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With the world on the line, scientists outline the paths to survival

With the world on the line, scientists outline the paths to survival

This week, scientists and representatives from every country on Earth are gathering in South Korea to put the finishing touches on a report that, if followed, would change the course of history.

The report is a roadmap for possible ways to keep climate change to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Anything beyond that amount of warming, and the planet starts to really go haywire. So the International Panel on Climate Change — a U.N.-sponsored, Nobel Peace Prize-winning assemblage of scientists — wants to show how we can avoid that. To be clear, hitting that goal would require a radical rethink in almost every aspect of society. But the report finds that not meeting the goal would upend life as we know it, too.

“This will be one of the most important meetings in the IPCC’s history,” said Hoesung Lee, the group’s chair, in his opening address on Monday.

The report will be released on October 8. From leaked drafts, we know the basics of scientists’ findings: World greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 — just 15 months from now. The scientists also show the difference in impacts between 1.5 and 2 degrees would not be minor — it could be make-or-break for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, for example, which would flood every coastal city on Earth should it collapse.

“The decisions we make now about whether we let 1.5 or 2 degrees or more happen will change the world enormously,” said Heleen de Coninck, a Dutch climate scientist and one of the report’s lead authors, in an interview with the BBC. “The lives of people will never be the same again either way, but we can influence which future we end up with.”

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The U.K. is tropically hot right now. 6 maps show why.

The U.K. is tropically hot right now. 6 maps show why.

A dangerous heatwave is sweeping across Britain.

The temperature reached 95 degrees at London’s Heathrow Airport on Thursday, making it the hottest day so far this year. Friday is forecasted to be even hotter, and could be the hottest day in the island’s history.

This year’s heatwave began weeks ago, back in June, exacerbated by an absence of rainfall that has turned the countryside so brown it’s visible from space. It’s part of a worldwide rash of fires, floods, and other extreme weather in recent weeks that is putting climate change front and center.

On its current pace, this will be the hottest summer in British history. Across the U.K., where air conditioning is rare, hospital emergency rooms have seen record numbers of patients this week, and public health officials warned people to stay inside. Authorities in London banned the use of barbecue grills after an explosion in the number of large grass fires. Network Rail has slowed and canceled some trainsto keep tracks from buckling under the heat.

Earlier this summer, the roof of a science museum in Glasgow actually melted during one particularly hot day.

This isn’t normal weather, although it’s happening with increasing frequency. This week marks one of only a handful of times in more than 350 years of recordkeepingthat temperatures in England have climbed above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius).

This is a problem that’s only going to get worse. Within 20 or 30 years, if the world continues to ignore the problem of climate change, heatwaves like this week’s could happen nearly every year in the U.K., tripling heat-related deaths.

Summertime temperatures have sharply risen on every corner of the planet in recent decades, so what were once one-off excursions of dangerous temperatures a century ago are now nearly indistinguishable from the background influence of soaring levels of greenhouse gases.

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Humans didn’t exist the last time there was this much CO2 in the air

Humans didn’t exist the last time there was this much CO2 in the air

The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high, millions of years ago, the planet was very different. For one, humans didn’t exist.

On Wednesday, scientists at the University of California in San Diego confirmedthat April’s monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration breached 410 parts per million for the first time in our history.

We know a lot about how to track these changes. The Earth’s carbon dioxide levels peak around this time every year for a pretty straightforward reason. There’s more landmass in the northern hemisphere, and plants grow in a seasonal cycle. During the summer, they suck down CO2, during the winter, they let it back out. The measurements were made at Mauna Loa, Hawaii — a site chosen for its pristine location far away from the polluting influence of a major city.

Increasingly though, pollution from the world’s cities is making its way to Mauna Loa — and everywhere else on Earth.

In little more than a century of frenzied fossil-fuel burning, we humans have altered our planet’s atmosphere at a rate dozens of times faster than natural climate change. Carbon dioxide is now more than 100 ppm higher than any direct measurements from Antarctic ice cores over the past 800,000 years, and probably significantly higher than anything the planet has experienced for at least 15 million years. That includes eras when Earth was largely ice-free.

Not only are carbon dioxide levels rising each year, they are accelerating. Carbon dioxide is climbing at twice the pace it was 50 years ago. Even the increases are increasing.

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Climate science’s official text is outdated. Here’s what it’s missing.

The first-ever courtroom tutorial of climate science this week went about as you’d expect. The scientists representing Oakland and San Francisco had Powerpoint problems, and the oil industry’s lawyer cherry-picked his facts.

For all their differences, both sides drew from a common source: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the gold-standard for mainstream climate science. Problem is, the last IPCC report came out way back in 2013. As it turns out, we’ve learned a lot about our climate since then, and most of that new information paints an increasingly urgent picture of the need to slash fossil-fuel emissions as soon as possible.


Loud beep goes off. “Coastal flood alert” alsup deadpans

Chevron attorney now up – “from Chevron’s perspective there’s no debate about climate science” going to be quoting chapter and verse from IPCC reports. It’s an “amazing resource”


It’s convenient that Chevron’s attorney relied on that aging five-year-old report. The next IPCC report isn’t planned for public release until the fall of 2019. Gathering consensus takes time, and the result is that IPCC reports are out of date before they’re published and necessarily conservative.

The climate models used in these reports grow old in a hurry. Since the 1970s, they’ve routinely underestimated the rate of global warming. Some of the most recent comprehensive assessments of climate science, including last year’s congressionally-mandated, White House-approved, Climate Science Special Report, include scary new sections on “climate surprises” like simultaneous droughts and hurricanes, that have wide-reaching consequences. The scientists representing the two cities knew this, and didn’t limit their talking points to the IPCC.

“Positive feedbacks (self-reinforcing cycles) within the climate system have the potential to accelerate human-induced climate change,” says a section from that Climate Science Special report, “and even shift the Earth’s climate system, in part or in whole, into new states that are very different from those experienced in the recent past.”

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Up in Smoke

Trees are dying at unprecedented rates. Can we rethink conservation before it’s too late?

Each year, the Earth’s trees suck more than a hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s an impossibly huge number to consider, about 60 times the weight of all the humans currently on the planet.

Our forests perform a cornucopia of services: Serving as a stabilizing force for nearly all of terrestrial life, they foster biodiversity and even make us happier. But as climate change accelerates, drawing that carbon out of the air has become trees’ most critical role.

Absorbing CO2 is key to avoiding the worst effects of climate change when each year matters so much. Carbon “sinks,” like the wood of trees and organic matter buried in dirt, prevent the gas from returning to the atmosphere for dozens or even hundreds of years. Right now, about a third of all human carbon emissions are absorbed by trees and other land plants — the rest remains in the atmosphere or gets buried at sea. That share will need to rise toward and beyond 100 percent in order to counter all of humanity’s emissions past and present.

For trees to pull this off, though, they have to be alive, thriving, and spreading. And at the moment, the world’s forests are trending in the opposite direction.

New evidence shows that the climate is shifting so quickly, it’s putting many of the world’s trees in jeopardy. Rising temperatures and increasingly unusual rainfall patterns inflict more frequent drought, pest outbreaks, and fires. Trees are dying at the fastest rate ever seen, on the backs of extreme events like the 2015 El Niño, which sparked massive forest fires across the tropics. In 2016, the world lost a New Zealand-sized amount of trees, the most in recorded history.

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Devil’s Bargain

We already have planet-cooling technology. The problem is, it’s killing us.

A trope of sci-fi movies these days, from Snowpiercer to Geostorm, is that our failure to tackle climate change will eventually force us to deploy an arsenal of unproven technologies to save the planet. Think sun-deflecting space mirrors or chemically altered clouds. And because these are sci-fi movies, it’s assumed that these grand experiments in geoengineering will go horribly wrong.

The fiction, new evidence suggests, may be much closer to reality than we thought.

When most people hear “climate change,” they think of greenhouse gases overheating the planet. But there’s another product of industry changing the climate that has received scant public attention: aerosols. They’re microscopic particles of pollution that, on balance, reflect sunlight back to space and help cool the planet down, providing a crucial counterweight to greenhouse-powered global warming.

An effort to co-opt this natural cooling ability of aerosols has long been considered a potential last-ditch, desperate shot at slowing down global warming. The promise of planet-cooling technology has also been touted by techno-optimists, Silicon Valley types and politicians who aren’t keen on the government doing anything to curb emissions. “Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year,” wrote Newt Gingrich in an attack on proposed cap-and-trade legislation back in 2008.

But there’s a catch. Our surplus of aerosols is a huge problem for those of us who like to breathe air. At high concentrations, these tiny particles are one of the deadliest substances in existence, burrowing deep into our bodies where they can damage hearts and lungs.

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Get used to saying ‘bomb cyclone.’ This is our climate now.

REUTERS / Brian Snyder

Get used to saying ‘bomb cyclone.’ This is our climate now.

Now that one of the strongest nor’easters on record has swirled off to Canada, it’s time to talk about what everyone was thinking during the storm: Is this just what happens now?

Short answer: yes. Get used to it. Wild storms like this week’s massive coastal cyclone will be part of winters in the Anthropocene.

This storm’s frightening name — the “bomb cyclone” — was derived from an obscure meteorological term and caught on after President Donald Trump’s terrifying tweet about nuclear weapons. The storm wasn’t as scary as all that, obviously, but it still spread havoc.

The storm ravaged a swath of the country from Florida to Maine. In South Carolina, rare snow blanketed downtown Charleston. In South Florida, stunned iguanas fell from the trees.

Boston also witnessed its largest coastal flood in history. Amid the usual scenes of buried cars and cute dogs playing in the snow, we also saw waves crashing through a seawall into homes and fire trucks plowing through flooded streets on their way to high-water rescues. At one point, the National Weather Service in Boston warned people not to ride the icebergs that were floating in on the high tide. That’s … unusual.

Storms like this one have always threatened to flood coasts. Seven of New York City’s 10 worst coastal floods on record have been from nor’easters. With rising seas and warming wintertime oceans juicing the power of cyclones, there’s good reason to expect that huge winter storms will pose an increasingly severe risk to coastal communities in the Northeast. In fact, it’s exactly what we expect will happen with climate change.

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Ice Apocalypse

Ice Apocalypse

Rapid collapse of Antarctic glaciers could flood coastal cities by the end of this century.

In a remote region of Antarctica known as Pine Island Bay, 2,500 miles from the tip of South America, two glaciers hold human civilization hostage.

Stretching across a frozen plain more than 150 miles long, these glaciers, named Pine Island and Thwaites, have marched steadily for millennia toward the Amundsen Sea, part of the vast Southern Ocean. Further inland, the glaciers widen into a two-mile-thick reserve of ice covering an area the size of Texas.

There’s no doubt this ice will melt as the world warms. The vital question is when.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today.

To figure that out, scientists have been looking back to the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, when global temperatures stood at roughly their current levels. The bad news? There’s growing evidence that the Pine Island Bay glaciers collapsed rapidly back then, flooding the world’s coastlines — partially the result of something called “marine ice-cliff instability.”

The ocean floor gets deeper toward the center of this part of Antarctica, so each new iceberg that breaks away exposes taller and taller cliffs. Ice gets so heavy that these taller cliffs can’t support their own weight. Once they start to crumble, the destruction would be unstoppable.

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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
WE DID START THE FIRE

Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

As the storm, named Ophelia, approached, it was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the eastern Atlantic. Although weather watchers were initially focused most closely on Ireland, where the storm made landfall, its deadliest impact occurred hundreds of miles south in Portugal and Spain.

There, strong winds stoked hundreds of wildfires, killing more than 40 people. The ghastly images from southwestern Europe looked less like real life than illustrations from a cautionary fairy tale about the end of the world. Being there, as one person wrote, was like “a nightmare world of smoke and ash.”

These fires would have been the deadliest in Portugal’s history, were it not for massive blazes in June that killed more than 60 people, trapping many in their cars, as flames advanced too quickly for them to escape.

With its vast forests and typically warm and dry summers, Portugal is already Europe’s wildfire capital. And in recent decades, its profound and unique socioeconomic vulnerability to fire has only grown. Last year, half of the fire acreage burned in all of Europe lay in Portugal — a trend attributed both to haphazard forestry practices and climate change bringing hotter and drier weather.

This year, the sheer scale of the fires has been staggering. On Sunday alone, wildfires burned at least 300,000 acres — more than is normally burned in an entire year. Smoke from the fires quickly spread as far away as London.

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Harvey is already the worst rainstorm in U.S. history, and it’s still raining

Reuters / Richard Carson

Harvey is already the worst rainstorm in U.S. history, and it’s still raining

The pictures are heartbreaking, the statistics are mind-boggling. And, incredibly, it’s still getting worse.

Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas late Friday night, more than 40 inches of rain have fallen in parts of the Houston metro area, producing the worst flood in the city’s modern history. The latest forecasts show another 15-25 inches on the way before Harvey clears out of the area on Wednesday. Harvey is sure to rank as the worst rainstorm in U.S. history, according to an initial analysis from the Texas state climatologist.

“Of course I’m surprised,” Houston meteorologist Tim Heller told Grist. “We tell people to prepare for the worst, but this is worse than the worst! This isn’t isolated flooding, this isn’t neighborhood flooding, this is area flooding, regional flooding. The warnings were there for 15-25 [inches] of rain, then 30, then 40. I quit giving out storm totals because I’m not sure what we’ll end up with now.”

The amount of rain so far brings new meaning to the word “unprecedented.” In just three days, Houston doubled the previous record rainfall for a full month — 19.21 inches set in June 2001 during Tropical Storm Allison (which caused the city’s previously worst flood).

So much rain has fallen that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps, in order to show rainfall totals this huge. During the peak of the rainfall on Saturday night, the local NWS office in Houston ad-libbed a dire warning and issued a “Flash Flood Emergency for Life-Threatening Catastrophic Flooding” — the first time the already-dire “Flash Flood Emergency” was considered insufficient to describe the impending risk.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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