forest fires as well as at unburned sites. The team also measured both the depth of ground thaw and the organic soil layer, and vegetation characteristics in order to link the winter carbon dioxide emission data to existing remote sensing data, allowing them to scale their field measurements to the larger region. The researchers will return next May to collect the most important winter data.
“In some areas,” according to Dr. Natali, “winter emissions are already shifting the Arctic from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Given that warming trends in the Arctic are strongest during the winter, these data will fill a critical gap and allow us to answer the important question: How much carbon will be released from the Arctic as it warms and thaws?”
Projet Équateur holds workshop on REDD+
Last month, Projet Équateur, WHRC’s project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), brought together a diverse group of 40 government officials and community leaders for a groundbreaking workshop on deforestation and the REDD+ incentive program.
REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is a United Nations program that provides incentives for countries to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through improved forest management. Implementing REDD+ is critical for a country like DRC, which contains the world’s second largest tropical forest (after the Amazon).
The three-day workshop was held in Mbandaka, the capital of Équateur province. The attendees included such critical REDD+ stakeholders as government ministries, civil society groups, environmental groups, special interest groups, universities, the police, and the military.
“The military is important,” said Assistant Scientist Glenn Bush, director of Projet Équateur. “They use the forests extensively, they cook with wood from the forests. They have to be a part of this conversation.”
The workshop was led by Dr. Bush, WHRC Project Manager Melaine Kermarc, and two Congolese REDD+ officials – Joseph Zambo and Jean-Jacques Bambuta. Participants enthusiastically received instruction at the workshop, and the various groups were asked to develop their own plans for conservation of the great forests. Deforestation and biomass maps of the province developed by WHRC intern Millie Chapman were made available for all. The meeting was opened and closed by Équateur Minister of Energy and Ecology, Joseph Ingoli Nsongo.
Broad new Amazon project to cover education, capacity building and policy
The WHRC Amazon group and its collaborators are launching a two-year project to monitor forest change and assess forest vulnerability for the entire Amazon biome, with an emphasis on the region’s indigenous lands and protected areas.
The goals of the project are to create an effective forest management system that is designed to provide land managers with a deep understanding of forest change, help forests and the people who depend on them adapt to climate change, and, finally, provide information to policy makers responsible for implementing national forest conservation commitments that are an integral part of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.
The new project is being led by Associate Scientist Alessandro Baccini and Assistant Scientist Marcia Macedo and includes nine additional WHRC researchers. The work is made possible in part by grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, NASA and the Norwegian government (Norad).
WHRC in the news
Global Affairs: Political Will Needed for Positive Arctic Change appeared in NewsDeeply’s Arctic Deeply. An interview with WHRC President Phil Duffy.
While Earth’s Carbon Clock Ticks, Climate Danger Goes Missing From Election Fight appeared in Bloomberg, mentioning Senior Scientist Max Holmes.
First Arctic Science Ministers’ Confab Yields Cooperation Pledge ran in Eos, covering the White House Arctic Science Ministerial and interviewing WHRC President Phil Duffy.
The Arctic is being utterly transformed — and we’re just starting to grasp the consequences ran in The Washington Post, quoting WHRC President Phil Duffy.
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.