May 11, 2013, by Alex Kirby
This is a summary of the stories we published in the week ending Saturday 4 May.
28 April – Both China and the US, the world’s two principal emitters of greenhouse gases, have been making significant recent progress on tackling climate change, a report by an influential Australian advisory group says. Its report, The Critical Decade: Global Action Building on Climate Change, has particular praise for China, saying its efforts “demonstrate accelerating global leadership”. The other “energy giant”, the US, is also commended for showing “a new commitment to lead”. The report says the US “appears to be gaining momentum with President Barack Obama outlining his strong intent to address climate change…” The report is the work of the Australian Climate Commission, an independent body set up in 2011 to provide authoritative and trustworthy information on climate change science and solutions… But in a section headed “This is the critical decade for action”, it says the significant progress made so far is not enough. “Globally emissions are continuing to rise strongly, posing serious risks for our society. This decade must set the foundations to reduce emissions rapidly to nearly zero by 2050.”
29 April – US researchers have just established that even something as simple as energy efficiency can be bedeviled by political bias. They report that political conservatives are less likely to endorse investment in energy efficiency than political liberals. They are even less likely to buy an expensive, more energy-efficient – and therefore in the long run better-value – light bulb if it carries a label with an environmental message. “These results highlight the importance of taking into account psychological value-based considerations in the individual adoption of energy-efficient technology in the United States and beyond”, they write, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences… [But] in December 2012 a team from the University of California, Berkeley reported in the journal Psychological Science that studies showed that while people who identified as conservatives tended to be less concerned about the environment, their attitudes changed when they read material that stressed the need to protect the purity of the environment, or were shown repellent pictures of smog-filled cities, or forests filled with garbage.
30 April – “…Australian companies appear to be struggling to move forward in responding to climate change impacts, apparently paralysed by short-term profit-first thinking, uncertain political risks and a corporate culture unused to volatility and disruption”, says the report. The study, funded by the Australian Government’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, says that though more than 100 companies were grilled at length on climate change, it’s clear very few give much weight to the issue, either in terms of corporate planning or in assessing future risks to their businesses. “The private sector’s failings in assessing and managing existing climate risks are becoming increasingly evident”, says the report. For example, in the transport sector, very little is known about the potential impacts of climate change – further research is urgently required to explore and manage the potential for what the report describes as the considerable cascading effects of changes in climate, especially on the tourism sector.
1 May – Trees may provide the Earth with a little shade from global warming – indirectly. European and Canadian researchers report that they have found what engineers like to call a negative feedback loop above the forests of Europe and North America. It works like this. Trees… are a permanent source of volatile organic compounds released into the atmosphere. On a hot day, trees release even more conspicuous quantities of terpenes, isoprenes and other compounds into the air. These are wafted higher in the atmosphere and begin to mix, oxidise, or chemically react with other atmospheric gases, aerosols and car and factory exhausts to form increasingly larger particles on which water vapour might condense… The warmer the weather, the greater the likelihood that gas emissions from plants would create conditions for the formation of clouds, which in turn would reflect more sunlight back into space, and thus help damp down global warming. That is the good news. The not-so-good news is that these plant gas emissions won’t make a great deal of difference – on a global scale they might counter about 1% of global warming.
2 May – Last year was among the ten warmest years since records began more than 160 years ago, the World Meteorological Organisation says. The WMO says 2012 was the ninth warmest year recorded since 1850, and the 27th consecutive year in which the global land and ocean temperatures were above the 1961-1990 average. The WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said the continuing warming was cause for worry, and that it was on track to continue. The assessment comes in the WMO’s Statement on the status of the global climate in 2012, the latest in an annual series providing information about temperatures, precipitation, extreme events, tropical cyclones, and sea ice extent… The years 2001-2012 were all among the top 13 warmest years on record. The warming in 2012 happened despite the cooling influence of La Niña, a periodic upswelling of cold water off the west coast of South America which with its twin El Niño can affect weather patterns thousands of miles away. One of the effects of a La Niña episode can be to keep global average temperatures down.
3 May – Sandy, the superstorm that all but submerged New York, was powerful enough to set US earthquake detectors quivering long before it hit the American coastline. It stirred up Atlantic Ocean waves that slammed into each other, started to shake the sea floor and then shook the Midwestern states so vigorously that the storm’s progress could be tracked by seismometer. The windstorm-induced tremors were very tiny, and not unusual – and say as much about the sensitivity of modern seismometers as about the furious forces released in a superstorm. But the episode – revealed at a recent meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Salt Lake City, Utah – is a reminder that the energies released by the dangerous mix of swirling winds and warm oceans are dramatic and, with global warming, could become even more frequent and more devastating… Sandy was classified a very unusual event, a once-in-a-century storm, but researchers have warned that, as global temperatures rise, such storms could develop as often as every other year.
4 May – Milder winters mean bad news for the snowshoe hare of western North America. Lepus americanus is famous for two things: an evolutionary camouflage adaptation that keeps it white in the winter snow and turns it a reddish brown in spring and summer; and its intimate population polka with one of the continent’s most glamorous predators, the Canada lynx. When hares are numerous, the lynx population increases. As the numbers of hares diminish, so its predators go hungry and the lynx population starts to drop, giving the snowshoe hares another chance. But the hare may be losing the battle, thanks to climate change. Biologists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they monitored 148 wild hares in western Montana and observed that the adaptation that gave the hares an advantage in stable climates is likely to work to their disadvantage as temperatures rise, snow cover shrinks and the winters get shorter…The researchers found that the spring and autumn moults seemed to occur independently of the arrival of the snows: they conjecture that they may be triggered by changes in daylight length.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.