It’s a foregone conclusion that as long as the world keeps emitting carbon dioxide, we’ll keep setting records for how much ends up in the atmosphere. But that doesn’t make the recent high water mark of carbon dioxide any easier to swallow.
On Saturday, scientists recorded the first ever carbon dioxide reading above 415 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory. They’ve been measuring carbon dioxide levels continuously since 1958 at that location, but ice cores and other data show that it’s not just the highest carbon dioxide has been in 61 years of data. It’s the highest its ever been 800,000 years of data, and that should give us pause about the unsettling planetary experiment we’ve initiated.
Plot atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements and you’ll see they follows a sawtooth pattern over the course of a year. Carbon dioxide dips from summer into early fall as northern hemisphere plants suck it out of the atmosphere, and rises from late fall into spring as plants decompose and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This was all going on largely unchanged from year-to-year until humans started using the atmosphere as a dump for carbon dioxide.
Now, the sawtooth pattern has been set on edge, rising year over year and setting new records each spring. The resulting graph—one of the most iconic data visualizations in science—is known as the Keeling Curve. In February, the world passed the record set last year. And on May 11, carbon dioxide cracked 415 ppm for the first time in human history.
Natural fluctuations like El Niño—marked by a warming of the waters in the eastern tropical Pacific—can speed up the rise but human activities are what have driven carbon dioxide to its new milestone. Sure, it’s just a number. The climate is only slightly more screwed at 415 ppm than it was at 414 ppm. And next year, we’ll rocket past 415 ppm.
But it’s worth taking stock of what it took to get us here and the choices in front of us. The world has known for decades carbon emissions have put it on a path toward dangerous climate change. The greenhouse effect was established long before that. And yet rather than tap the brakes, carbon emissions have sped up. At the start of the Mauna Loa Observatory record, it took 16 years for atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise 15 ppm. It took 6 years to do the same from 2010-2016. It feels like only a few years ago we were worried about crossing the 400 ppm threshold, which wait. We were.
These are the changes we’re seeing now with about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. Because carbon dioxide sits in the atmosphere for centuries, the climate will warp even further. And with emissions hitting a new peak in 2018, the world isn’t backing away from the brink anytime soon. Instead, we’re racing toward it.
None of which is to say we need to keep running toward catastrophe. The world’s leading scientists have laid out a series of choices we can make to avert it. It’s up to the world and world leaders in particular to look at that map and chart which roads they want to travel.
Carbon pollution from four major tar sands/oil sands mines in northern Alberta is 64% higher than their owners reported using the United Nations’ standard emissions measurement framework, according to a study released this morning in the journal Nature Communications.
“The researchers, mainly from Environment Canada, calculated emissions rates for four major oilsands surface mining operations using air samples collected in 2013 on 17 airplane flights over the area,” CBC reports. The study found gaps from 13 to 123% between reported and actual emissions at the four facilities, a finding that “could have profound consequences for government climate change strategies”.
As for the fossils that submitted the data, “they’re just doing exactly what they’ve been told to do,” said John Liggio, an aerosol chemist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. “They’re not doing anything on purpose.”
But that doesn’t make the research finding any less significant. Accurate numbers on carbon pollution “inform national and international climate policies,” the study states. “Such anthropogenic GHG emission data ultimately underpin carbon pricing and trading policies.”
“The bottom line is we still have more work to do in terms of really determining how much is being emitted,” Liggio told CBC.
The findings of this one study place Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions about 2.3 higher than they were previously believed to be, CBC notes. “If research eventually shows that other oilsands sites are subject to similar underreporting issues, Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions could be as much as 6% more than thought—throwing a wrench into the calculations that underpin government emissions strategies.”
On CBC, Liggio explained the standard, “bottom-up” method by which fossils are required to report their production emissions is fraught with uncertainty, factoring in everything from the carbon intensity of the fuels they use to whether plant maintenance activities may have driven a temporary spike in emissions.
With their flyovers, Liggio and his colleagues took “a ‘top-down’ approach involving hundreds of air samples taken during more than 80 hours of flights over four major surface mining operations in northern Alberta: Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake facility, Suncor’s Millennium and North Steepbank site, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon mine, and what was then Shell’s Albian Jackpine operation, now majority owned by Canadian Natural,” CBC explains.
“Left out of the study, notably, are emissions from all oilsands operations that use in-situ extraction, pumping steam into the ground to get the petroleum out. About 80% of oilsands reserves, and the majority of current production, require in-situ extraction,” which means “the overall amount of underreported greenhouse gas emissions could be significantly higher.”
U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed
By Brad Plumer, Jan. 8, 2019
WASHINGTON — America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday.
Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year, illustrating how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The estimate, by the research firm Rhodium Group, pointed to a stark reversal. Fossil fuel emissions in the United States have fallen significantly since 2005 and declined each of the previous three years, in part because of a boom in cheap natural gas and renewable energy, which have been rapidly displacing dirtier coal-fired power.
Yet even a steep drop in coal use last year wasn’t enough to offset rising emissions in other parts of the economy. Some of that increase was weather-related: A relatively cold winter led to a spike in the use of oil and gas for heating in areas like New England.
But, just as important, as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and trucks soared. And there are few policies in place to clean those sectors up.
“The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth,” said Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group.
As United States manufacturing boomed, for instance, emissions from the nation’s industrial sectors — including steel, cement, chemicals and refineries — increased by 5.7 percent.
Policymakers working on climate change at the federal and state level have so far largely shied away from regulating heavy industry, which directly contributes about one-sixth of the country’s carbon emissions. Instead, they’ve focused on decarbonizing the electricity sector through actions like promoting wind and solar power.
But even as power generation has gotten cleaner, those overlooked industrial plants and factories have become a larger source of climate pollution. The Rhodium Group estimates that the industrial sector is on track to become the second-biggest source of emissions in California by 2020, behind only transportation, and the biggest source in Texas by 2022.
78 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump. This is the full list of environmental policies the Trump administration has targeted, often in an effort to ease burdens on the fossil fuel industry. Oct. 5, 2017
There are signs that those standards have been effective. In the first nine months of 2018, Americans drove slightly more miles in passenger vehicles than they did over that span the previous year, yet gasoline use dropped by 0.1 percent, thanks in part to fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars.
But, as America’s economy expanded last year, trucking and air travel also grew rapidly, leading to a 3 percent increase in diesel and jet fuel use and spurring an overall rise in transportation emissions for the year. Air travel and freight have also attracted less attention from policymakers to date and are considered much more difficult to electrify or decarbonize.
Demand for electricity surged last year, too, as the economy grew, and renewable power did not expand fast enough to meet the extra demand. As a result, natural gas filled in the gap, and emissions from electricity rose an estimated 1.9 percent. (Natural gas produces lower CO2 emissions than coal when burned, but it is still a fossil fuel.)
Transmission towers near the coal-fired Will County Generating Station in Romeoville, Ill.CreditDaniel Acker/Bloomberg
Even with last year’s increase, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are still down 11 percent since 2005, a period of considerable economic growth. Trump administration officials have often cited that broader trend as evidence that the country can cut its climate pollution without strict regulations.
But if the world wants to avert the most dire effects of global warming, major industrialized countries, including the United States, will have to cut their fossil-fuel emissions much more drastically than they are currently doing.
Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions. We know. Global warming is daunting. So here’s a place to start: 17 often-asked questions with some straightforward answers. Sept. 19, 2017
Under the Paris climate agreement, the United States vowed to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Rhodium Group report warns that this target now looks nearly unattainable without a flurry of new policies or technological advances to drive down emissions throughout the economy.
“The U.S. has led the world in emissions reductions in the last decade thanks in large part to cheap gas displacing coal,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, who was not involved in the analysis. “But that has its limits, and markets alone will not deliver anywhere close to the pace of decarbonization needed without much stronger climate policy efforts that are unfortunately stalled if not reversed under the Trump administration.”
The Rhodium Group created its estimate by using government data for the first three quarters of 2018 combined with more recent industry data. The United States government will publish its official emissions estimates for all of 2018 later this year.
For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer
Repost from The Rolling Stone [Editor: thanks to Marilyn Bardet for alerting us to this deep and shocking analysis of Trump’s latest disaster. – R.S.]
Why Aren’t We Talking More About Trump’s Nihilism?
The White House now says we might as well pollute because global catastrophe is inevitable
By MATT TAIBBI, OCTOBER 1, 2018 12:28PM ET
While America was consumed with the Brett Kavanaugh drama last week, the Washington Post unearthed a crazy tidbit in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) latest environmental impact statement.
The study predicts a rise in global temperatures of about four degrees Celsius, or seven degrees Fahrenheit, by the year 2100. Worse, it asserts global warming is such an inevitable reality, there’s no point in reducing auto emissions, as we’re screwed anyway.
“The emissions reductions necessary to keep global emissions within this carbon budget could not be achieved solely with drastic reductions in emissions from the U.S. passenger car and light truck vehicle fleet,” is how the report put it.
To make a real difference, it adds we’d have to “move away from the use of fossil fuels,” which is “not currently technologically feasible or economically practicable.”
There’s been just a flutter of media attention about this, mostly focusing on the hypocrisy. Trump, as is his wont, has at one point or another occupied basically every inch of territory on the spectrum of global warming opinions.
Now comes this Linda Blair-style head turn. The NHTSA report deftly leaps past standard wing-nut climate denial and lands on a new nihilistic construct, in which action is useless precisely because climate change exists and is caused by fossil fuels.
The more you read of this impact statement, the weirder it seems. After the document lays out its argument for doing nothing, it runs a series of bar graphs comparing the impact of various action plans with scenarios in which the entire world did nothing (labeled the “no action” alternative).
“A textbook example of how to lie with statistics,” is how MIT professor John Sterman described it to the Post.
There’s obviously a danger at overinterpreting this paper, which mostly seems like a desperate bureaucratic attempt to square science with Trump’s determination to roll back environmental policies for his business pals.
But even as accidental symbolism, it’s powerful stuff. A policy that not only recognizes but embraces inevitable global catastrophe is the ultimate expression of Trump’s somehow under-reported nihilism.
While the press has focused in the past two years either on the president’s daily lunacies or his various scandals, the really dangerous work of Trump’s administration has gone on behind the scenes, in his systematic wreckage of the state.
Implicit in this campaign of bureaucratic dismantling has been the message that pandemonium is a price Trump is very willing to pay, in service of breaking the “disaster” of government. Many of his top appointees have been distinguished by their screw-it-all mentality.
Remember, he appointed Mick Mulvaney, a man who had once inspired a downgrade of America’s credit rating by threatening to default on the debt, to be his budget director.
He later put Mulvaney in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he fired his own 25-person advisory board — after requesting a budget of $0 and promising to fulfill the bureau’s mission “no further.”
Trump’s original EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, was best known for having used his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general to sue the EPA repeatedly and zero out the environmental-enforcement budget. Trump made a robotization enthusiast his choice for labor secretary, chose a hockey-team owner to run the Army (he withdrew, thankfully), and so on.
There are still hundreds of top federal jobs left unmanned, and some of the non-appointments seem like Nero-level acts of madness. Trump asked for 25 percent cuts to the whole State Department on the grounds that they were “prioritizing the efficient use of taxpayer resources.” But what country goes without ambassadors for years? Trump fired dozens upon inauguration and to this day still has 34 vacancies. We have no ambassador in South Africa, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, even Mexico. We’re a ghost state with nukes.
All of this is part and parcel of Trump’s doomsday message. He’s been a textbook example of Richard Hofstadter’s famed theory of paranoid politics. See if any of this (especially the line about “barricades”) sounds familiar:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… Like religious millennialists, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days…
From Day One of Trump’s campaign, pundits have reached for traditional political explanations to describe both his behavior and his appeal. Because we’re trained to talk in terms of left and right, progress and reaction, we tried to understand him in those terms.
But Trump sold something more primal. His core message was relentless, hounding negativity, lambasting audiences with images of death and disaster.
His first campaign speech was basically a non-denominational end-times sermon, in which America was either kaput or close to it, surrounded on all sides by bloodthirsty enemies. “They kill us,” he preached. “They beat us all the time… We have nothing…”
He ranted about a system befouled by false prophets. “Politicians are all talk, no action,” he howled. “They will not bring us— believe me — to the promised land.”
The “What have you got to lose?” line he pulled out later was supposedly just a pitch to African-American voters, but all of Trump’s audiences picked up on the “it just doesn’t matter” theme. (If you want to be wigged out, check out the similarities between Trump speeches and the famed Bill Murray speech from Meatballs. Just substitute “China” for “Mohawk.”)
Obese and rotting, close enough to the physical end himself (and long ago spiritually dead), Trump essentially told his frustrated, pessimistic crowds that America was doomed anyway, so we might as well stop worrying and floor it to the end.
If that meant a trade war, environmental catastrophe, broken alliances, so be it. “Let’s just get this shit over with,” is how Trump’s unofficial campaign slogan was described in the show Horace and Pete, one of the few outlets to pick up on Trump’s Freudian death-wish rhetoric.
Trump made lots of loony promises to bring us back to the joyous Fifties (literally to Happy Days, if you go by his choice of Scott Baio as a convention speaker). But even his audiences didn’t seem to believe this fable.
The more credible promise of his campaign was a teardown of the international order, which he’s actually begun as president. Trade deals, environmental accords, the EU, NATO, he’s undercut all of them, while ripping government in half like a phone book.
He keeps inviting destruction like it’s a desirable outcome. He even pushed through legislation for “low-yield” nuclear weapons, whose only purpose is to be more theoretically usable than the other kind (although he’s wrong about this, too).
His fans even cheered when he played nuclear chicken with Kim Jong-un, tweeting that his “nuclear button” was “bigger & more powerful” than Kim’s (and “my Button works!”).
It’s easy to understand the nationalist sentiment behind reversing trade deals or backing Brexit. But what’s the populist angle on burning the planet, or nuclear war? How does hating elites explain cheering a guy on for turning nuclear diplomacy into a penis-measuring contest?
On a policy level, this apocalypse politics is pure corporate cynicism, with Trump’s big-business buddies showing a willingness to kill us all for a few dollars now.
The broader electoral pitch is just an evil version of every nuclear-age dance tune ever, “99 Luftballoons” or “1999.” The world is ending, so fuck it, let’s party. As crazy as it is, it’s a seductive message for a country steeped in hate and pessimism. Democrats still don’t understand it. Trump’s turning America into a death cult, with us as involuntary members.