Midterm Gains by Republicans Endanger Environmental Progress
November 9, 2014
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
A former UN climate chief says there is "no such thing as safe rise" in global temperatures. Climate scientists fear an irreversible planetary tipping point soon will be met. The GOP's control of both houses of Congress threatens to stall -- or reverse -- efforts towards stabilizing the climate. While around 71 percent of Democrats acknowledge climate change as a serious problem, only 27 percent of Republicans believe fossil fuel extraction and incineration pose an existential threat.
Capping Warming at 2 C Not Enough
To Avert Disaster, Climate Experts Warn
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(November 8, 2014) -- Scientists, environmentalists and world leaders alike have generally agreed that capping Earth's temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius would prevent the worst effects of climate change -- a cut-off touted again in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
But many experts in the field, including former IPCC leaders, have said that even if global warming is kept to that limit, such a rise could nevertheless devastate the environment and endanger humanity -- the very effects that the latest study warns will happen if the 2 C ceiling is breached.
"There is no such thing as a safe rise," said Bob Watson, who was the chair of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002. "You will see food and water insecurity, human health problems, and sea level rise even with a 2 C rise."
Global temperatures have risen 0.85 C on average since the Industrial Revolution -- a change most scientists blame on human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists have said that at the current levels of emissions, the world is on track for as much as a 5 C rise by the middle of this century.
"Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 19th century, we've had about 1 C of warming, and even with that, we've already seen big changes in frequency of extreme events and big societal impacts," said Radley Horton, a scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University professor.
"We've seen more frequently deadly heat wave events as temperatures rise and more frequent coastal flooding as sea levels rise. These are not just more frequent or longer lasting, but when they happen they're more severe." Resident of Pacific Island nations like the Marshall Islands tell Al Jazeera they are already feeling the effects of rising sea levels, citing the largest ever king tides, which swept through the capital Majuro earlier this year. At the same time, the nation's northeastern atolls were hit with severe drought.
More frequent extreme weather is already hitting many parts of the world and in the U.S., the Pentagon has warned that climate change poses a national security threat as competition for resources increases.
If the Earth reaches a 2 C rise, positive feedback cycles -- which refers to impacts from warming that lead to even more warming -- would likely be triggered.
"If we start to push the climate system to that stage, all bets are off. No one can tell us exactly what would happen next," Horton said.
One example of a positive feedback cycle is the melting of Arctic ice sheets, which, scientists have said, could lead to an ice-free Arctic in the summer within a few years.
"Removing the white surface ice in the Arctic that is so effective at reflecting sunlight will mean replacing it with a dark surface, which absorbs and leads to more warming," Horton explained.
This could have far-reaching impacts. Heating is exacerbated at the poles, analysts have said. This could change the location of the jet stream, which regulates weather patterns worldwide -- thereby influencing heat waves, cold air outbreaks, rain patterns, flooding and drought.
Though no one knows for sure what will happen if we cross the 2 C temperature increase, paleoclimatologists believe some of those changes can be predicted by looking at ancient climate record.
"The thing people need to appreciate is that a warmer world doesn't just mean a warmer world," said Rhawn Denniston, professor of Geology at Cornell College with a focus on paleoenvironmental records. "There might be this misconception that, ‘I can handle a couple more hot days in the summer' . . . But we're talking about changes in rainfall patterns, snow pack in the mountains."
In one study, Denniston used stalagmites – cave formations – found in Asia to research ancient monsoon patterns over 100,000 years. He found that Chinese monsoons intensified and weakened over that period, which coincided with warming and cooling cycles in Greenland during its ice age.
Scientists also use the ancient climate record to predict a 2 C rise's effect on sea level rise.
"We know from the past 20,000 years ago, during the ice age, when it was 4 to 5 degrees Celsius cooler and sea levels were 100 meters lower, you can look back and see that each one degree [Celsius] of warming contributed about 20 meters in sea level rise," said David Spratt, an Australia-based climate blogger who analyzes the growing gap between science and politics.
"If we are restricted to 2 C rise, that means we will see sea level rise in the tens of meters -- that's not in dispute, its just a question of how fast."
Analysts say the reason most world leaders along with the IPCC have agreed on the 2 C target is more political than scientific. The recommendations published in the IPCC climate reports are negotiated by over 100 nations, including oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia.
Despite IPCC's reports saying the worst effects of climate change could be avoided by capping global temperature rise at 2 C, some scientists believe the Earth's climate has already been pushed beyond its tipping point. One reason is that most of the effects from the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere are delayed.
Another reason for the schism between IPCC recommendations and other scientists' beliefs is that the panel's report is based on science that is already several years old.
"The cutoff date is three to four years before it's published, meaning this report is the extent of climate science in 2010 -- and a number of things have happened since then," Spratt said.
Spratt cited predictions of an ice-free Arctic within a decade or two, the "unstoppable" melting of West Antarctic ice sheets and faster melting in Greenland's glaciers.
All of these are examples of interconnected systems that could feed off of each other -- resulting in climate disruption.
"We now have evidence saying if we get to 2 C we'll pass the tipping point to irreversible changes . . . which policymakers simply ignore," Spratt said.
Midterm Gains by Republicans
Endanger Environmental Progress
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(November 5, 2014) -- The fate of nascent government efforts to combat climate change hangs in the balance following the recapture of the Senate by Republicans, environmental activists fear.
By wresting control of the chamber from Democrats and tightening a grip on the House of Representatives through a succession of victories Tuesday, the GOP has put itself in a stronger position to block or roll back White House legislation.
And green campaigners worry that climate-friendly regulations, including those aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, could be targeted by the resurgent Republicans.
The political power shift comes despite efforts by wealthy environmentalists to counter the impact of money from conservative groups. Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer's political action committee reportedly spent $65 million on the midterm elections to highlight the importance of voting for climate-minded leaders. Steyer spent $50 million of his own money on political ads, including one featuring Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, in an effort to reach voters.
The campaign by NextGen Climate was focused on Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire and Iowa -- races viewed as critical to maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate. But in major races, the cash injection did not sway Republicans on environmental protection.
Exit polls on Tuesday showed a stark divide along partisan lines on climate change, with 71 percent of Democrats responding that they thought global warming was a serious problem, versus just 27 percent of Republicans, The New York Times reported.
With control of the Senate, Republican will be able to appoint the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which controls the Environmental Protection Agency. On the campaign trail, Sen. Mitch McConnell, who won his re-election bid Tuesday and is likely to become Senate majority leader, promised to cripple the EPA's ability to regulate carbon emissions of power plants. Now he could have the tools to at least hamstring the federal agency.
In Colorado -- a state with more than 50,000 active oil and gas wells -- Republican Cory Gardner was projected to take the Senate seat from incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall on Tuesday night, though the governor's seat remains too close call.
"Gardner doesn't believe climate change is real and is running a campaign based on anti-science," Gary Wockner of the environmental organization Clean Water Action, told Al Jazeera.
The race for Colorado governor would be "neck and neck," Wockner said, with incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he believes humans are contributing to climate change, running against Republican challenger Bob Beauprez.
"Beauprez is rabidly pro-drilling and doesn't believe in climate change," Wockner said. Election results early Wednesday morning put Beauprez ahead of Hickenlooper by 1 percentage point.
Fracking -- an oil and gas extraction process through which sand, water and chemicals are pumped into the ground to release trapped fuel deposits -- has grown significantly over the last 25 years, with the number of active fracking wells doubling from 1990 to 2009.
Before Tuesday's election, Senate Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee released a report saying fracking was fueling an "energy renassiance." The Senate Republicans, who will now constitute a majority on the committee, said "decades of studies" have shown the process to have minimal impact on the environment.
But critics say fracking's largely unregulated development poses pollution and health risks. Residents in five Colorado cities had put fracking bans on the ballot for Tuesday, but the initiatives were struck down by district court judges in August. The decisions called such bans illegal after the oil and gas industry sued the cities.
"Everyone involved in the fracking bans was extremely disappointed that the ballot initiatives were pulled off," Wockner said.
In Michigan, Green Party Senate candidate and environmental activist Chris Wahmhoff ran on a simple platform -- stopping Alberta-based energy company Enbridge from expanding an aging tar-sands pipeline that runs underneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet.
With control of the Senate, many expect Republicans to try and force President Obama to approve the larger Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar-sands from Canada to Texas.
Though Wahmhoff, who grew up on Michigan's Kalamazoo River, which was contaminated when a different pipeline ruptured, trailed behind the mainstream candidates -- overall projections put him at around 1 percent -- in select districts he fared better, with exit polls indicating he won 15-20 percent of the votes. The race is expected to be won by Democratic candidate Gary Peters, who was up by around 10 percentage points on Rep. Terri Lynn Land on Tuesday night.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the way to a campaign party hosted by the Green, Socialist, Libertarian and Taxpayers parties, Wahmhoff said he was happy with his race and hopeful that the Greens would be working more closely with the other third parties in the future.
"If there was no other reason to campaign but getting awareness, and using it to promote a good cause, then it's just amazing," Wahmhoff said. "And the third parties here in Michigan are working on a coalition ... and consolidating other efforts."
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