UN chief: Climate change is “most important issue we face”
By FRANK JORDANS and MONIKA SCISLOWSKA
Monday, December 3
KATOWICE, Poland (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the climate summit in Poland by issuing a dramatic appeal to world leaders Monday to take the threat of global warming seriously and to act boldly to avert a catastrophic rise in temperatures before the end of the century.
Guterres called climate change as “the most important issue we face.”
“Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption,” Guterres told delegates from almost 200 countries who gathered in Katowice, Poland.
The U.N. chief chided countries, particularly those most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, for failing to do enough to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which set a goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — ideally 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) — by the end of the century.
Citing a recent scientific report on the dire consequences of letting average global temperatures rise beyond 1.5 degrees, Guterres urged countries to cut their emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and aim for net zero emissions by 2050.
Such a move, which experts say is the only way to achieve the 1.5-degree goal, would require a radical overhaul of the global economy and a move away from using fossil fuels.
“In short, we need a complete transformation of our global energy economy, as well as how we manage land and forest resources,” Guterres said.
He said governments should embrace the opportunities rather than cling to fossil fuels such as coal, which are blamed for a significant share of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
The remark was also directed at host Poland, which relies on coal for 80 percent of its energy. But Poland’s President Andrzej Duda told a later news conference that the coal-rich country will never entirely give up its “strategic fossil fuel.”
In order to steer businesses and consumers away from heavily polluting forms of energy, the U.N. chief urged countries to embrace carbon pricing, something few countries have yet to do.
Guterres also urged negotiators not to forget that the challenges they face pale in comparison to the difficulties climate change is already causing millions around the world whose homes and livelihoods are at risk from rising sea levels, drought and more powerful storms.
The two-week conference, in Poland’s southern coal mining region of Silesia, is expected to work out how governments can report on their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming within the Paris accord limit.
“This is the challenge on which this generation’s leaders will be judged,” Guterres said.
He later told reporters that realities about global climate are “worse than expected, but the political will is relatively faded after Paris” and is not matching the challenges.
Guterres called for a “huge increase in ambitions” during the two weeks of negotiations in Poland, adding “we cannot afford to fail in Katowice.”
Famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough warned the gathering that the “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizons” if no urgent action is taking against global warming.
The 92-year-old TV presenter blamed humans for the “disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years.”
Duda, the Polish leader, said participants at the conference have backed its proposal of a “just transition” away from coal mining, which calls for helping those people, like coal miners, who are slated to lose their jobs as the world changes its energy mix.
Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, who presided over last year’s U.N. climate summit, said the “just transition” proposal shouldn’t just consider the fate of fossil fuel workers but all people around the world whose lives are affected by climate change.
Residents of the world’s smaller islands, many of whom face catastrophic flooding from higher sea levels in a warming world, have been among the world’s most vocal backers of measures to combat climate change.
Climate change is shrinking winter snowpack, which harms Northeast forests year-round
December 3, 2018
Authors: Andrew Reinmann, Assistant Professor, CUNY Graduate Center. Pamela Templer, Professor, Boston University.
Disclosure statement: Andrew Reinmann receives funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. Pamela Templer has received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Geological Survey. She is on the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America.
Partners: Boston University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Climate change often conjures up images of heat, drought and hurricanes. But according to the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, released on Nov. 23, 2018, winters have warmed three times faster than summers in the Northeast in recent years. These changes are also producing significant effects.
Historically, over 50 percent of the northern hemisphere has had snow cover in winter. Now warmer temperatures are reducing the depth and duration of winter snow cover. Many people assume that winter is a dormant time for organisms in cold climates, but decades of research now show that winter climate conditions – particularly snowpack – are important regulators of the health of forest ecosystems and organisms that live in them.
In particular, our work over the last decade shows that declining snow cover may impair tree health and reduce forests’ ability to filter air and water. Our latest study finds that continued winter warming could greatly reduce snow cover across the northeastern United States, causing large declines in tree growth and forest carbon storage.
Snow as a blanket
We study northern hardwood forests, which are dominated by sugar maple, yellow birch and American beech trees and span 85,000 square miles, from Minnesota and south-central Canada east to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the northeastern United States. These forests are famed for their vibrant fall colors. They generate revenue by drawing tourists, hikers, hunters and campers, and support timber and maple syrup industries. They also provide important ecological services, such as storing carbon and maintaining water and air quality.
When winter encroaches on this region, with temperatures often dipping well below freezing, every species needs insulation to cope. Tree roots and soil organisms like insects rely on deep snowpack for protection from cold – a literal blanket of snow. Even in sub-zero temperatures, if snow is sufficiently deep, soils can remain unfrozen.
Six decades of research from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire – one of the longest-running studies anywhere – show that winter snowpack is declining. Research conducted by other scholars indicates that if this trend continues, it will increase the likelihood of soil freeze-thaw cycles, with harmful effects on forest health.
Scientists have used the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest as a living laboratory to study environmental problems since 1963.
Why northern forests need snow
For more than 10 years we have manipulated winter snowpack at Hubbard Brook to study the effects of projected climate change on northern hardwood forests. In early winter, we head outdoors after each snowfall to remove snow from our experimental plots. Then we analyze how losing this insulating layer affects trees and soil.
We have found that in plots where we remove snow, frost penetrates a foot or more down into the soil, while it rarely extends more than two inches deep in nearby reference plots with unaltered snowpack. And just as freeze-thaw cycles create potholes in city streets, soil freezing abrades and kills tree roots and damages those that survive.
This root damage triggers a cascade of ecological responses. Dead roots decompose and stimulate losses of carbon dioxide from the soil. Trees take up fewer nutrients from soil, accumulate the toxic element aluminum in their leaves and produce less branch growth. Nitrogen, a key nutrient, can wash out of soils. Soil insect communities become less abundant and diverse.
Declining snowpack affects tree growth
In our most recent paper, our climate and hydrological models show that the area of forests across the northeastern United States that receives insulating midwinter snowpack could decline by 95 percent by the year 2100. Today, 33,000 square miles of forests across northern New York and New England typically have snowpack for several months in winter. By the year 2100, this area could shrink to a patch smaller than 2,000 square miles – about one-fifth the size of Vermont.
This decline will undoubtedly harm the skiing and snowmobiling industries and expose Northeast roads to more freeze-thaw cycles. It also will significantly affect tree growth.
To assess the relationship between snowpack and tree growth, we used a specialized hollow drill bit called an increment borer to remove straw-sized wood cores from multiple sugar maple stems. Each of these trees experienced either natural winter snowpack or five consecutive years in which we removed early winter snowpack. When we sanded the cores and viewed them under a microscope, they revealed annual growth rings that we could use to understand how each tree responded to its environment.
Within just the first two years, our analyses showed a 40 percent decline in sugar maple growth from plots without snowpack. Growth rates remained depressed by 40 to 55 percent over the next three years. By contrast, there was no growth decline in the sugar maple trees in our reference plots where snow covered trees’ roots in midwinter. These results are comparable to root mortality that other researchers observed in an earlier snow removal experiment at Hubbard Brook.
At Hubbard Brook, sugar maples can account for more than half of annual forest biomass accumulation. Consequently, changes in climate that reduce winter snowpack and increase soil freezing could reduce forest growth rates in the northern hardwood forest region by 20 percent just through their impacts on these trees. But we know that yellow birch also suffers root damage in response to soil freezing, so our estimate for changes in whole forest growth is likely to be low.
Could warmer growing season temperatures compensate at least partially for this damage by stimulating rates of tree growth, as some research suggests? Very little work has been done to understand how forests in seasonally snow-covered regions will respond to interactive effects of climate change across seasons. To help fill this gap, we established the Climate Change Across Seasons Experiment at Hubbard Brook in 2013.
In this project we use buried heating cables to warm forest soils by 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) during the snow-free season from April through November. In winter we use a combination of warming with buried heating cables and snow shoveling to induce soil freeze-thaw cycles. Our results so far show that root damage and reduced tree growth caused by winter soil freeze-thaw cycles are not offset by soil warming during the growing season.
Our work shows how often-overlooked changes in winter climate can impact forest ecosystems. Losing snowpack can reduce forest growth, carbon sequestration and nutrient retention, which will have important implications for climate change and air and water quality all year-round.
George H.W. Bush understood that markets and the environment weren’t enemies
December 3, 2018
Professor of Economics, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Disclosure statement: Matthew Kahn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Southern California — Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who died on Nov. 30, was admirable for many reasons, from his skillful leadership through the end of the Cold War to his personal warmth and courtesy. As an environmental economist, I believe his approach to conservation also deserves attention.
Bush majored in economics at Yale and was a skilled politician. He believed that market-based solutions could protect the environment at lower cost than the command-and-control strategy that was more typical in the 1970s and 1980s.
Under that approach, regulators ordered each polluter to install the same equipment to reduce emissions. This could be cost-effective if all polluters used the same technology, but in modern economies, firms rarely have similar management or the same operating equipment. Bush was willing to test the idea that setting pollution reduction targets and letting regulated firms decide how best to achieve them could lead to better outcomes.
Markets for clean air
In June 1989, Bush proposed what would become his most important environmental achievement: the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. This sweeping legislation used a market-based approach to halve sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, which reacted in the air to produce harmful acid rain.
This pollution was generated mainly by coal-fired electric utilities in the Midwest, but winds carried it into New England and mid-Atlantic states, where it damaged forests, rivers and lakes. States where the pollution was produced had little incentive to regulate it because the costs were borne by others far away. In a 2011 study, Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus and others estimated that coal-fired power plants generated social costs – including acid rain – that could equal or exceed the value of the electricity they produced.
President Bush followed the advice of economists who recommended introducing a national market where utilities could buy and sell the right to pollute. This approach made sense for mitigating acid rain because utilities differed with respect to their cost of reducing emissions. Utilities in states such as Ohio had much higher emissions, and a greater scope of emissions reductions possibilities if they were required to cut them.
Under the legislation, each utility would receive an allotment of permits, proportional to its past emissions, that allowed it to release a fixed amount of pollution. The total number of permits was set at a level that would reduce national emissions by 10 million tons relative to the 1980 level, phasing down over time. Each company could use its permits to cover its emissions, or sell any permits it did not use at the market price. If a utility could reduce its emissions for less than the going market price for a permit, it could make those reductions by whatever means it chose, then sell the permit and keep the difference.
This approach encouraged utilities to hire environmental engineers to update their production processes and find cleaner strategies, such as switching to lower-sulfur coal. It created dynamic innovation investment to discover new strategies for producing power while creating fewer emissions.
The legislation passed the Senate 89 to 10 and the House 401 to 25. Such bipartisan support for environmental regulation is rarely seen today. “Every city in America should have clean air,” President Bush said as he signed it. “With this legislation I firmly believe we will.” And studies show that he was right: The program successfully reduced sulfur dioxide emissions at a lower cost than the command-and-control method.
Can emissions trading save Earth’s climate?
Today climate change is the world’s biggest environmental challenge. Bush took this problem seriously enough to issue an order in 1989 that led to creation of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which produces expert reports on how climate change is affecting the United States. In 1992 he signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which created a process for countries to work together to understand and respond to climate change.
It’s hard to know whether Bush would have taken steps to curb climate change if he had been reelected in 1992. Some members of his administration supported such a course, but others were less convinced of the need to act. And critics found fault with positions Bush took on other environmental issues, especially in the second half of his term.
Nonetheless, Bush succeeded in building a political coalition to reduce pollution, and I believe there are valuable political economy lessons to be learned from his record as debate continues over future U.S. climate mitigation policy.
As our nation’s population and per-capita income continue to grow, making progress toward sustainability will require reducing the emissions our economy generates per dollar of income. The acid rain program showed that markets for pollution lower the cost to society of achieving this goal. By rewarding economic actors who can reduce pollution at the lowest cost, they give businesses an incentive to become even better at this task.
As concerns grow over inequality in America, U.S. officials also must pay close attention to who bears the costs of new regulations. If carbon mitigation policies raise electricity and gasoline prices, then middle-class purchasing power could decline.
But this income effect can be offset by simultaneously imposing a carbon fee and then giving households a lump-sum rebate. This approach would adhere to President Bush’s core goals of harnessing market forces to accelerate environmental progress while protecting the pocketbook of the middle class. Prominent liberal and conservative economic experts who have served under every U.S. president since Nixon support this approach.
President Trump plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, the latest stage of international efforts to curb climate change, and has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is real. In contrast, President Bush spoke of it as a challenge to be faced. Just after signing the Framework Convention on Climate Change, Bush stated in a speech to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro:
“We must leave this earth in better condition than we found it, and today this old truth must be applied to new threats facing the resources which sustain us all, the atmosphere and the ocean, the stratosphere and the biosphere. Our village is truly global.”