Perspectives: A Review of 2012
by Jan Baughman
(Swans - December 17, 2012) There was a great deal of talk about the weather in 2012, but the impact of climate change, and any significant efforts to address it, were noticeably absent from the official discourse. It certainly wasn't on the agenda of the US presidential election, nor did the U.S. commit any funds at this month's UN Climate Summit in Doha to help developing nations meet their emissions reductions goals -- it has never even ratified the Kyoto protocol. China and India have yet to make any binding commitments to curb emissions, so Russia, Canada, and Japan have pulled out. As Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo was quoted as saying that "the winners have largely been the fossil fuel industries -- oil, coal and gas companies." Ironically, given the widespread economic crisis that continued to garner the world's attention in 2012, the costs of this year's droughts, fires, hurricanes, and floods are staggering and only stand to rise without serious action. More ironically still, the solution to curbing climate change may come from an otherwise unexpected source.
According to a Thinkprogress report, Hurricane Sandy's devastating economic effects are currently estimated at $42 billion in New York and $29.5 billion in New Jersey. The 2012 US drought could cause up to $77 billion in costs, and Deutsche Bank's chief U.S. economist predicts that reduced crop sales resulting from the drought could reduce economic growth by up to 1 percent.
The current scientific guidance is that any global temperature rise needs to stay below 2 degrees Celsius this century -- a target that would require drastic changes that are, as of yet, not being implemented. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2012 indicates that a delay beyond 2020 would increase considerably the costs of making future reductions of emissions, and "that even if the most ambitious level of pledges and commitments were implemented by all countries -- and under the strictest set of rules -- there would be a gap of 8 Gt [gigatons] of CO2 equivalent by 2010. This is 2 Gt higher than last year's assessment. Emissions reductions need to be made in the agricultural, forestry, power, buildings, transportation, and waste sectors to meet emissions reduction targets."
In November UNEP issued a report titled Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost, a phenomenon that has not previously been factored in to climate change modeling, but which stands to have a significant impact. Permafrost, which covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains huge quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, and its melting will release these emissions into the atmosphere. According to UNEP, "Once this process begins, it will operate in a feedback loop known as the permafrost carbon feedback, which as the effect of increasing surface temperatures and thus accelerating the further warming of permafrost - a process that would be irreversible on human timescales." In addition, infrastructure and habitat damage would occur in the permafrost regions.
Extreme weather patterns
A Center for American Progress report, Heavy Weather: How Climate Destruction Harms Middle- and Lower-Income Americans, summarizes the extreme weather patterns in 2012, which of course, disproportionately affect those with lower incomes, not only in the U.S. but globally.
September 2011 to August 2012 was the hottest 12-month period in U.S. history.
Half of the United States is still in moderate drought or worse as of November 1, 2012.
September 2012 was the driest month for Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota in 118 years of recordkeeping.
The 2012 wildfire season was the worst in decades and broke records across multiple states [Colorado, New Mexico, Montana]. Since 2011 more than 126,179 fires have burned 17.7 million U.S. acres -- roughly the area of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined.
The 2011-12 ski season was the worst in 20 years due to an average snowfall that was 41 percent lower than the previous winter season.
This report was limited to the United States, so it did not discuss the melting of Arctic sea ice, which reached a new record low around the North Pole with an area bigger than the U.S. -- 4.57 million square miles (11.83 million square kilometers) melting between March and September, according to the World Meteorological Organization findings. This news, along with that on the permafrost melt, threatens the target of limiting temperatures rises to 2 degrees C -- we're nearly half way there at 0.8 degrees.
Add to the year's events the deep freeze in eastern Europe; widespread flooding in Pakistan, the UK, western Africa, Russia and Argentina; drought in Russia, southeast Europe, China, and Brazil; and the recent Philippines typhoon, and it's been a destructive and costly year in dollars and lives. Expect another extreme climate year ahead, and perhaps a day when the phrases "natural disaster" and "man-made disaster" will be indistinguishable.
Who is behind the ongoing climate-change denial?
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) evaluated media reporting on global warming and found that "Ninety-three percent of Fox News Channel's representations of climate science were misleading from February 2012 to July 2012 (37 out of 40 references). The most common form of criticism regarding climate science was to broadly dismiss the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring or human-induced. Misleading representations also included 10 instances in which a panel member expressed acceptance of climate science findings, but was drowned out by hosts or other panel members responding with multiple misleading claims." According to the same report, a major newspaper was no better. "Eighty-one percent of letters, op-eds, columns, and editorials in the Wall Street Journal's opinion page were misleading on climate science from August 2011 to July 2012 (39 of 48 references)...Instances of attacks on individual scientists, mocking the science, and cherry picking data were all equally common. Denigration of climate science was routine. Instances included accusations that scientists were fudging data and claims that they are motivated by financial self-interest."
Also according to the UCS, renewable electricity standards "...are being challenged by state legislators affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has financial links to the Koch brothers. ALEC works with corporations including Duke Energy, Entergy, Progress Energy, and other utilities to ghostwrite legislation on a wide range of issues. So far, ALEC members have introduced bills to repeal renewable electricity standards in Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin." In September, the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity organization joined other like-minded groups in sending "a letter to Congress opposing the extension [of the wind production tax credit], arguing that it 'continues the deplorable practice of using the tax code to favor certain groups over others.'" Look to the energy lobby to continue to wage war on climate change regulations while its industries continue their high-profit, highly polluting practices.
It's easy to compile a summary of global warming effects and extreme weather events; it's more difficult to find information on progress, or success stories. However, more and more cities, particularly in New York and New Jersey, are passing anti-fracking measures as the details of this chemical-laden process slowly leak out into the public forum. The US Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and ground water, though critics argue the EPA's statement of the potential problem was downplayed due to external pressure, and no doubt the results, due in 2014, will be subject to heavy energy-lobby scrutiny. Car manufacturers in the U.S. are slowly introducing more fuel-efficient vehicles, though we're still far behind the technology. Brazil's ambitious reforestation project is showing early success, and is reviving local economies as well. But the most encouraging news of all is that the US Department of Defense, the country's single biggest energy user, is going green, putting forth what looks to be a serious effort to develop alternative energy. Of course, their motivation is to "help ensure an agile, lethal and adaptable combat force, and ultimately, national security," but we know from the past that many of the world's technical and scientific advances, including the one through which you're reading this article, were an outgrowth of military research. If that's what it takes for America to get serious on alternative energy, then more power to the military.
We've made very little progress on curtailing greenhouse gases and addressing the threat of climate change. Until we have a global commitment on behalf of all nations, including the most egregious polluters, to willfully make the necessary adjustments to limit industrial and agricultural emissions and turn to real clean energy alternatives, we'll continue through 2013 and beyond down a course that will be difficult, if even possible, to reverse. It is left to individuals and local regulators to implement environmental protections, and we must all continue our efforts to influence our leadership to take this matter seriously on a large scale. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a powerful and credible organization and an excellent source of information worth backing. And keep an eye on where that US military spending is going.
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