Good News: We Are Greening the Planet!

Guess what: trees are making a comeback. We constantly hear bad news about our climate, and yet one of the simplest ways to tackle climate change is to increase rather than decrease the number of trees in our world. They are the best tools we have to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.

Turns out that our planet is becoming greener, at least when you look at it from space. A recent study published in Nature Climate Change by scholars at Australian, Chinese, Dutch and Saudi Arabian universities recently published a 20-year study looking at our plaent’s “terrestrial biomass.” Terrestrial biomass refers to all of the living organisms that inhabit our world, the vast majority of which are plants. And those plants absorb carbon dioxide! The researchers used two decades of microwave satellite readings which, it turns out, are a good way to measure biological material. These data are able to determine how “green” our planet is and how much it’s changing over time.

The study found that between 1998 and 2002, our world’s plants declined – mostly due to large-scale deforestation in tropical rain forests like those in Brazil and Indonesia. But then something wonderful happened: between 2003 and 2012 trees started growing back. Deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia slowed dramatically. Places like the savannahs of northern Australia and southern Africa added trees. And most dramatically, the vast forests of China and Russia grew back at a considerable pace. That is indeed significant because our planet’s boreal forest which stretches across northern Canada and Russia stores about 60 per cent of our world’s carbon. Tropical rain forests store only half that much.

This is consistent with another study that was published this past July which found that the share of carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation dropped by a third in the past decade alone. “Afforestation” programs have been part of the reason. Afforestation refers to returning former croplands back into forest. As an example, Europe produces far more food than it needs. By paying farmers grants to convert their fields back into forests—what amounts to more than 6,000 square kilometres—they help tackle the problem.

China has the world’s largest reforesting program which is good because it is also the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. India has also done a good job, and even Brazil is tackling the problem.

The return of trees teaches us a lesson. To reduce our destructive carbon output, the solution is not to reduce economic activity; rather, it’s to combine a growing urban economy with smart policies that make growth and ecology work together.

Reducing Emissions, Saving Lives

“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”
—Dan Quayle

When it comes to accepting that climate change is real and that we’re the main culprits for what our planet is currently experiencing, there’s a spectrum the skeptics and deniers can follow. First there’s “Global warming isn’t real;” then there’s “It’s real but not our fault;” the last bastion of for them to hold onto is “It’s real and it’s our fault, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

That third one is important to consider because it’s a way for skeptics and deniers to accept what we’ve been saying all along, but to still push their agenda of “business-as-usual.”  I mean, why bother changing if we can’t stop it, right? Continue reading

Climate Models Wildly Overpredicted Global Warming!

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
—Niels Bohr

That’s the headline being touted all over the world by climate change deniers and skeptics, claiming victory for their side and yelling loudly that climate change is nothing but a hoax. (Sorry Maldives, you can’t be affected by sea level rise. Sorry U.S., you can’t be having record-breaking floods, heat waves and droughts, or exteme hurricanes. It must all be in your head!)

So where does this claimed victory come from? A new study published in Nature Climate Change looked at predictions of global warming over the last few decades and found that of the 117 models the researchers looked at, 114 of them were wrong, overestimating the amount of temperature rise. Doesn’t sound very good I know, and of course anti-climate change groups are having a heyday with it, especially as they ramp up their rhetoric in advance of the upcoming Fifth Assessment Report  (AR5) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) later this month.

So what gives? Why are these models so “wildly inaccurate” as Fox News and other denier groups like to describe it? Continue reading

Yet Another Feedback Loop To Accelerate Global Warming

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

You’ve heard of feedback loops before. Negative feedbacks naturally impact on systems to help them to regulate themselves: the greater the response, the more it is negatively impacted to curtail that response. Although there are many complex scientific examples, I think a great example that everyone has in their own home is the float in the back of a toilet: as the water level climbs in the back reservoir after the toilet has been flushed, the float rises along with the waterline, helping to close off the valve that allows water into the tank.

Positive feedback on the other hand amplifies the impact rather than regulating and reducing it. An example I deal with in cardiovascular medicine is the formation of blood clots. When you cut your skin and start to bleed, platelets (which are like bricks in our blood clots) become “activated” and release a bunch of chemicals to promote clotting proteins (which are like the mortar) to bind together with the platelets. These components all interact to help form the clot. But as platelets get activated, some of the chemicals released attract and activate other platelets, amplifying the response. Without this mechanism, clots would form way too slowly to prevent us from bleeding to death after any substantial injury.

When it comes to global warming, we’ve already witnessed a few positive feedbacks that our planet is experiencing. One is melting ice at the north pole, Greenland, and the numerous glaciers found all over the planet. As that ice slowly melts away, we have a relatively darker planet surface leading to more sunlight being absorbed rather than reflected back. The absorbed light energy is then converted into infrared radiation and eventually absorbed in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases leading to even more global warming and more melting ice. And so on. And so on. Another is with melting permafrost, leading to the release of significant amounts of methane which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology have found another: ocean acidification. Continue reading

Climate Change and the Threat to Life on Earth

“Prompt and stringent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally would reduce these biodiversity losses by 60 per cent if global emissions peak in 2016, or by 40 per cent if emissions peak in 2030, showing that early action is very beneficial. This will both reduce the amount of climate change and also slow climate change down, making it easier for species and humans to adapt.”
—Dr. Rachel Warren

There are myriad consequences of climate change, most of which I’ve written about either in my book Comprehending the Climate Crisis or on this blog. Most people are becoming more familiar with many of them because they’re already upon us, such as extreme weather phenomena like floods, droughts, and hurricanes. Others are also fairly well known even though their real devastation won’t be for years to come: sea level rise and expansion of disease vectors like those which cause malaria are prime examples.

But one that gets less attention although is no less significant is the extinction of species. New research just published in Nature Climate Change looked at 50,000 common species of plants and animals worldwide and what climate change might do to them. Their findings are rather alarming: about half of the plant species and a third of the animal species will lose half of their geographic ranges of survival by 2080 if we continue with business as usual. This means that biodiversity everywhere will be affected. Continue reading