As many scientists see their efforts to confront climate change stymied by politics, others take heed and pick up the slack
Greenland is not an inviting place in November. The temperature usually drops to single digits after sunset, and the wind, which can whip up beyond 20 miles per hour, adds to the misery.
It’s especially uncomfortable if you venture in a NASA vessel called Atlantis off the coast of the world’s largest island in the North Atlantic Ocean’s sub-Arctic region, where Mike Behrenfeld found himself for about a month in late 2015.
The Oregon State University scientist was on a mission, one that could have widespread ramifications to humankind’s future on Earth. What made him take a strenuous ship ride through icy cold waters, past the site where the Titanic sank more than a century before? What did Behrenfeld and 31 other researchers — some from universities and private groups, others from the federal government — focus their attention on during their 26 days in the frozen seas?
Plankton, that nemesis of SpongeBob. More specifically, phytoplankton, a microscopic, plant-like organism that plays a critical role in the oceans’ food chain. And commands a crucial part in what many believe is the planet’s greatest challenge: climate change.
Researchers like Behrenfeld believe if we don’t better address the conditions that are making Arctic glaciers melt like butter on an Arizona August day, polar bears face extinction, king crabs invade Antarctic waters where they’ve never been, we are setting up the Earth for some dark days. In the current environment that has taken over the federal government, such notions are being ignored, to say the least. But many scientists who are at least partly funded by NASA, NOAA, EPA, DOE, and other federal agencies are still pursuing their research like it matters, like some day someone in power will listen again and understand the significance of what they are doing.
So what does plankton have to do with helping to halt the slide towards environmental and economic catastrophe? Basically, they are the bottom of the food chain, and changes to them ripple through larger animals that eat them, eventually to humans, said Behrenfeld, who specializes in marine algae research.
“Despite the fact that plankton are microscopic, they play a very critical role in Earth’s carbon cycle,” he said. “Each year about half of the carbon dioxide emitted from the atmosphere that does not remain in the atmosphere is taken up by the ocean…. The first step in that role is the process of photosynthesis, which is what the phytoplankton do.”
The photosynthesis process produces about half of the oxygen created worldwide and converts the chemicals to organic matter that feed fish, snails, whales, and eventually humans. In the last two decades, NASA has launched satellite sensors that enable researchers to better monitor what phytoplankton do.
“When the ocean’s surface temperatures increase, we generally see that the concentration of these phytoplankton decreases. In regions where it cools, it increases,” Behrenfeld said. “We hope to learn how the oceans functions today so that we can make some better predictions how they might change in the future.”
As the temperature of the earth’s oceans continue to rise, the bloom of phytoplankton could be starting as early as the winter, not the spring as is traditionally the case, Behrenfeld noted. That could be impacting the feeding habits and survival of species that depend on plankton to sustain themselves.
The average temperature in May 2018 across the contiguous U.S. set another record at 65.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The previous record was 64.7 in 1934 during the Dust Bowl era. Worldwide, 2016 was the hottest year on record, with 2017 the second warmest, according to NASA. NOAA scientists, who use a different analysis, ranked 2017 third behind 2015 as well. Scientists expect the heating trends to continue.
The higher temperatures contribute to stronger hurricanes and superstorms. The Southeast Atlantic coast has seen a more than 150 percent increase in annual high tide flood days since 2000.
In early 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million, higher than at any time in at least 400,000 years, said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth science unit at NASA headquarters in Maryland. Such levels were between 180 and 280 parts per million until around 1800 and around 350 in 1990. The reading was around 411 in May 2018.
Melting glaciers, rising sea waters
Another key area of study in the climate change field is the melting of glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic.
In the Arctic, some 4.7 million square miles of sea ice remained in May 2018, about 309,000 square miles less than in 2008, according to the University of Colorado, Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center. However, that level was still some 120,000 square miles above the record low monthly average for May, set in 2016.
In the Antarctic, the loss of glaciers has been more dramatic. About 3.6 million square miles of sea ice remained in May, some 656,000 fewer square miles than a decade earlier.
If all of Greenland’s glaciers melted, the sea would rise by 23 feet, said Jeremie Mouginot, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine. The glacier Zachariae Isstrom, which broke loose in 2012, could raise sea levels worldwide by 18 inches itself if it melted entirely, he said. “The shape and dynamics of Zachariae Isstrom have changed dramatically over the last few years,” said Mouginot.
Oceans worldwide have risen an average of nearly three inches since 1992, with some areas up more than nine inches, according to NASA. The rate of sea level rise is faster now than at any time in the past 2,000 years, researchers say.
By 2100, oceans are expected to rise by one to three feet, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The higher end of that range is more likely, said Steve Nerem, a professor with the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” he said. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.”
More than 150 million people, particularly in Asia, live within a few feet of ocean beaches. A mere six-foot rise in sea levels could displace 187 million people worldwide, researchers say. And it‘s not just residents affected; for example, more than half of NASA’s $32 billion worth of labs, launch pads, and other facilities are within 16 feet of oceans.
Besides the expansion of warmer ocean water and the melting of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, various mountain ranges, such as in Alaska, are seeing ice sheets melt, contributing to the sea level change. Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as states to the south. That has caused villages that sit on soil that was once frozen to experience rapid erosion as the permafrost melts. Numerous coastal villages in Alaska face having to relocate or at least be fortified, with the number of settlements deemed by the federal government to be in “imminent” danger increasing from four in 2003 to 31 by 2009.
The 350-population fishing village of Newtok has lost as much as 100 feet of coastline during some years, and residents voted in 1994 to relocate to higher ground. The town, which has boardwalks rather than roads and is only accessed through small planes, still plans to relocate to a community called Mertarvik. But officials were well short in early 2018 of the $100 million-plus needed to do so.
The conditions are endangering wildlife such as polar bears, which the British-based International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists as “vulnerable” and estimates its numbers around 26,000. However, some scientists say the polar bear population has grown in the past four decades.
Another practice affecting climate change is deforestation. Wildfires contribute to that process, but scientists say the biggest culprits are man-made practices like clearcutting. Some 18 million acres of forest are cut down annually worldwide, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The loss accounts for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
Countries with significant deforestation include Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, China, and Congo. Forest land in the U.S. has been relatively stable since 1910, actually growing from 754 million acres then to 766 million acres in 2012. But a significant portion of that increase was due to adding states such as Alaska.
It might not seem like it, but there have been a few positive trends reported on the environmental front lately.
For one, the hole in the ozone layer, a shield of gases that protect people and animals from the sun’s harmful radiation, is beginning to close. Mainly due to bans on chlorofluorocarbons, the Antarctic experienced some 20 percent less ozone depletion last winter than in 2005, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“We see very clearly that chlorine from CFCs is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it,” said Susan Strahan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. That occurred despite people like Donald Trump continuing to advocate the use of hair spray, which he falsely claims does not leak out into the environment if you spray inside.
Complete recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole will take decades, said Anne Douglass, a fellow atmospheric scientist at Goddard. “CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time,” she said. “As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080. And even then, there might still be a small hole.”
Doing more locally
Despite the scientific evidence, Donald Trump and other Republican politicians have mostly supported the eradication of climate-related regulations and policies. Trump has called the concept of climate change a myth and a con job, as he believes he knows more about weather patterns than 97 percent of climate scientists, despite not studying the subject. His announcements to have the U.S. be the ONLY country in the world not a part of the 2015 Paris climate accord, eliminate a State Department climate change position, disband NOAA’s advisory committee, and repeal the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan have been met with wide criticism and local movements to combat such actions.
Trump’s short-sighted actions threaten to reverse decades of up-and-down progress on the federal level. As a Democratic congressman from Tennessee, former vice president Al Gore held the first congressional hearings on climate change in the late 1970s. Gore helped draft the groundbreaking Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to control global warming pollution, in 1997.
But when George W. Bush took over the White House in 2001, one of his first actions was to ignore a campaign pledge to regulate power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. Several states, cities, and environmental organizations like the Sierra Club filed lawsuits to force the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. An appeals court ruled in favor of Bush’s EPA in 2005, but the Supreme Court narrowly supported regulation in 2007.
As Trump continues to downgrade the importance of global warming, more local officials, organizations, and individuals are picking up the slack. “With a Trump Administration and a Republican Congress, the opportunities to make change are rooted locally,” said Paul Getsos, an organizer with the People’s Climate Movement, which is organizing actions in San Francisco and other cities this September.
About 150 U.S. cities and counties have signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, committing their entities — from Washington, D.C., to Houston to Santa Fe to Anchorage — to do what the Trump Administration neglects. Worldwide, more than 9,000 cities have made that pledge. In a related program, more than 400 U.S. mayors agreed to work towards the Paris Accord goals of reducing pollutants and emissions. More than 2,700 government entities, organizations and private businesses have banded together under a “We Are Still In” campaign.
Such developments helped carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. fall to their lowest level in 2017 in 25 years.
Some 84 cities and counties such as Aspen, Colo., Burlington, Vt., and Greensburg, Ks., pledge to only use renewable energy for electricity. Local environmental organizations have increased. South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development [SACReD] organized effective protests against developers and officials who wanted to build luxury homes and more along one of the few portions of natural coastline left on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Yes for Responsible Mining campaigned to get an initiative to limit the pollution caused by new Montana mines on the November ballot in 2018.
Other local entities are studying whether to build seawalls to combat the rising waters. That is a controversial approach that some coastal scientists say makes the problem worse. Many environmentalists support restoring sand dunes, wetlands, and other natural areas, while advocating for tougher development standards.
Building a seawall is “just one of many possible courses of action” in response to climate change, said Antonio J. Busalacchi, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Adding dikes and levees, limiting coastal development, elevating highways, and building up sand dunes, wetlands, and other natural areas are other options.
Businesses stepping up
Some businesses are working on innovations, such as laser instruments and space-based optics, to measure and respond to the weather changes. Others encourage the use of cleaner energy, building materials, and products.
Among the companies on the London-based nonprofit CDP’s 2017 Climate A List, which highlights corporate actions to mitigate climate change, were some head-scratching ones like Lockheed Martin. The defense giant is one of the biggest weapons-makers on the planet whose products have left contamination such as depleted uranium for generations to deal with. But because many of Lockheed’s top officials almost sound like Al Gore when it comes to climate change, there is more to Lockheed’s reputation than meets the eye. Researchers have worked to produce energy through ocean waves and waste, and the business has long been a leader in sustainability and energy efficiency projects.
Meanwhile, consumer products giant Amazon received an F score from CDP, despite its public image as an environmentally-friendly business that uses wind farms and other forms of renewable energy. Amazon has somewhat secretly increased its use of dirty energy like coal to harness the cloud.
Overall, the percentage of businesses with targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, with increasing activity in most sectors, including Wall Street investment firms. More than 300 companies worldwide have committed to set emissions reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative. In 2017, more than 90 new companies joined.
Moreover, some $21.4 trillion was invested in 2014 in environmental or social-responsibility funds, a 61 percent increase since 2012, according to CDP.
“The momentum of business action on climate change suggests we have reached a tipping point,” CDP co-founder Paul Dickinson said.
Greenwashing and recycling
As more people and companies jump on the environmental bandwagon, few seem to agree on a clear definition of what makes a company, organization, person, or economy green.
The lack of a clear definition and the desire to gain a competitive edge have led numerous companies to market themselves as green simply for doing something as small as putting out a few recycling bins around the office while they continue to pollute in other ways.
Officials and advocates attempt to curb that practice, known as greenwashing, through various certification programs. Those included Green America, formerly known as Co-op America; the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association, formed in 1990; and Green Seal, a D.C. group founded in 1989 that certifies hotels, restaurants, and cleaning service.
The Federal Trade Commission has cracked down more on businesses that mislead consumers on green practices, but the practice seems to be growing.
Recycling has grown to a $200 billion industry that not only helps save landfill space, but provides jobs and creates revenue for businesses and government entities. A significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are related to the energy used to produce, process, and dispose of food and goods. So the less trash that has to be processed, the fewer carbon-based emissions are released.
That sounds good in theory. The practical element, as expected, can be a different story.
Despite all the hoopla about recycling, some of the largest countries in the world, including China, Russia, and the U.S., still put more than 50 percent of their garbage in landfills. The U.S. recycled and composted 34.6 percent of its municipal waste and burned almost 13 percent in 2014, according to the EPA. Some 53 percent, or 136 million tons of garbage, ended up in landfills.
California and Minnesota were among the best states in recycling or composting. However, those practices have lagged in both states recently. California saw its rate of recycling or composting decline from 50 percent in 2014 to 44 percent in 2016. The western state does very little incineration, and 46 percent of the waste ended up in landfills in 2016. Minnesota’s recycling/composting rate dropped from 43.4 percent in 2015 to 42.3 percent in 2016. Minnesota burned about 25 percent of its waste, putting only 32 percent in landfills in 2016.
On the low end of the scale were Mississippi, which only recycled 5 percent and did no incineration in 2011, and Oklahoma, which recycled 4 percent and burned 4 percent, according to a Columbia University study.
Incineration is a somewhat controversial practice, with states like Connecticut burning more than half of their garbage. Many Europeans countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and Sweden, burn significant portions of waste while keeping almost all out of landfills. Modern waste-to-energy burning facilities are much cleaner than previous models, researchers say. But others criticize the practice as relatively inefficient and environmentally toxic.
So which state or nation is doing better in this situation — one that burns most of its waste like Connecticut, or one that recycles more but puts more trash in landfills like California? That’s a tough one. Experts say that with declining landfill space, incineration will become a more popular option in the future, especially if officials can prove the pollutants those facilities release are minimal. Still, few people actually want to live by even a “clean” incineration plant, and many officials say those should not replace recycling efforts.
While recycling grows in practice, some wonder if all of the paper, plastic, glass, and other materials they take pains to separate in separate bins is actually reused. People who put greasy food paper containers in the bins contaminate those items and more in the entire neighborhood’s load, and all materials often wind up in landfills. Others wonder why cities, businesses, and other government entities make money off residents separating their trash, and most of us don’t anymore. Some states still have deposit laws where you can get cash for returning empty bottles. There are also still a few places where you can turn in aluminum cans for money, but such facilities are dwindling.
Surveys show continued concern over climate change
Most Americans want to see continued action on the global warming front. Some 59 percent of Americans say climate change is affecting their local community at least somewhat, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in 2018. More Democrats than Republicans share that viewpoint, while more people living close to coastlines do than those farther inland.
A Pew Research Center survey in 2015 found that slightly more than half of those questioned in 40 countries believed climate change was a “very serious problem.” Americans were among the least concerned, with 45 percent in that camp. People in Latin America and Africa exhibited more anxiety than those in North America and Asia.
Decades from now, many wonder if their grandchildren will look back on these times and ask why people did not do more to stop the glaciers from melting away, the oceans from rising, and species of plant and animal life from going extinct. Will future generations ask why their kids cannot go outside and play, and why they have to wear masks? Will humans still be around to ask such questions?
Who can really know? In the meantime, many pursue recycling, conservation of resources, and other environmental improvements not so much because such actions in themselves will save humanity, but because it makes sense to keep a cleaner house and improve efficiency.
Perhaps that notion may ultimately prove to be humanity’s saving grace.