Author: Tim Radford

About Tim Radford

Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.

Ancient tree shows result of magnetic pole switch

A preserved ancient tree trunk records the story of a climate catastrophe more than 40 millennia ago. It could happen again.

LONDON, 5 March, 2021 − Here is the news of the world from 42,000 years ago. Imagine a dramatic shift in global climate during the last Ice Age; a co-incident extinction of one human species and a range of giant Australian mammals; a devastated ozone layer and astonishing displays of auroras over the tropics, all triggered by a simple but unimaginable shift.

It happened when the north and south magnetic poles weakened, then swapped places, and then swapped back again, all in the space of about 800 years. The episode, carefully decoded from the story told by the growth rings of a vast and long-lived ancient tree preserved for 42,000 years in a New Zealand swamp, has been given its own name.

It is an Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event, and is so called − say the authors in a literary jest rare in a respected science journal − “after the science writer Douglas Adams because of the timing … and the associated range of extinctions”. Famously if enigmatically, Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy proposed that the answer to life, the universe and everything was the number 42.

And the 33 authors from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, China and Argentina claim in their study in the journal Science that their Adams Event “appears to represent a major climatic, environmental and archaeological boundary that has previously gone largely unrecognised.”

The phrase “appears to” is important: what the authors describe is what they think would have been probable, or possible. What they have established is something else: the precise sequence of an event so far not observed in human history, a magnetic reversal.

“For the first time ever we have been able to date the timing and precise environmental impacts of the last magnetic pole switch,” said Chris Turney  of the University of New South Wales.

“A magnetic pole reversal or extreme change in Sun activity would be unprecedented climate change accelerants. We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again”

“The findings were made possible with ancient New Zealand kauri trees, which have been preserved in sediments for over 40,000 years. Using the ancient trees we could measure, and date, the spike in atmospheric carbon caused by the collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field.”

Just as the planet’s orbit periodically changes, with sometimes dramatic consequences, so too does the planet’s magnetic field. Such collapses and reversals are repeatedly recorded in its bedrock.

Scientists also knew there had been a temporary reversal approximately 41,000 to 42,000 years ago: what they did not have was any precise, year-on-year evidence of the progress of such a switch. Not, that is, until the first close examination of the growth rings of a kauri tree, Agathis australis, that had flourished for 1700 years, through the entire episode, before it fell, only to be preserved with its bark intact, in a bog in New Zealand’s warm, rainy Northland.

The researchers could cross-check the story told by this and other preserved trunks with radio-carbon and climate records revealed in cave deposits, marine sediments and ice cores.

The twin poles began to migrate across the planet, and in the run-up to the magnetic flip the Earth’s magnetic field fell to between zero and 6% of its present strength.

Twin  quandaries

“We had no magnetic field at all − our cosmic radiation shield was totally gone,” said Professor Turney. “Unfiltered radiation from space ripped apart air particles in Earth’s atmosphere, separating electrons and emitting light − a process called ionisation. The ionised air ‘fried’ the ozone layer, triggering a ripple of climate change across the globe.”

Australia, at that time, became more arid, and a number of large Australian vertebrates went extinct at around the same time. At around that time, too, human cave art began to flourish in Europe and Asia, and one species of European human, the Neanderthal, disappeared. How connected these events might be with any geomagnetic reversal is not proven. It remains, the authors concede, a possibility.

But in the past 170 years the Earth’s magnetic field has weakened by 9%, and the north magnetic pole has been on the move. What happened 42,000 years ago could happen again. The research confirms two things.

One is that the number 42 is an answer to something. “The more we looked at the data, the more everything pointed to 42. It was uncanny,” said Professor Turney. “Douglas Adams was clearly onto something after all.”

The other confirmation is that magnetic reversal could be accompanied by climate change. And, the scientists say, the human-triggered climate emergency is bad enough today.

“Our atmosphere is already filled with carbon at levels never seen by humanity before. A magnetic pole reversal or extreme change in Sun activity would be unprecedented climate change accelerants,” said Professor Turney. “We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again.” − Climate News Network

A preserved ancient tree trunk records the story of a climate catastrophe more than 40 millennia ago. It could happen again.

LONDON, 5 March, 2021 − Here is the news of the world from 42,000 years ago. Imagine a dramatic shift in global climate during the last Ice Age; a co-incident extinction of one human species and a range of giant Australian mammals; a devastated ozone layer and astonishing displays of auroras over the tropics, all triggered by a simple but unimaginable shift.

It happened when the north and south magnetic poles weakened, then swapped places, and then swapped back again, all in the space of about 800 years. The episode, carefully decoded from the story told by the growth rings of a vast and long-lived ancient tree preserved for 42,000 years in a New Zealand swamp, has been given its own name.

It is an Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event, and is so called − say the authors in a literary jest rare in a respected science journal − “after the science writer Douglas Adams because of the timing … and the associated range of extinctions”. Famously if enigmatically, Douglas Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy proposed that the answer to life, the universe and everything was the number 42.

And the 33 authors from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, China and Argentina claim in their study in the journal Science that their Adams Event “appears to represent a major climatic, environmental and archaeological boundary that has previously gone largely unrecognised.”

The phrase “appears to” is important: what the authors describe is what they think would have been probable, or possible. What they have established is something else: the precise sequence of an event so far not observed in human history, a magnetic reversal.

“For the first time ever we have been able to date the timing and precise environmental impacts of the last magnetic pole switch,” said Chris Turney  of the University of New South Wales.

“A magnetic pole reversal or extreme change in Sun activity would be unprecedented climate change accelerants. We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again”

“The findings were made possible with ancient New Zealand kauri trees, which have been preserved in sediments for over 40,000 years. Using the ancient trees we could measure, and date, the spike in atmospheric carbon caused by the collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field.”

Just as the planet’s orbit periodically changes, with sometimes dramatic consequences, so too does the planet’s magnetic field. Such collapses and reversals are repeatedly recorded in its bedrock.

Scientists also knew there had been a temporary reversal approximately 41,000 to 42,000 years ago: what they did not have was any precise, year-on-year evidence of the progress of such a switch. Not, that is, until the first close examination of the growth rings of a kauri tree, Agathis australis, that had flourished for 1700 years, through the entire episode, before it fell, only to be preserved with its bark intact, in a bog in New Zealand’s warm, rainy Northland.

The researchers could cross-check the story told by this and other preserved trunks with radio-carbon and climate records revealed in cave deposits, marine sediments and ice cores.

The twin poles began to migrate across the planet, and in the run-up to the magnetic flip the Earth’s magnetic field fell to between zero and 6% of its present strength.

Twin  quandaries

“We had no magnetic field at all − our cosmic radiation shield was totally gone,” said Professor Turney. “Unfiltered radiation from space ripped apart air particles in Earth’s atmosphere, separating electrons and emitting light − a process called ionisation. The ionised air ‘fried’ the ozone layer, triggering a ripple of climate change across the globe.”

Australia, at that time, became more arid, and a number of large Australian vertebrates went extinct at around the same time. At around that time, too, human cave art began to flourish in Europe and Asia, and one species of European human, the Neanderthal, disappeared. How connected these events might be with any geomagnetic reversal is not proven. It remains, the authors concede, a possibility.

But in the past 170 years the Earth’s magnetic field has weakened by 9%, and the north magnetic pole has been on the move. What happened 42,000 years ago could happen again. The research confirms two things.

One is that the number 42 is an answer to something. “The more we looked at the data, the more everything pointed to 42. It was uncanny,” said Professor Turney. “Douglas Adams was clearly onto something after all.”

The other confirmation is that magnetic reversal could be accompanied by climate change. And, the scientists say, the human-triggered climate emergency is bad enough today.

“Our atmosphere is already filled with carbon at levels never seen by humanity before. A magnetic pole reversal or extreme change in Sun activity would be unprecedented climate change accelerants,” said Professor Turney. “We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again.” − Climate News Network

Antarctic warming speed-up alarms researchers

The world’s largest reservoir of snow and ice could be melting faster than ever. Two new studies highlight Antarctic warming.

LONDON, 4 March, 2021 − Antarctic warming is accelerating: at least one of the southern continent’s ice shelves has been melting faster than ever. The polar summer of 2019-20 set a new record for temperatures above freezing point over the George VI ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The finding is ominous: the ice shelves form a natural buttress that slows the rate of glacier flow from the continental bedrock. The faster the glaciers flow into the sea, the higher the hazard of sea level rise.

And a second study confirms that this is already happening in West Antarctica: researchers looked at 25 years of satellite observation of 14 glaciers in the Getz sector to find that meltwater is flowing into the Amundsen Sea ever faster. Between 1994 and 2018, these glaciers lost 315 billion tonnes of ice, enough to raise global sea levels by almost 1mm.

Melting rates in Antarctica have been a source of alarm for years. The latest studies confirm the picture of continuing melt.

“The high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − confirm the Getz basin is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall”

US scientists report in the journal The Cryosphere that they too used satellite observation − 41 years of it − to measure summer meltwater on the ice and in the near-surface snow of the northern part of the George VI ice shelf. They identified the most widespread melt and the greatest total of melt days of any season during the 2019-2020 summer.

Air temperatures were above freezing for up to 90 hours, allowing pools of meltwater to collect on the shelf. At its peak 23% of the region was covered with water: the equivalent, in glaciology’s favourite popular measure, of 250,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“When the temperature is above zero degrees Celsius, that limits refreezing and also leads to further melting,” said Alison Banwell, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who led the study. “Water absorbs more radiation than snow and ice, and that leads to even more melting.”

Remote and untrodden

The Getz shelf is one of the biggest of a sector of the West Antarctic known as Marie Byrd Land. A new report in Nature Communications confirms that all 14 measured glaciers there have picked up speed and reach the ocean ever more swiftly.

Three of them have accelerated by more than 44%. And over the years the loss of ice has been the equivalent of 126 million Olympic swimming pools − all of it now adding to global sea level rise.

“The Getz region of Antarctica is so remote that humans have never set foot on most of this part of the continent,” said Heather Selley, of the University of Leeds, UK, first author. “Satellite radar altimetry records have shown substantial thinning of the ice sheet.

“However, the high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − now confirm the Getz basin is in dynamic imbalance, meaning that it is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall.” − Climate News Network

The world’s largest reservoir of snow and ice could be melting faster than ever. Two new studies highlight Antarctic warming.

LONDON, 4 March, 2021 − Antarctic warming is accelerating: at least one of the southern continent’s ice shelves has been melting faster than ever. The polar summer of 2019-20 set a new record for temperatures above freezing point over the George VI ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The finding is ominous: the ice shelves form a natural buttress that slows the rate of glacier flow from the continental bedrock. The faster the glaciers flow into the sea, the higher the hazard of sea level rise.

And a second study confirms that this is already happening in West Antarctica: researchers looked at 25 years of satellite observation of 14 glaciers in the Getz sector to find that meltwater is flowing into the Amundsen Sea ever faster. Between 1994 and 2018, these glaciers lost 315 billion tonnes of ice, enough to raise global sea levels by almost 1mm.

Melting rates in Antarctica have been a source of alarm for years. The latest studies confirm the picture of continuing melt.

“The high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − confirm the Getz basin is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall”

US scientists report in the journal The Cryosphere that they too used satellite observation − 41 years of it − to measure summer meltwater on the ice and in the near-surface snow of the northern part of the George VI ice shelf. They identified the most widespread melt and the greatest total of melt days of any season during the 2019-2020 summer.

Air temperatures were above freezing for up to 90 hours, allowing pools of meltwater to collect on the shelf. At its peak 23% of the region was covered with water: the equivalent, in glaciology’s favourite popular measure, of 250,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“When the temperature is above zero degrees Celsius, that limits refreezing and also leads to further melting,” said Alison Banwell, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who led the study. “Water absorbs more radiation than snow and ice, and that leads to even more melting.”

Remote and untrodden

The Getz shelf is one of the biggest of a sector of the West Antarctic known as Marie Byrd Land. A new report in Nature Communications confirms that all 14 measured glaciers there have picked up speed and reach the ocean ever more swiftly.

Three of them have accelerated by more than 44%. And over the years the loss of ice has been the equivalent of 126 million Olympic swimming pools − all of it now adding to global sea level rise.

“The Getz region of Antarctica is so remote that humans have never set foot on most of this part of the continent,” said Heather Selley, of the University of Leeds, UK, first author. “Satellite radar altimetry records have shown substantial thinning of the ice sheet.

“However, the high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − now confirm the Getz basin is in dynamic imbalance, meaning that it is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall.” − Climate News Network

Weakening Gulf Stream may disrupt world weather

The Gulf Stream is growing feebler, the Arctic seas are gaining fresh water. Together they could affect the world’s weather.

LONDON, 2 March, 2021 − The Atlantic Conveyer, otherwise the Gulf Stream − that great flow of surface water pouring northwards that overturns in the Arctic and heads south again at great depth − is now weaker than at any point in the last 1,000 years, European scientists report.

And in a second, separate but related study, researchers have found that the Beaufort Sea, in the Arctic, has gained two-fifths more fresh water in the last 20 years: water that could flow into the Atlantic to affect the Conveyor, and with it, climatic conditions.

Scientists call it the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or just AMOC. Europeans know it as the Gulf Stream: the current that conveys tropic warmth to their coasts and keeps Britain and Western Europe at a temperature several degrees higher than latitude alone might dictate.

And for years, oceanographers and climate scientists have been observing a slowing of the flow, by as much as 15%. But direct measurement of the great current began only relatively recently in 2004: researchers needed to know whether the slowdown was part of a natural cycle, or a consequence of climate change driven by global heating.

Now they know a little more. European researchers report in Nature Geoscience that they looked for evidence of ocean circulation shifts in what they call “proxy evidence”: the story of climate change told by tree growth rings, ice cores, ocean sediments, corals and historical records, including naval logbooks.

The combined evidence of temperature patterns, the sizes of particles of ocean floor sediment and the salinity and density of sub-surface water helps build up a picture of the Atlantic current for the last 1,600 years.

“The Gulf Stream System moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second, almost a hundred times the Amazon flow”

The verdict? Up to the 19th century, ocean currents were stable. The flow is now more sluggish than at any time in the last millennium.

This is roughly what climate models have predicted: the warm salty water moves north, cools, becomes more dense, sinks to the deep and flows back south. But the Arctic has begun to warm, Greenland to melt, and the flow of fresh water into the northern seas to intensify.

Since the flow is driven by the difference in temperatures, any change in the regional thermometer will play back into the rate of flow. And any extra arrival of fresh water could further slow the overturning circulation.

“The Gulf Stream system works like a giant conveyor belt, carrying warm surface water from the equator up north, and sending cold, low-salinity deep water back down south. It moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second, almost a hundred times the Amazon flow,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany, one of the authors.

“For the first time, we have combined a range of previous studies and found they provide a consistent picture of the AMOC evolution over the past 1600 years. The study results suggest that it has been relatively stable until the late 19th century.

“With the end of the Little Ice Age in about 1850, the ocean currents began to decline, with a second, more drastic decline following since the mid-20th century.”

Outcome awaited

The change could have ominous consequences for European weather systems: it could also deliver more intense coastal flooding to the US eastern seaboard. If the current continues to weaken, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Which is why a new study in Nature Communications matters so much. US researchers tracked the flow of fresh water from the Beaufort Sea − melt water from glaciers, rivers and disappearing Arctic sea ice − through the Canadian Archipelago and into the Labrador Sea.

Arctic water is fresher than Atlantic water, and richer in nutrients. But this extra volume, measured at a total of 23,300 cubic kilometres, could also affect the rate of flow of the overturning circulation. That is because relatively fresh water is less dense than saline water, and tends to float on top.

Quite what role it could play is uncertain: the message is that, sooner or later, it will escape into the North Atlantic. Then the world will find out.

“People have already spent a lot of time studying why the Beaufort Sea fresh water has gotten so high in the past few decades,” said Jiaxu Zhang,  of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, first author. “But they rarely care where the freshwater goes, and we think that’s a much more important problem.” − Climate News Network

The Gulf Stream is growing feebler, the Arctic seas are gaining fresh water. Together they could affect the world’s weather.

LONDON, 2 March, 2021 − The Atlantic Conveyer, otherwise the Gulf Stream − that great flow of surface water pouring northwards that overturns in the Arctic and heads south again at great depth − is now weaker than at any point in the last 1,000 years, European scientists report.

And in a second, separate but related study, researchers have found that the Beaufort Sea, in the Arctic, has gained two-fifths more fresh water in the last 20 years: water that could flow into the Atlantic to affect the Conveyor, and with it, climatic conditions.

Scientists call it the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or just AMOC. Europeans know it as the Gulf Stream: the current that conveys tropic warmth to their coasts and keeps Britain and Western Europe at a temperature several degrees higher than latitude alone might dictate.

And for years, oceanographers and climate scientists have been observing a slowing of the flow, by as much as 15%. But direct measurement of the great current began only relatively recently in 2004: researchers needed to know whether the slowdown was part of a natural cycle, or a consequence of climate change driven by global heating.

Now they know a little more. European researchers report in Nature Geoscience that they looked for evidence of ocean circulation shifts in what they call “proxy evidence”: the story of climate change told by tree growth rings, ice cores, ocean sediments, corals and historical records, including naval logbooks.

The combined evidence of temperature patterns, the sizes of particles of ocean floor sediment and the salinity and density of sub-surface water helps build up a picture of the Atlantic current for the last 1,600 years.

“The Gulf Stream System moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second, almost a hundred times the Amazon flow”

The verdict? Up to the 19th century, ocean currents were stable. The flow is now more sluggish than at any time in the last millennium.

This is roughly what climate models have predicted: the warm salty water moves north, cools, becomes more dense, sinks to the deep and flows back south. But the Arctic has begun to warm, Greenland to melt, and the flow of fresh water into the northern seas to intensify.

Since the flow is driven by the difference in temperatures, any change in the regional thermometer will play back into the rate of flow. And any extra arrival of fresh water could further slow the overturning circulation.

“The Gulf Stream system works like a giant conveyor belt, carrying warm surface water from the equator up north, and sending cold, low-salinity deep water back down south. It moves nearly 20 million cubic meters of water per second, almost a hundred times the Amazon flow,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany, one of the authors.

“For the first time, we have combined a range of previous studies and found they provide a consistent picture of the AMOC evolution over the past 1600 years. The study results suggest that it has been relatively stable until the late 19th century.

“With the end of the Little Ice Age in about 1850, the ocean currents began to decline, with a second, more drastic decline following since the mid-20th century.”

Outcome awaited

The change could have ominous consequences for European weather systems: it could also deliver more intense coastal flooding to the US eastern seaboard. If the current continues to weaken, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Which is why a new study in Nature Communications matters so much. US researchers tracked the flow of fresh water from the Beaufort Sea − melt water from glaciers, rivers and disappearing Arctic sea ice − through the Canadian Archipelago and into the Labrador Sea.

Arctic water is fresher than Atlantic water, and richer in nutrients. But this extra volume, measured at a total of 23,300 cubic kilometres, could also affect the rate of flow of the overturning circulation. That is because relatively fresh water is less dense than saline water, and tends to float on top.

Quite what role it could play is uncertain: the message is that, sooner or later, it will escape into the North Atlantic. Then the world will find out.

“People have already spent a lot of time studying why the Beaufort Sea fresh water has gotten so high in the past few decades,” said Jiaxu Zhang,  of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, first author. “But they rarely care where the freshwater goes, and we think that’s a much more important problem.” − Climate News Network

UN survival plan offers new hope for the planet

A bold UN survival plan could put nature back in charge of the Earth − and researchers explain why that should happen.

LONDON, 26 February, 2021 − UN chiefs want to transform the world by putting nature back at the heart of global decision-making, arguing that the global economic shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change the planet for the better: for a stable climate, for cleaner air and water, and for a richer natural environment, thanks to the UN survival plan.

The goal? A more sustainable and more equitable world by 2030, a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a curb on global pollution and waste and a halt to ever-accelerating rates of wildlife extinction worldwide.

The methods? One of the first, in Making Peace With Nature, the new United Nations Environment Programme report, will be to incorporate what conservationists call “natural capital” into measures of national economic performance.

That is because forests, savannahs, wetlands and other natural habitats represent wealth, and their loss accelerates poverty. If nations and regions can reverse environmental decline then they can at the same time advance the alleviation of poverty, and secure reliable food and water, and good health, for all.

And to reinforce such arguments, new and entirely separate research continues to underline the UN vision of natural capital as real investment in the services on which all humankind depends.

Vital sanitation need

In 48 cities around the globe, nature provides at least 18% of the sanitation services: creatures in the soils filter and clean around 2.2 million cubic metres of human excrement in the form of pit latrines before it can reach the groundwater table.

Since, in 2017, around one fourth of the global population had no access to sanitation facilities, and 14% used toilets that disposed of waste on site, this is not just an important service but a vital one: vital to human health.

The same research team reports in the journal One Earth that − since more than 892 million people worldwide in effect release excrement into holes in the ground − then nature must sanitise more than 41 million tonnes of human waste every year before it gets into the groundwater. So that’s a service worth US$4.4 billion (£3.14bn) a year, British researchers calculate.

Around 70% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination, and the range and abundance of insect pollinators is vulnerable to shifts in climate. Importantly, many crops rely on wild pollinators − that is, commercial honey bee colonies cannot always do the trick of turning flowers into fruit, or grain − so what happens to wild insect populations affects what is available for supper.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it guides us by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”

US researchers report in the journal Ecological Applications that they took the case of wild bees and open field tomato crops: these depend on insects that release pollen by vibration, among them bumble bees.

They matched distribution of 15 species and climate data now against predictions for climate change across North America to find that − in the eastern US alone − within the next three to four decades, 11 species of pollinator could be in decline. The implications for food security are inescapable.

And a third study simply looked at what climate change, human population expansion, pollution and demand for freshwater had done to the planet’s rivers and lakes.

French and Chinese scientists report in the journal Science that they had identified what they call “marked changes” in the biodiversity of more than half the world’s rivers and lakes, thanks to human impact.

Of more than 1,000 fish species, 170 were extinct in their natural river basins, at a very conservative estimate. Out of 2,456 river basins, found everywhere except the deserts and the poles, 1,296 of them, covering more than 40% of the planet’s continental surface, and accounting for 37% of the length of the world’s rivers, revealed “deep and spatially distributed anthropogenic impacts.” That is science-speak for loss and defilement.

Lethal heat prospect

Such research − published on an almost daily basis − provides the context in which the latest UNEP report makes its argument. The report identifies a threefold planetary emergency and calls for advances in science and bold policy-making to make lives better both for the poorest in the world, and for nature itself.

It warns that the planet is heading for a warming of at least 3°C by the century’s end; that more than one million species could be heading for extinction; and that pollution-triggered diseases right now deliver an estimated nine million premature deaths each year.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it also guides us to a safe place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme,” says António Guterres, UN secretary general, in the report’s foreword.

“By transforming how we view nature, we can recognise its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.

“By recognising nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet.” − Climate News Network

A bold UN survival plan could put nature back in charge of the Earth − and researchers explain why that should happen.

LONDON, 26 February, 2021 − UN chiefs want to transform the world by putting nature back at the heart of global decision-making, arguing that the global economic shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change the planet for the better: for a stable climate, for cleaner air and water, and for a richer natural environment, thanks to the UN survival plan.

The goal? A more sustainable and more equitable world by 2030, a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a curb on global pollution and waste and a halt to ever-accelerating rates of wildlife extinction worldwide.

The methods? One of the first, in Making Peace With Nature, the new United Nations Environment Programme report, will be to incorporate what conservationists call “natural capital” into measures of national economic performance.

That is because forests, savannahs, wetlands and other natural habitats represent wealth, and their loss accelerates poverty. If nations and regions can reverse environmental decline then they can at the same time advance the alleviation of poverty, and secure reliable food and water, and good health, for all.

And to reinforce such arguments, new and entirely separate research continues to underline the UN vision of natural capital as real investment in the services on which all humankind depends.

Vital sanitation need

In 48 cities around the globe, nature provides at least 18% of the sanitation services: creatures in the soils filter and clean around 2.2 million cubic metres of human excrement in the form of pit latrines before it can reach the groundwater table.

Since, in 2017, around one fourth of the global population had no access to sanitation facilities, and 14% used toilets that disposed of waste on site, this is not just an important service but a vital one: vital to human health.

The same research team reports in the journal One Earth that − since more than 892 million people worldwide in effect release excrement into holes in the ground − then nature must sanitise more than 41 million tonnes of human waste every year before it gets into the groundwater. So that’s a service worth US$4.4 billion (£3.14bn) a year, British researchers calculate.

Around 70% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination, and the range and abundance of insect pollinators is vulnerable to shifts in climate. Importantly, many crops rely on wild pollinators − that is, commercial honey bee colonies cannot always do the trick of turning flowers into fruit, or grain − so what happens to wild insect populations affects what is available for supper.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it guides us by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”

US researchers report in the journal Ecological Applications that they took the case of wild bees and open field tomato crops: these depend on insects that release pollen by vibration, among them bumble bees.

They matched distribution of 15 species and climate data now against predictions for climate change across North America to find that − in the eastern US alone − within the next three to four decades, 11 species of pollinator could be in decline. The implications for food security are inescapable.

And a third study simply looked at what climate change, human population expansion, pollution and demand for freshwater had done to the planet’s rivers and lakes.

French and Chinese scientists report in the journal Science that they had identified what they call “marked changes” in the biodiversity of more than half the world’s rivers and lakes, thanks to human impact.

Of more than 1,000 fish species, 170 were extinct in their natural river basins, at a very conservative estimate. Out of 2,456 river basins, found everywhere except the deserts and the poles, 1,296 of them, covering more than 40% of the planet’s continental surface, and accounting for 37% of the length of the world’s rivers, revealed “deep and spatially distributed anthropogenic impacts.” That is science-speak for loss and defilement.

Lethal heat prospect

Such research − published on an almost daily basis − provides the context in which the latest UNEP report makes its argument. The report identifies a threefold planetary emergency and calls for advances in science and bold policy-making to make lives better both for the poorest in the world, and for nature itself.

It warns that the planet is heading for a warming of at least 3°C by the century’s end; that more than one million species could be heading for extinction; and that pollution-triggered diseases right now deliver an estimated nine million premature deaths each year.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it also guides us to a safe place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme,” says António Guterres, UN secretary general, in the report’s foreword.

“By transforming how we view nature, we can recognise its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.

“By recognising nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet.” − Climate News Network

Refugees and wildlife face risk from border walls

Not only humans but four-legged migrants are at risk from  border walls. Other species can be climate refugees too.

LONDON, 17 February 2021 − Something there is, wrote the American poet Robert Frost, “that does not love a wall.” Thanks to British researchers we now know that something is the white-lipped peccary, the jaguar and the southern spotted skunk. All of them − and many other species − could be affected by border walls like that separating  the US from Mexico.

The barrier between India and Myanmar, too, creates problems for the sloth bear, the Indian pangolin and the large spotted civet. And a fence along the Sino-Russian borders could be hard on the desert hare, the Tibetan antelope, the goitered gazelle and the Tibetan fox. When things become harsh on one side of the wall, none of them can move to a better home.

Which could be bad news because, as the planet heats up, and regional climate zones begin to shift, around one in three mammals and birds could by 2070 be forced to look for more welcoming habitat in another country.

Around 3,200 kilometres of man-made barrier now extend along national boundaries, precisely to prevent the unauthorised movement of refugees. But those same barriers could create problems for some of the 700 or so mammals that may have to shift home as regional climates change, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The US-Mexican border wall alone could obstruct the migration of 122 species of four-legged animal refugee.

“If we are serious about protecting nature, reducing the impacts of border barriers on species will be really important − although there’s no substitute for tackling the greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the issue”

“Species all across the planet are on the move as they respond to a changing climate. Our findings show how important it is that species can move across national boundaries through connected habitats in order to cope with this change,” said Stephen Willis of Durham University in the UK.

“Borders that are fortified with walls and fences pose a serious threat to any species that can’t get across them. If we are serious about protecting nature, expanding transboundary conservation initiatives and reducing the impacts of border barriers on species will be really important − although there’s no substitute for tackling the greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the issue.”

Professor Willis and his colleagues started from the premise that the effectiveness of conservation action is not separable from what they call “underlying sociopolitical factors.”

There has, for more than a decade, been serious concern that climate change and human population expansion could ultimately lead to a mass extinction of wild creatures.

But mathematical models of the natural niches occupied by birds and mammals worldwide show that the biggest losses of native species will be in those countries with weaker governance and lower Gross Domestic Product.

No justice

And the disappearance of mammals in particular will be in those countries with the lowest levels of the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.

To survive, many of those species will have to migrate − and at that point, walls and fences designed to exclude human migrants will become major obstacles to the conservation of the wild things. The margay and the common opossum, the Mexican wolf and that wild cat the jaguarundi could all be turned back, along with hungry and near-desperate families, at the US-Mexican border.

“The stark inequities between those who contributed most to climate change and those who will be most impacted raise really important questions of international justice,” said Mark Titley, a researcher at Durham who led the study.

“Fortunately, our models also show how strong and urgent emissions reductions, in line with the Paris Agreement, could greatly reduce the impacts on biodiversity and relieve the burden of such losses on less wealthy nations.”

Or, as Robert Frost put it:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out…”

− Climate News Network

Not only humans but four-legged migrants are at risk from  border walls. Other species can be climate refugees too.

LONDON, 17 February 2021 − Something there is, wrote the American poet Robert Frost, “that does not love a wall.” Thanks to British researchers we now know that something is the white-lipped peccary, the jaguar and the southern spotted skunk. All of them − and many other species − could be affected by border walls like that separating  the US from Mexico.

The barrier between India and Myanmar, too, creates problems for the sloth bear, the Indian pangolin and the large spotted civet. And a fence along the Sino-Russian borders could be hard on the desert hare, the Tibetan antelope, the goitered gazelle and the Tibetan fox. When things become harsh on one side of the wall, none of them can move to a better home.

Which could be bad news because, as the planet heats up, and regional climate zones begin to shift, around one in three mammals and birds could by 2070 be forced to look for more welcoming habitat in another country.

Around 3,200 kilometres of man-made barrier now extend along national boundaries, precisely to prevent the unauthorised movement of refugees. But those same barriers could create problems for some of the 700 or so mammals that may have to shift home as regional climates change, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The US-Mexican border wall alone could obstruct the migration of 122 species of four-legged animal refugee.

“If we are serious about protecting nature, reducing the impacts of border barriers on species will be really important − although there’s no substitute for tackling the greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the issue”

“Species all across the planet are on the move as they respond to a changing climate. Our findings show how important it is that species can move across national boundaries through connected habitats in order to cope with this change,” said Stephen Willis of Durham University in the UK.

“Borders that are fortified with walls and fences pose a serious threat to any species that can’t get across them. If we are serious about protecting nature, expanding transboundary conservation initiatives and reducing the impacts of border barriers on species will be really important − although there’s no substitute for tackling the greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the issue.”

Professor Willis and his colleagues started from the premise that the effectiveness of conservation action is not separable from what they call “underlying sociopolitical factors.”

There has, for more than a decade, been serious concern that climate change and human population expansion could ultimately lead to a mass extinction of wild creatures.

But mathematical models of the natural niches occupied by birds and mammals worldwide show that the biggest losses of native species will be in those countries with weaker governance and lower Gross Domestic Product.

No justice

And the disappearance of mammals in particular will be in those countries with the lowest levels of the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.

To survive, many of those species will have to migrate − and at that point, walls and fences designed to exclude human migrants will become major obstacles to the conservation of the wild things. The margay and the common opossum, the Mexican wolf and that wild cat the jaguarundi could all be turned back, along with hungry and near-desperate families, at the US-Mexican border.

“The stark inequities between those who contributed most to climate change and those who will be most impacted raise really important questions of international justice,” said Mark Titley, a researcher at Durham who led the study.

“Fortunately, our models also show how strong and urgent emissions reductions, in line with the Paris Agreement, could greatly reduce the impacts on biodiversity and relieve the burden of such losses on less wealthy nations.”

Or, as Robert Frost put it:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out…”

− Climate News Network

Millions will die if world fails on climate promises

Action to keep climate promises could prevent millions of deaths each year. Unless nations try harder, that won’t happen.

LONDON, 16 February, 2021 − Scientists have looked at conditions in just nine of the world’s 200 nations and found that − if the world keeps its Paris climate promises, of containing global heating to “well below” 2°C by 2100 − millions of lives could be saved.

And another team has looked at what nations actually propose to do so far to hit the Paris targets and found that it is not enough: that everybody will have to be 80% more ambitious.

But, though costly, such ambitions would deliver direct rewards. For a start, the consequences of embarking on policies that would seriously reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel potentially catastrophic climate change could lead to better diets in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US: that alone could save 6.1 million lives.

Thanks to the cleaner air that would come with a drastic reduction in fossil fuel combustion, another 1.6 million people could expect to breathe freely for another year. And the shift from private cars to public transport and foot or bicycle journeys would mean another 2.1 million of us could expect to go on benefiting from the additional exercise for another year, every year.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change says in the journal Lancet Planetary Health that it selected the nine nations because they embraced around half the global population and accounted for seven-tenths of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The message is stark. Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year; the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health”

The Countdown also looked at a range of scenarios for action. And the researchers also considered what, so far, those nine nations had promised to do to contain climate change − the international bureaucratic language calls such promises nationally determined contributions, or NDCs − and found them far short of the effective target: right now, the world is heading for a global temperature rise by 2100 of 3°C or more.

And with these higher global average temperatures there will be more devastating and possibly lethal heat waves, more intense and more frequent storms, protracted drought, torrential rain and flooding, and rising sea levels that will intensify erosion and coastal flooding.

The damage that these threaten alone delivers a long-term economic case for concerted global action to shift agricultural emphasis, save natural ecosystems and switch to renewable fuel sources. But the right choice of action could make lives a great deal better as well.

“The message is stark,” said Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown. “Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year; the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health. We have an opportunity now to place health in the forefront of climate change policies to save even more lives.”

On the same day, a US team published the results of a look at what nations had to do to actually meet the goal chosen at a global conference in Paris in 2015 to contain global heating to no more than 2°C above what had been the long-term average for most of human history.

Avoiding despair

In the last century alone the planet has warmed by more than 1°C, and the last six years have been the warmest six years since records began. The promises made in Paris, if kept, could mean a 1% drop in greenhouse gas emissions every year.

But, scientists say in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, that will not contain global heating to 2°C. To deliver on the promise, the world must reduce emissions by 1.8% a year. That is, the global community will have to try 80% harder.

Some nations are nearer the more ambitious target: China’s declared plans so far would require only a 7% boost. The UK would have to raise its game by 17%. The US − which abandoned the Paris Agreement under former President Trump − has 38% more work to do.

“If you say ‘Everything’s a disaster and we need to radically overhaul society’ there’s a feeling of hopelessness,” said Adrian Raftery of the University of Washington, one of the authors.

“But if we say ‘We need to reduce emissions by 1.8% a year’ that’s a different mindset.” − Climate News Network

Action to keep climate promises could prevent millions of deaths each year. Unless nations try harder, that won’t happen.

LONDON, 16 February, 2021 − Scientists have looked at conditions in just nine of the world’s 200 nations and found that − if the world keeps its Paris climate promises, of containing global heating to “well below” 2°C by 2100 − millions of lives could be saved.

And another team has looked at what nations actually propose to do so far to hit the Paris targets and found that it is not enough: that everybody will have to be 80% more ambitious.

But, though costly, such ambitions would deliver direct rewards. For a start, the consequences of embarking on policies that would seriously reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel potentially catastrophic climate change could lead to better diets in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US: that alone could save 6.1 million lives.

Thanks to the cleaner air that would come with a drastic reduction in fossil fuel combustion, another 1.6 million people could expect to breathe freely for another year. And the shift from private cars to public transport and foot or bicycle journeys would mean another 2.1 million of us could expect to go on benefiting from the additional exercise for another year, every year.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change says in the journal Lancet Planetary Health that it selected the nine nations because they embraced around half the global population and accounted for seven-tenths of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The message is stark. Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year; the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health”

The Countdown also looked at a range of scenarios for action. And the researchers also considered what, so far, those nine nations had promised to do to contain climate change − the international bureaucratic language calls such promises nationally determined contributions, or NDCs − and found them far short of the effective target: right now, the world is heading for a global temperature rise by 2100 of 3°C or more.

And with these higher global average temperatures there will be more devastating and possibly lethal heat waves, more intense and more frequent storms, protracted drought, torrential rain and flooding, and rising sea levels that will intensify erosion and coastal flooding.

The damage that these threaten alone delivers a long-term economic case for concerted global action to shift agricultural emphasis, save natural ecosystems and switch to renewable fuel sources. But the right choice of action could make lives a great deal better as well.

“The message is stark,” said Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown. “Not only does delivering on Paris prevent millions dying prematurely each year; the quality of life for millions more will be improved through better health. We have an opportunity now to place health in the forefront of climate change policies to save even more lives.”

On the same day, a US team published the results of a look at what nations had to do to actually meet the goal chosen at a global conference in Paris in 2015 to contain global heating to no more than 2°C above what had been the long-term average for most of human history.

Avoiding despair

In the last century alone the planet has warmed by more than 1°C, and the last six years have been the warmest six years since records began. The promises made in Paris, if kept, could mean a 1% drop in greenhouse gas emissions every year.

But, scientists say in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, that will not contain global heating to 2°C. To deliver on the promise, the world must reduce emissions by 1.8% a year. That is, the global community will have to try 80% harder.

Some nations are nearer the more ambitious target: China’s declared plans so far would require only a 7% boost. The UK would have to raise its game by 17%. The US − which abandoned the Paris Agreement under former President Trump − has 38% more work to do.

“If you say ‘Everything’s a disaster and we need to radically overhaul society’ there’s a feeling of hopelessness,” said Adrian Raftery of the University of Washington, one of the authors.

“But if we say ‘We need to reduce emissions by 1.8% a year’ that’s a different mindset.” − Climate News Network

Bill Gates: A stark and simple message for the world

His new book affirms what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But Bill Gates says it well, all the same.

LONDON, 15 February, 2021 − Bill Gates − yes, that Bill Gates − has for years been financing studies in geo-engineering: he calls it a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of tool.

But he also says, in a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, that he has put much more money into the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change driven by global heating powered by greenhouse emissions that are a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The founder of Microsoft, now a philanthropist, says all geo-engineering approaches − to dim the sunlight, perhaps, or make clouds brighter − turn out to be relatively cheap compared with the scale of the problems ahead for the world. All the effects are relatively short-lived, so there might be no long-term impacts.

But the third thing they have in common is that the technical challenges to implementing them would be as nothing compared with the political hurdles such ambitions must face.

Not for dummies

There are some very encouraging things about this disarming book, and one of them is that on every page it addresses the messy uncertainties of the real world, rather than an ideal set of solutions.

People who have already thought a lot about the hazards and complexities of global temperature rise might be tempted to dismiss it as Climate Change for Dummies. They’d be wrong.

First, Gates addresses a global audience that includes (for instance) US Republican voters, fewer than one in four of whom understand that climate change is a consequence of what humans have done.

Then Gates write as an engineer. He starts from the basics and arrives swiftly and by the shortest route at a series of firm conclusions: sophisticated, but still outlined with considerable clarity and a happy trick of pinning big answers to down-to-earth analogies.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The second is zero”

Crude oil, he calculates, “is cheaper than a soft drink”. By mid-century “climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly”.

And population growth creates prodigious demands: by 2060, the world’s building stock will double. “That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years.”

I call it a disarming book: yes, he concedes that the world is not lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do; yes, he flew a private plane to the Paris Conference in 2015. He doesn’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion and an “absurdly high” carbon footprint. But he believes it is an informed opinion, and he’s always trying to learn more.

And then he gets on with clarifying the big challenges. Yes, there’s no choice: the world has to get to zero-carbon. It’s going to be difficult to achieve the technologies, the political will, the international consensus. Humans have to accomplish something gigantic, much faster than anything ever done before.

Simple message

He turns to the details: the questions that need to be addressed; the separate problems of electrical energy, of manufacture, of diet and agriculture, of transport, of adaptation; government policy, citizen choice and so on.

He touches on biofuels, nuclear power (“this might sound self-serving, given that I own an advanced nuclear company”), global development, global health, international co-operation and individual choices, all with the same brisk clarity. There already exists a huge literature of climate change: this is a useful addition.

That may be because he keeps the message simple from the start. Right now humans add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to emit none.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he writes in his opening sentences. “The first is 51 billion. The second is zero.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need: Allen Lane, £20. By Bill Gates

His new book affirms what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But Bill Gates says it well, all the same.

LONDON, 15 February, 2021 − Bill Gates − yes, that Bill Gates − has for years been financing studies in geo-engineering: he calls it a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of tool.

But he also says, in a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, that he has put much more money into the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change driven by global heating powered by greenhouse emissions that are a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The founder of Microsoft, now a philanthropist, says all geo-engineering approaches − to dim the sunlight, perhaps, or make clouds brighter − turn out to be relatively cheap compared with the scale of the problems ahead for the world. All the effects are relatively short-lived, so there might be no long-term impacts.

But the third thing they have in common is that the technical challenges to implementing them would be as nothing compared with the political hurdles such ambitions must face.

Not for dummies

There are some very encouraging things about this disarming book, and one of them is that on every page it addresses the messy uncertainties of the real world, rather than an ideal set of solutions.

People who have already thought a lot about the hazards and complexities of global temperature rise might be tempted to dismiss it as Climate Change for Dummies. They’d be wrong.

First, Gates addresses a global audience that includes (for instance) US Republican voters, fewer than one in four of whom understand that climate change is a consequence of what humans have done.

Then Gates write as an engineer. He starts from the basics and arrives swiftly and by the shortest route at a series of firm conclusions: sophisticated, but still outlined with considerable clarity and a happy trick of pinning big answers to down-to-earth analogies.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The second is zero”

Crude oil, he calculates, “is cheaper than a soft drink”. By mid-century “climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly”.

And population growth creates prodigious demands: by 2060, the world’s building stock will double. “That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years.”

I call it a disarming book: yes, he concedes that the world is not lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do; yes, he flew a private plane to the Paris Conference in 2015. He doesn’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion and an “absurdly high” carbon footprint. But he believes it is an informed opinion, and he’s always trying to learn more.

And then he gets on with clarifying the big challenges. Yes, there’s no choice: the world has to get to zero-carbon. It’s going to be difficult to achieve the technologies, the political will, the international consensus. Humans have to accomplish something gigantic, much faster than anything ever done before.

Simple message

He turns to the details: the questions that need to be addressed; the separate problems of electrical energy, of manufacture, of diet and agriculture, of transport, of adaptation; government policy, citizen choice and so on.

He touches on biofuels, nuclear power (“this might sound self-serving, given that I own an advanced nuclear company”), global development, global health, international co-operation and individual choices, all with the same brisk clarity. There already exists a huge literature of climate change: this is a useful addition.

That may be because he keeps the message simple from the start. Right now humans add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to emit none.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he writes in his opening sentences. “The first is 51 billion. The second is zero.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need: Allen Lane, £20. By Bill Gates

Carbon-free future is in reach for the US by 2050

America could have a carbon-free future by 2050 with a big switch to wind and solar power, say US government scientists.

LONDON, 11 February, 2021 − The US − per head of population perhaps the world’s most prodigal emitter of greenhouse gases − can reverse that and have a carbon-free future within three decades, at a cost of no more than $1 per person per day.

That would mean renewable energy to power all 50 states: giant wind power farms, solar power stations, electric cars, heat pumps and a range of other technological solutions.

The argument has been made before: made repeatedly; and contested too. But this time the reasoning comes not from individual scientists in a handful of US universities, but from an American government research base: the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with help from the University of San Francisco.

To make the switch more politically feasible, the authors argue, existing power plant could be allowed to live out its economic life; nobody need be asked to scrap a brand new gasoline-driven car for an electric vehicle.

“All that infrastructure build equates to jobs, and potentially jobs in the US, as opposed to spending money overseas to buy oil from other countries”

Their study − in the journal AGU Advances − looked at a range of ways to get to net zero carbon emissions, at costs as low as 0.2% of gross domestic product (GDP, the economist’s favourite measure of national wealth), or as high as 1.2%, with about 90% of power generated by wind or solar energy.

“The decarbonisation of the US energy system is fundamentally an infrastructure transformation,” said Margaret Torn, of the Berkeley Lab, one of the authors.

“It means that by 2050 we need to build many gigawatts of wind and solar plants, new transmission lines, a fleet of electric cars and light trucks, millions of heat pumps to replace conventional furnaces and water heaters, and more energy-efficient buildings, while continuing to research and innovate new technologies.”

The economic costs would be almost exclusively capital costs necessitated by the new infrastructure. That is both bad and good.

Jobs aplenty

“All that infrastructure build equates to jobs, and potentially jobs in the US, as opposed to spending money overseas to buy oil from other countries.

“There’s no question that there will need to be a well thought-out economic transition strategy for fossil fuel-based industries and communities, but there’s also no question that there are a lot of jobs in building a low carbon economy.”

The study also suggests the US could even become a source of what the scientists call “net negative” emissions by mid-century, taking more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than is added.

This would mean systematic carbon capture, investment in biofuels, and a lot more electric power; which in turn would cost inland and interstate transmission lines. But, the authors argue, this would be affordable to society just on energy grounds alone. − Climate News Network

America could have a carbon-free future by 2050 with a big switch to wind and solar power, say US government scientists.

LONDON, 11 February, 2021 − The US − per head of population perhaps the world’s most prodigal emitter of greenhouse gases − can reverse that and have a carbon-free future within three decades, at a cost of no more than $1 per person per day.

That would mean renewable energy to power all 50 states: giant wind power farms, solar power stations, electric cars, heat pumps and a range of other technological solutions.

The argument has been made before: made repeatedly; and contested too. But this time the reasoning comes not from individual scientists in a handful of US universities, but from an American government research base: the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with help from the University of San Francisco.

To make the switch more politically feasible, the authors argue, existing power plant could be allowed to live out its economic life; nobody need be asked to scrap a brand new gasoline-driven car for an electric vehicle.

“All that infrastructure build equates to jobs, and potentially jobs in the US, as opposed to spending money overseas to buy oil from other countries”

Their study − in the journal AGU Advances − looked at a range of ways to get to net zero carbon emissions, at costs as low as 0.2% of gross domestic product (GDP, the economist’s favourite measure of national wealth), or as high as 1.2%, with about 90% of power generated by wind or solar energy.

“The decarbonisation of the US energy system is fundamentally an infrastructure transformation,” said Margaret Torn, of the Berkeley Lab, one of the authors.

“It means that by 2050 we need to build many gigawatts of wind and solar plants, new transmission lines, a fleet of electric cars and light trucks, millions of heat pumps to replace conventional furnaces and water heaters, and more energy-efficient buildings, while continuing to research and innovate new technologies.”

The economic costs would be almost exclusively capital costs necessitated by the new infrastructure. That is both bad and good.

Jobs aplenty

“All that infrastructure build equates to jobs, and potentially jobs in the US, as opposed to spending money overseas to buy oil from other countries.

“There’s no question that there will need to be a well thought-out economic transition strategy for fossil fuel-based industries and communities, but there’s also no question that there are a lot of jobs in building a low carbon economy.”

The study also suggests the US could even become a source of what the scientists call “net negative” emissions by mid-century, taking more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than is added.

This would mean systematic carbon capture, investment in biofuels, and a lot more electric power; which in turn would cost inland and interstate transmission lines. But, the authors argue, this would be affordable to society just on energy grounds alone. − Climate News Network

Wild flowers and bees contend with climate heat

Many alpine flowers could soon fade out. Some bees may be buzzing off. The wild things are victims of climate heat.

LONDON, 9 February, 2021 − Thanks to climate heat, this could be the last farewell to mossy saxifrage, to alpine wormwood and mignonette-leafed bittercress. With them could go plants most people could hardly name: dwarf cudweed, alpine stonecrop, mossy cyphel, cobweb houseleek and two kinds of hawkweed. All of them are mountain-dwellers, hardy little plants that depend for their existence on alpine glaciers.

And almost everywhere in the world, high-altitude rivers of ice are in retreat. Global heating, climate change and human disturbance alter both the conditions for growth and the rich variety of life.

In the same week that one team of researchers listed the alpine flowers threatened with extinction, another team of scientists assembled an inventory of observations of wild bees, to find that a quarter of the world’s 20,000 bee species have not been recorded in the last 25 years.

Bees and flowers are interdependent: they evolved together and would perish together. But climate change threatens to take a selective toll on a range of alpine plants − beloved of gardeners but also important in liqueurs and medicines − as glaciers retreat in the mountainous regions.

These little flowers are to be found variously in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, the Apennines in Italy, along the spine of the Alps in Switzerland and Austria, and even in the highlands of Scotland.

And one day, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, many or all of them could be locally extinct.

“Something is happening to the bees, and something needs to be done … The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait”

The wildflowers listed in the first two sentences − Saxifraga bryoides, Artemisia genipi, Cardamine resedifolia, Leucanthemopsis alpina, Gnaphalium supinum, Sedum alpestre, Minuartia sedoides, Sempervivum arachnoideum, Hieracium staticifolium and H. glanduliferum − could all go, and another suite of alpine opportunists could take advantage of their living space.

Californian researchers report that they looked at 117 plant species and matched them with geological evidence from four glaciers in the Italian Alps, and then used computational systems to calculate how plant communities have changed over the last five thousand years, and what might happen as the glaciers continue to retreat.

They found that as the glaciers disappear, more than one in five of their sample alpines could also vanish. The loss of that 22% however could be to the benefit of around 29% of the surveyed species, among them the snow gentian, Gentiana nivalis and the dwarf yellow cinquefoil Potentialla aurea. Some alpines would probably not be affected: among them alpine lovage or Ligusticum mutellina and Pedicularis kerneri, a variety of lousewort.

The authors make no mention of one alpine almost everybody in the world could name: Leontopodium nivale or edelweiss. But what happens to even the most insignificant wild plants matters to everybody.

“Plants are the primary producers at the basis of the food web that sustained our lives and economies, and biodiversity is the key to healthy ecosystems − biodiversity also represents an inestimable cultural value that needs to be properly supported,” said Gianalberto Losapio, a biologist at Stanford University in the US.

Growing interest

Meanwhile in Argentina researchers decided to take advantage of citizen science to check on some of the flower world’s biggest fans, the wild bees. There has been huge concern about observed decline in insect abundance, as wild ecosystems are colonised by humans and global average temperatures rise to change the world’s weather systems.

But over the same decades, there has also been a dramatic increase in informed interest in the wild things, among gardeners, bird-watchers and butterfly lovers, and an exponential rise in records available to an international network of databases called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

And, say researchers in the journal One Earth, as global records soar, the number of bee species listed in those records has gone down. Around 25% fewer species were recorded between 2006 and 2015 than were listed in the 1990s.

Wild bees have a role in the pollination of about 85% of the world’s food crops. Without the bees, many wild flowers could not replicate.

“It’s not exactly a bee cataclysm yet, but what we can say is that wild bees are not exactly thriving,” said Eduardo Zattara, a biodiversity researcher at CONICET-Universidad Nacional del Comahue.

“Something is happening to the bees, and something needs to be done. We cannot wait until we have absolute certainty because we rarely get there in the natural sciences. The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait.” − Climate News Network

Many alpine flowers could soon fade out. Some bees may be buzzing off. The wild things are victims of climate heat.

LONDON, 9 February, 2021 − Thanks to climate heat, this could be the last farewell to mossy saxifrage, to alpine wormwood and mignonette-leafed bittercress. With them could go plants most people could hardly name: dwarf cudweed, alpine stonecrop, mossy cyphel, cobweb houseleek and two kinds of hawkweed. All of them are mountain-dwellers, hardy little plants that depend for their existence on alpine glaciers.

And almost everywhere in the world, high-altitude rivers of ice are in retreat. Global heating, climate change and human disturbance alter both the conditions for growth and the rich variety of life.

In the same week that one team of researchers listed the alpine flowers threatened with extinction, another team of scientists assembled an inventory of observations of wild bees, to find that a quarter of the world’s 20,000 bee species have not been recorded in the last 25 years.

Bees and flowers are interdependent: they evolved together and would perish together. But climate change threatens to take a selective toll on a range of alpine plants − beloved of gardeners but also important in liqueurs and medicines − as glaciers retreat in the mountainous regions.

These little flowers are to be found variously in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, the Apennines in Italy, along the spine of the Alps in Switzerland and Austria, and even in the highlands of Scotland.

And one day, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, many or all of them could be locally extinct.

“Something is happening to the bees, and something needs to be done … The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait”

The wildflowers listed in the first two sentences − Saxifraga bryoides, Artemisia genipi, Cardamine resedifolia, Leucanthemopsis alpina, Gnaphalium supinum, Sedum alpestre, Minuartia sedoides, Sempervivum arachnoideum, Hieracium staticifolium and H. glanduliferum − could all go, and another suite of alpine opportunists could take advantage of their living space.

Californian researchers report that they looked at 117 plant species and matched them with geological evidence from four glaciers in the Italian Alps, and then used computational systems to calculate how plant communities have changed over the last five thousand years, and what might happen as the glaciers continue to retreat.

They found that as the glaciers disappear, more than one in five of their sample alpines could also vanish. The loss of that 22% however could be to the benefit of around 29% of the surveyed species, among them the snow gentian, Gentiana nivalis and the dwarf yellow cinquefoil Potentialla aurea. Some alpines would probably not be affected: among them alpine lovage or Ligusticum mutellina and Pedicularis kerneri, a variety of lousewort.

The authors make no mention of one alpine almost everybody in the world could name: Leontopodium nivale or edelweiss. But what happens to even the most insignificant wild plants matters to everybody.

“Plants are the primary producers at the basis of the food web that sustained our lives and economies, and biodiversity is the key to healthy ecosystems − biodiversity also represents an inestimable cultural value that needs to be properly supported,” said Gianalberto Losapio, a biologist at Stanford University in the US.

Growing interest

Meanwhile in Argentina researchers decided to take advantage of citizen science to check on some of the flower world’s biggest fans, the wild bees. There has been huge concern about observed decline in insect abundance, as wild ecosystems are colonised by humans and global average temperatures rise to change the world’s weather systems.

But over the same decades, there has also been a dramatic increase in informed interest in the wild things, among gardeners, bird-watchers and butterfly lovers, and an exponential rise in records available to an international network of databases called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

And, say researchers in the journal One Earth, as global records soar, the number of bee species listed in those records has gone down. Around 25% fewer species were recorded between 2006 and 2015 than were listed in the 1990s.

Wild bees have a role in the pollination of about 85% of the world’s food crops. Without the bees, many wild flowers could not replicate.

“It’s not exactly a bee cataclysm yet, but what we can say is that wild bees are not exactly thriving,” said Eduardo Zattara, a biodiversity researcher at CONICET-Universidad Nacional del Comahue.

“Something is happening to the bees, and something needs to be done. We cannot wait until we have absolute certainty because we rarely get there in the natural sciences. The next step is prodding policymakers into action while we still have time. The bees cannot wait.” − Climate News Network

Science suggests possible climate link to Covid-19

Researchers think there could be a climate link to Covid-19. In which case, worse could yet happen.

LONDON, 5 February, 2021 − British and US scientists think there may be a connection between global heating driven by profligate fossil fuel use, and the emergence of the bat-borne virus that has triggered a global pandemic and has so far claimed more than two million lives worldwide − in short, a possible climate link to Covid-19.

The connection is possibly quite simple. Rising average temperatures encouraged a change in the natural vegetation of the forests of Yunnan, the southern Chinese province, close to the forests of Laos and Myanmar.

What had been tropical shrubland shifted to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland: the province became a suitable habitat for many bat species. It is also home to the scaly anteater known as the pangolin, and the masked palm civet: both of these have been also proposed as intermediate carriers of the virus. 

And, researchers say, in the last century an additional 40 bat species moved into Yunnan: these may have delivered 100 more types of bat coronavirus to the pool of potential infection.

Magnet for bats

And this “global hotspot” − far from the city where the first human cases were first confirmed − is where all the genetic data suggest that the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen, says a study in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” said Robert Beyer of the University of Cambridge, now at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who led the research.

“Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

That animals carry viruses which can infect other species is well established: the HIV-Aids pandemic, the Ebola outbreaks in Africa and many other infections have all been linked to animal-to-human transmission.

For decades, scientists have been recording new “zoonotic” or animal-borne diseases in humans at the rate of two a year. An estimated 80% of all the viruses linked to human disease are of animal origin, including rabies.

“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions”

The link between human disturbance of wilderness and disease outbreak has been made before, and more than once. A study by Cambridge scientists last year identified 161 steps humankind could take to reduce the ever-growing risks of zoonotic infection that could lead to even more devastating pandemics.

The case for bat transmission of SARS-CoV-2 driven by climate change remains circumstantial. It identifies a suspect and a set of possibly incriminating connections, but does not deliver the evidence for a secure conviction.

Using global records of temperature, rainfall and cloud cover, the scientists behind the latest study mapped global vegetation as it must have been a century ago. Then they used what they knew of the ecology of the world’s bat species to estimate the global distribution of each species 100 years ago. And then they matched this with records of species distribution in the last decade.

“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others − taking their viruses with them. This not only altered the regions where viruses are present, but most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” Dr Beyer said.

There are more than 1,400 species of bat worldwide: these carry around 3,000 kinds of coronavirus, in ways that are mostly harmless to the host.

Risk increases

If the number of bat species increases, in a region also occupied by humans, then the risk of the infection of a new host, via bat urine, faeces, saliva or other transmission, also increases.

Bat viruses have been linked to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Cov-1 and CoV-2.

The region of Yunnan identified as now richer in bat species is also home to the pangolin, and one theory is that the virus jumped from bat to pangolin, or bat to masked palm civet, and then to humans when a pangolin was sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan, in Hubei province, more than 1200 kilometres away, where the first cases of Covid-19 were detected..

The implication of such a research finding is that, if human disturbance of the natural world increases the chance of such animal-to-human infection, then it will happen again. And it could happen with even greater potential loss of life.

That is why the discovery of this possible climate link to Covid-19 will now attract the minutest attention not only of scientists but of policymakers across the world.

“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions,” said Camilo Mora, of the University of Hawaii, another of the research team. − Climate News Network

Researchers think there could be a climate link to Covid-19. In which case, worse could yet happen.

LONDON, 5 February, 2021 − British and US scientists think there may be a connection between global heating driven by profligate fossil fuel use, and the emergence of the bat-borne virus that has triggered a global pandemic and has so far claimed more than two million lives worldwide − in short, a possible climate link to Covid-19.

The connection is possibly quite simple. Rising average temperatures encouraged a change in the natural vegetation of the forests of Yunnan, the southern Chinese province, close to the forests of Laos and Myanmar.

What had been tropical shrubland shifted to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland: the province became a suitable habitat for many bat species. It is also home to the scaly anteater known as the pangolin, and the masked palm civet: both of these have been also proposed as intermediate carriers of the virus. 

And, researchers say, in the last century an additional 40 bat species moved into Yunnan: these may have delivered 100 more types of bat coronavirus to the pool of potential infection.

Magnet for bats

And this “global hotspot” − far from the city where the first human cases were first confirmed − is where all the genetic data suggest that the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen, says a study in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” said Robert Beyer of the University of Cambridge, now at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who led the research.

“Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

That animals carry viruses which can infect other species is well established: the HIV-Aids pandemic, the Ebola outbreaks in Africa and many other infections have all been linked to animal-to-human transmission.

For decades, scientists have been recording new “zoonotic” or animal-borne diseases in humans at the rate of two a year. An estimated 80% of all the viruses linked to human disease are of animal origin, including rabies.

“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions”

The link between human disturbance of wilderness and disease outbreak has been made before, and more than once. A study by Cambridge scientists last year identified 161 steps humankind could take to reduce the ever-growing risks of zoonotic infection that could lead to even more devastating pandemics.

The case for bat transmission of SARS-CoV-2 driven by climate change remains circumstantial. It identifies a suspect and a set of possibly incriminating connections, but does not deliver the evidence for a secure conviction.

Using global records of temperature, rainfall and cloud cover, the scientists behind the latest study mapped global vegetation as it must have been a century ago. Then they used what they knew of the ecology of the world’s bat species to estimate the global distribution of each species 100 years ago. And then they matched this with records of species distribution in the last decade.

“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others − taking their viruses with them. This not only altered the regions where viruses are present, but most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” Dr Beyer said.

There are more than 1,400 species of bat worldwide: these carry around 3,000 kinds of coronavirus, in ways that are mostly harmless to the host.

Risk increases

If the number of bat species increases, in a region also occupied by humans, then the risk of the infection of a new host, via bat urine, faeces, saliva or other transmission, also increases.

Bat viruses have been linked to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Cov-1 and CoV-2.

The region of Yunnan identified as now richer in bat species is also home to the pangolin, and one theory is that the virus jumped from bat to pangolin, or bat to masked palm civet, and then to humans when a pangolin was sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan, in Hubei province, more than 1200 kilometres away, where the first cases of Covid-19 were detected..

The implication of such a research finding is that, if human disturbance of the natural world increases the chance of such animal-to-human infection, then it will happen again. And it could happen with even greater potential loss of life.

That is why the discovery of this possible climate link to Covid-19 will now attract the minutest attention not only of scientists but of policymakers across the world.

“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions,” said Camilo Mora, of the University of Hawaii, another of the research team. − Climate News Network