By Al Markowitz
After a relatively warm winter, things were blooming early in our area. Spring is now officially here and with it come the most recent reports on the state of our global climate. As you might guess, the news isn’t good. The World Meteorological Organization, a UN sponsored effort bringing together work from scientists in 185 countries, reports that “The year 2016 made history, with a record global temperature, exceptionally low sea ice, unabated sea level rise and ocean heat. Extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas writes, “This report confirms that the year 2016 was the warmest on record – a remarkable 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period, which is 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015. This increase in global temperature is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system. Globally averaged sea surface temperatures were also the warmest on record, global sea levels continued to rise, and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year, with levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident.”
The 2016 report demonstrates that Global temperatures continue to be consistent with a warming trend of 0.1 °C to 0.2 °C per decade though the pace of warming may well increase due to growing feedback loops created as conditions change — and they are changing.
Growing feedback loops such as darker, more heat absorbing seas in the arctic regions and release of greenhouse gases from warming tundra and oceans make climate change exponential rather than gradual. Changes build on themselves and happen much faster as the process progresses. This includes temperatures, sea level rise, and the destabilizing of weather patterns.
The oceans have been absorbing much of the heat resulting from the additional carbon and other greenhouse gasses produced by fossil fuel based industry, absorbing 93 percent of the carbon dioxide released by human activities since the 1970s. As Inger Anderson, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says, “Without this oceanic buffer, global temperature rises would have gone much, much speedier.” In fact, according to IUCN research it is projected that if the oceans weren’t there to protect us, our lower atmosphere would have already heated up by 36 degrees Celsius. That would be over 90 degrees warmer in Fahrenheit degrees. And the oceans are warming.
The oceans can only absorb so much heat and even that has consequences. Measurements show that the ocean will continue to warm by between 1 to 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Aside from the expansion of warmer oceans that add to sea level rise, the amount of dissolved oxygen decreases. A paper published in the journal Nature by oceanographer Sunke Schmidtko and two colleagues from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, found a decline of more than 2 percent in oceanic oxygen content worldwide between 1960 and 2010. This has grave implications for sea life. Along with warming water and oxygen depletion, the continued burning of fossil fuels make the seas more acid which hinders the shell-making ability of many creatures including shrimp, oysters and coral. It also affects the viability of phytoplankton which emit half the oxygen we breathe – far more than disappearing rainforests produce. Maybe the most dangerous thing for us is that warmer seas and a warmer atmosphere result in massive release of sequestered methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
This depressing news is compounded by the empowerment of an administration in our country which denies our contribution to climate change, ignoring science when it conflicts with fossil fuel industry profits. As we are witnessing with other vital regulatory federal agencies, the placing of Scott Pruitt at the top of the EPA is a prime example of the cynical and dangerous corporate coup aimed at destroying that institution. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt consistently put the business interests of the energy sector ahead of the the environmental and health interests of the public – even when it came to fracking related earthquakes. He is a stubborn climate denier who has publicly stated, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s (carbon dioxide) a primary contributor to the global warming.”
Recently, Trump, surrounded by coal executives, signed an order to undo Obama-era climate change regulations. The order’s main target is Obama’s Clean Power Plan which requires states to slash carbon emissions from power plants. Of course coal is not going to make a big comeback. Partly, I believe, as with his bill undoing internet privacy protections, this was a market manipulation creating an investment bubble as much as it was an idiotic move to appease his base and to help his corporate buddies. The bad news is that with our planet’s climate at a dangerous tipping point, the Trump presidency, which is the unmitigated rule of corporations with an emphasis on the fossil fuel industry, is a disaster of historic impact. Remember, Trump made the head of Exxon-Mobil the Attorney General.
But there is good news as well. Many states are not going along with the rollbacks in regulations. Some states will continue to move toward cleaner, sustainable and increasingly more affordable energy including wind and solar. This makes good economic as well as public safety sense. As I write this, a coalition of U.S. states including ten Democratic attorneys general, plus New York City and a Pennsylvania regulator have mounted a broad legal challenge against what it called the Trump administration’s illegal suspension of rules to improve the energy efficiency.
We are fortunate in having a DemocraticPparty leadership in Virginia which will resist the worst of Trump’s attacks on climate – especially given our vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Still, most of our elected state leaders are funded by Dominion Power, supporting its fracked gas pipeline and plans to more than double their carbon output over the next 25 years. As corrupt as our present mis-leadership is, America is not the world. Germany, China, India and other nations continue to move away from filthy fossil fuels and toward more sustainable energy. International economic and political pressure will no doubt be applied should we not honor the international agreements we made in Paris.
Citizen resistance is vital as well. We can see the effect that massive resistance had on Trump’s attempt to roll back “Obamacare.” This powerful example should continue to inspire us. Climate is the most important issue of our time and we must do everything we can to counter the juggernaut of corporate climate destruction. Locally, we are fortunate to have activists like those in the Sierra Club. With that in mind, I decided to ask our local Sierra Club chapter’s Conservation Program manager, Zach Jarjoura a few questions regarding local activities.
The Sierra Club has been active in opposing the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline. Can you explain why and tell us what progress has been made?
We’re working to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for many reasons. The most general, overarching reason is because of climate change and the need to transition rapidly to clean energy sources like wind and solar. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would lock us in to using fracked gas for decades to come. In addition to the climate impacts of the pipeline there are also negative economic, social, and other environmental impacts. The pipeline would slash through the Appalachian Trail, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests, Monongahela National Forest, the Blueridge Parkway, and hundreds of family farms. The ACP is also a stark example of the stranglehold that fossil fuel corporations have on energy policy and planning. The ACP is a for profit, fracked gas pipeline being built by privately owned energy corporations, the majority of which own electric utility subsidiaries operating in states that the pipeline will cross. These corporations, namely Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, will use their subsidiary companies Duke Power and Dominion Power to purchase the fracked gas provided by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Despite the large-scale and vocal opposition to this project the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has pushed this project through with little regard for the public and their opinions. More than 20,000 people have expressed their opposition to this pipeline by submitting public comments to FERC and thousands more have marched, made calls, met with elected officials, and more. The final Environmental Impact Statement for the ACP is anticipated later this year. It will be one of the last opportunities for public engagement in the FERC process.
We’ve read about the successful lawsuit against Dominion Power regarding coal ash leakage into the Elizabeth River. Given our regional vulnerability to climate change, what other local efforts is the Sierra Club engaged in?
Let’s be honest, it’s going to be very difficult to get good climate and energy policy in place with the current administration and Congress. Don’t get me wrong, Sierra Club will be there to defend the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the other environmental policies and institutions that have worked to protect public health and the environment for decades, but we also think there is huge potential to get local action on climate change.
One of the initiatives we’re working on locally is getting clean energy commitments from our cities and counties, as well as other large users of electricity. We’re starting the process by getting mayors to sign on to the Compact of Mayors, an exciting international agreement for local leaders to help them develop plans for climate action for their city. The commitment requires the city to do 4 things: 1. Commit! (officially registers commitment); 2. Take Inventory (assessing climate impacts, conducting a greenhouse gas inventory); 3. Target (create greenhouse gas reduction targets and establish a system); 4. Establish an action plan to reduce emissions. When a city joins the Compact of Mayors they gain access to a plethora of resources as well as expert staff from the Compact of Mayors who will help guide us through the process.
By getting local commitments to clean energy and climate action we can achieve multiple positive outcomes; first we’ll start the movement to localized, clean energy produced electricity, second it puts pressure on Dominion to invest in more clean energy because their large scale customers want it, third it can be an economic driver for climate adaptation efforts since reducing carbon emissions also reduces energy costs, and fourth by installing more clean energy (specifically solar with battery storage) we can increase our ability to stay electrified during storms and flooding events.
What can people concerned with climate issues do and who can we get involved?
Anyone can get involved with climate issues but we need EVERYONE to get involved. The number one thing you can do is contact your elected officials about climate change and clean energy. Contact your Mayor and ask them to join the Compact of Mayors. Contact your General Assembly members and ask them to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and send a letter of opposition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Get involved with a local organization, come to meetings, and talk to your friends and neighbors. Not everyone can do everything but everyone can do SOMETHING.
In addition to the things Zach Jarjoura mentioned, another thing we can all do in the short term is to go to the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. on Saturday, April 29. Given our vulnerability to sea rise and our concern for the continued health of the Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads should be one of the largest and loudest groups at the People’s Climate March. Seats on the buses can be reserved online at https://vasierraclub.ticketspice.com/hrpcm I hope to see you there!