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The Coronavirus outbreak is part of the climate change crisis

The Coronavirus outbreak is part of the climate change crisis

Therefore, climate action should be central to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The speed and scope of the coronavirus outbreak have taken world governments by surprise and left the stock market reeling. Since the virus first appeared in China’s Hubei province, it has infected over 700,000 people and killed more than 33,000 across the world in less than six months.

The interconnectedness of our globalised world facilitated the spread of COVID-19. The disruption this continues to cause has made evident societal dependence on global production systems.

The pandemic has forced governments into a difficult balancing act between ensuring public safety and wellbeing and maintaining profit margins and growth targets. Ultimately, the prospect of a large death toll and the collapse of health systems have forced countries to put millions of people on lockdown.

These sweeping and unprecedented measures taken by the government and international institutions could not but make some of us wonder about another global emergency that needs urgent action – climate change.

The two emergencies are in fact quite similar. Both have their roots in the world’s current economic model – that of the pursuit of infinite growth at the expense of the environment on which our survival depends – and both are deadly and disruptive.

In fact, one may argue that the pandemic is part of climate change and therefore, our response to it should not be limited to containing the spread of the virus. What we thought was “normal” before the pandemic was already a crisis and so returning to it cannot be an option.

The common roots of COVID-19 and climate change

Despite the persistent climate denialism in some policy circles, by now it is clear to the majority across the world that climate change is happening as a result of human activity – namely industrial production.

In order to continue producing – and being able to declare that their economy is growing – humans are harvesting the natural resources of the planet – water, fossil fuels, timber, land, ore, etc – and plugging them into an industrial cycle which puts out various consumables (cars, clothes, furniture, phones, processed food etc) and a lot of waste.

This process depletes the natural ability of the environment to balance itself and disrupts ecological cycles (for example deforestation leads to lower CO2 absorption by forests), while at the same time, it adds a large amount of waste (for example CO2 from burned fossil fuels). This, in turn, is leading to changes in the climate of our planet.

This same process is also responsible for COVID-19 and other outbreaks. The need for more natural resources has forced humans to encroach on various natural habitats and expose themselves to yet unknown pathogens.

At the same time, the growth of mass production of food has created large-scale farms, where massive numbers of livestock and poultry packed into megabarns. As socialist biologist Rob Wallace argues in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu, this has created the perfect environment for the mutation and emergence of new diseases such as hepatitis E, Nipah virus, Q fever, and others.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three out of four new infectious diseases come from human-animal contact. The outbreaks of Ebola and other coronaviruses such as MERS, for instance, were triggered by a jump from animal to human in disturbed natural habitats.

In the case of COVID-19, it is suspected that the virus was transmitted to humans at a “wet market” in the city of Wuhan, where wildlife was being sold.

The mass-scale breeding of wild animals, including pangolins, civet cats, foxes, wild geese, and boar among many others is a $74bn industry in China and has been viewed as a get-rich-quick scheme by its rural population.

The origin of the virus makes it a perfect example of how the way capitalism commodifies life to turn it into profit can directly endanger human life. In this sense, the ongoing pandemic is the product of unrestrained capitalist production and consumption patterns and is very much part of the deleterious environmental changes it is causing.

The failure to contain it is also due to the capitalist drive of the global economy. In the United States, some have claimed that profit losses from the freezing of economic activity are not worth closing the country for business for more than 15 days.

The World Bank Group has also recently stated that structural adjustment reforms will need to be implemented to recover from COVID-19, including requirements for loans being tied to doing away with “excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection…to foster markets, choice, and faster growth prospects.”

Doubling down on neoliberal policies which encourage the unrestrained abuse of resources would be a catastrophic prospect in a post-COVID-19 world. The suspension of environmental laws and regulations in the US is already a frightening sign of what returning to “normal” means for the establishment.

Climate change is happening

Although both COVID-19 and climate change are rooted in the same abusive economic behaviour and both have proven to be deadly for humans, governments have seen them as separate and unconnected phenomena and have therefore responded rather differently to them.

The vast majority of countries around the world – albeit with varying degrees of delay – have taken strict measures to curb the movement and gathering of people in order to contain the virus, even at the expense of economic growth.

The same has not happened with climate change. Current climate change measures have taken little heed of the scale and progression of the environmental changes we are experiencing. Climate change does not follow four-year election cycles or five-year economic plans. It does not wait for 2030 or 2050 Sustainable Development targets.

Various aspects of climate change progress at different speeds and in different locations and although for some of us these changes might not be obvious or palpable, they are happening. There are also certain thresholds which if crossed will cause change to be irreversible – whether in greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, the loss of insect populations or the melting of the permafrost.

And while we do not get daily updates on the death toll caused by climate change, as we do with COVID-19, it is much deadlier than the virus.

Global warming of 3C and 4C above pre-industrial levels could easily lead to a series of catastrophic outcomes. It could severely affect our ability to produce food by decreasing the fertility of soils, intensifying droughts, causing coastal inundations, increasing the loss of pollinators, etc. It could also cause severe heatwaves across the world, which have already proven increasingly deadly both in terms of high temperatures and the wildfires they cause, as well as more extreme weather phenomena like hurricanes.

Pursuing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, carbon offsetting schemes, incremental eco-efficiencies, vegan diets for the wealthy and other similar tactics will not stop climate change because they do not discourage mass industrial production and consumption but simply shift their emphasis. Such approaches will never work because they do not entail the necessary radical change of our high-powered lives that is required to force us to slow down and reduce our emissions.

The rapid response to COVID-19 around the world illustrates the remarkable capacity of society to put the emergency brake on “business-as-usual” simply by acting in the moment. It shows that we can take radical action if we want to.

Lockdowns across the world have already resulted in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants. In China, for instance, the lockdown caused carbon dioxide to drop by at least 25 percent and nitrogen dioxide by 37 percent.

Taking action

Yet, this temporary decrease in greenhouse gases should not be a cause for celebration. The fact is that as a result of the lockdowns, millions of people have already lost their jobs and billions will probably struggle amid the economic downturn the outbreak is causing.

While some have called for climate change to be just as drastic as the one undertaken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it should not be. We need a just climate transition which ensures the protection of the poor and most vulnerable and which is integrated into our pandemic response. This would not only reverse the climate disaster we are already living in but also minimise the risk of new pandemics like the current one breaking out.

The just climate transition should involve economic reforms to introduce “planned degrowth” that puts the wellbeing of people over profit margins. The first step towards that is ensuring the stimulus packages that governments are announcing across the world are not wasted on bailing out corporations.

We must avoid at all costs a situation where unscrupulous big businesses and state actors are allowed free reign to reinforce appalling global inequality while the rest of civil society is quarantined at home.

We should demand that government funds are instead allocated to decentralised renewable energy production in order to start implementing the Green New Deal and create new meaningful jobs amid the post-COVID-19 economic crisis. In parallel, we should ensure the provision of universal healthcare and free education, the extension of social protection for all vulnerable populations and the prioritisation of affordable housing.

The current response to COVID-19 could help usher in some of these changes. It could get us accustomed to lifestyles and work patterns that minimise consumption. It could encourage us to commute and travel less, reduce household waste, have shorter work weeks, and rely more on local supply chains – i.e. actions that do not hurt the livelihoods of the working classes but shift economic activity from a globalised to a more localised pattern.

Obviously, the conditions surrounding COVID-19 are not ideal, but the rapid and urgent actions in response to the virus and the inspiring examples of mutual aid also illustrate that society is more than capable of acting collectively in the face of grave danger to the whole of humanity.

Original source: https://www.aljazeera.com

See which cities will feel the brunt of climate change

See which cities will feel the brunt of climate change

The whole planet will feel climate change’s impacts over coming decades. But some cities will see more dramatic changes in temperatureor precipitation than others.

More and more of us live in urban areas. Today, some 55 percent of the world lives in cities, and a quarter of all humans live in the 2,500 most populous cities. That percentage is expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades. By 2050, as the global population swells and urbanizes, about 70 percent of people will live in metropolises.

Noah's Ark

Earth’s climate, meantime, will continue to change in response to ever-rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Further warming will induce dramatic changes in nearly every corner of the planet. Some of those effects are already playing out.

Many of the impacts of future warming will be felt by the growing population of city dwellers. Cities concentrate people, infrastructure, activity, and many other resources into tight spaces, which means they’re particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Hotter temperatures put extra stress on human bodies, asphalt-covered roads, and more; more intense droughts can tax water systems; more intense rainfall can flood cities’ drains.

National Geographic partnered with University of Maryland climate scientist Matt Fitzpatrick to look at how temperature and precipitation patterns in many of the major urban areas of the world could change by 2070 if significant efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions are not made quickly—the “RCP 8.5” scenario.

The conclusions are clear: Just about everywhere in the world will experience shifts in seasons, hotter highs, and more extreme wet and dry periods. Some urban areas will feel more intense changes than others. But the alarming predictions are not set in stone. Today’s decisions can still influence tomorrow’s experience.

Warmer warms

Cities are affected more than rural areas by increasing air temperatures because they’re already hotter. Concrete, steel, wood, and other infrastructure materials trap more heat than a natural landscape does: the so-called urban heat island effect.

Unchecked climate change will drive temperatures up dramatically in every one of the 2,500 locations studied. During summer, the highest high temperatures are projected to increase by an average of 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2070. In some places, the heat will be even more extreme. Summer temperatures in Urmia, Iran, for instance, will experience a 15-degree uptick, with average hot temperatures hovering at 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

Currently, only 9 percent of the cities studied have summer maximum temperatures that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but that number will more than double by 2070. Among those future cities experiencing intense heat will be Grand Junction, Colorado, where today’s summer maximum temperatures of 90 degrees are projected to hit 100 degrees in 2070.

Cold seasons get less cold

The hot parts of the world are getting hotter, but some of the more dramatic changes are already happening—and will continue to unfold—in the places that are supposed to be cold. In general, the cold seasons in these places are warming up more quickly than warmer places’ warm seasons. The Arctic, for example, is heating up roughly twice as fast as the world on average, and its winters are taking the brunt of that warming.

Cities in the Far North will continue to feel their winters warm, if no major climate-curbing actions are taken soon. Among the 2,500 cities studied, the average minimum temperatures during winter are expected to increase 7.3 degrees Fahrenheit between now and 2070.

That’s enough to push some places over a dangerous tipping point from freezing into not freezing; snow to rain; ice to liquid; permafrost to sloppy, carbon-releasing mud.

The effects could be devastating. Snow that falls in the mountains of the western United States, for example, acts as a “water tower,” melting slowly through the spring and summer, providing water to areas downstream. If that snow falls as rain, the threat of later-season drought increases. Many agricultural crops, like almonds, wine grapes, and peaches, require a chill to produce fruit. Freezing temperatures also kill off pests, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and beetles, so warming winters could amplify the spread of vector-borne diseases and facilitate the earlier emergence of adult mosquitoes.

Cities outside the Far North will also see their cold seasons change. Today, 36 percent of the cities analyzed experience minimum winter temperatures below freezing. By 2070, 62 percent of the cities analyzed will no longer have below freezing winters.

What’s happening to the rain?

Another likely outcome of climate change is that the subtropics—regions just north or south of the tropics, such as northern Mexico or the Argentinean Pampas—will get drier. In general, higher latitudes are predicted to see more total precipitation, particularly rainfall, as the Earth warms. Exactly how those changes will play out seasonally is harder to pin down, though.

All in all, we should expect “more intense but less frequent precipitation,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, with longer dry stretches between rainfall events.

Some cities that will experience drying will be better equipped to handle it than others, Fitzpatrick says. Places that already get abundant rainfall will be less strapped by a 20 percent decrease than somewhere that’s already really dry.

“A 20 percent decrease in an area that already has marginal rainfall,” he says, “very easily could transition it to a place with significant water issues.”

For every one degree Celsius the air heats up, the atmosphere holds 7 percent more water vapor. That means that by the end of the century the atmosphere will be able to hold 27 percent more water vapor than it does today. Adding that much more precipitation into the world’s water cycle will create more intense rainfall, particularly escalating the risk of flooding.

Much of the change is likely to occur during the cooler months of the year: 812 cities will have almost no precipitation, but many others will have extreme precipitation. And while many of the most extreme cities will get drier,11 cities across Nigeria, Rwanda, and Cameroon will also experience significantly more precipitation in 2070.

Original source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com

Coronavirus Holds Key Lessons on How to Fight Climate Change

Coronavirus Holds Key Lessons on How to Fight Climate Change

When the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, societies may adopt some important measures that would lower emissions, from more teleconferencing to shortening global supply chains. But the most lasting lesson may be what the coronavirus teaches us about the urgency of taking swift action.

A frightening new threat cascades around the world, upending familiar routines, disrupting the global economy, and endangering lives. Scientists long warned this might happen, but political leaders mostly ignored them, so now must scramble to respond to a crisis they could have prevented, or at least eased, had they acted sooner.

The coronavirus pandemic and the slower-moving dangers of climate change parallel one another in important ways, and experts say the aggressive, if belated, response to the outbreak could hold lessons for those urging climate action. And while the dip in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the sharp drop in travel and other economic activity is likely to rebound once the pandemic passes, some carbon footprint-shrinking changes that the spread of COVID-19 is prompting could prove more lasting.

Both the pandemic and the climate crisis are problems of exponential growth against a limited capacity to cope, said Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of Climate Interactive, a think tank. In the case of the virus, the danger is the number of infected people overwhelming health care systems; with climate change, it is that emissions growth will overwhelm our ability to manage consequences such as droughts, floods, wildfires, and other extreme events, she said.

With entire nations all but shutting down in hopes of slowing the viral spread, “the public is coming to understand that in that kind of situation you have to act in a way that looks disproportionate to what the current reality is, because you have to react to where that exponential growth will take you,” she said. “You look out the window and it doesn’t look like a pandemic, it looks like a nice spring day. But you have to close down all the restaurants, the schools.”

The virus has shown that if you wait until you can see the impact,
it is too late to stop it.

While the disease is playing out more quickly than the effects of global warming, the principle is the same, she said: If you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.

“COVID-19 is climate on warp speed,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University and co-author of Climate Shock. “Everything with climate is decades; here it’s days. Climate is centuries; here it’s weeks.”

Governments’ responses have morphed almost as fast as the threat. French President Emmanuel Macron ordered all non-essential businesses to close barely a week after spending an evening at the theater with his wife. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made similarly abrupt shifts, and President Trump pivoted from downplaying the virus’s dangers to backing measures that had seemed unimaginable shortly before.

“We are watching our political leaders learn these lessons live on TV, within days,“ Wagner said. “That’s a learning curve we have never seen with anything, at least not in my lifetime.”

Now, he said, politicians who have grasped the terrifying power of compounding growth must apply that new understanding to the climate.

And as with the coronavirus, said Wagner, climate policies must push everyone to take heed of the costs their actions — whether disease exposure or carbon emissions — impose on others. “It’s all about somebody else stepping in and forcing us to internalize the externality, which means don’t rely on parents to take their kids out of school, close the school,” he said. “Don’t rely on companies or workers to stay home or tell their people to stay home, force them to do so or pay them to do so, but make sure it happens. And of course that’s the role of government.”

Stimulus measures aimed at easing COVID-19’s economic shock could aim to drive emissions reductions too, by funding low-carbon infrastructure or offering online training for green-economy jobs to newly unemployed workers stuck at home, Sawin said. Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, last week similarly urged governments and international financial institutions to incorporate climate action into their stimulus efforts by funding investment in clean power, battery storage, and carbon capture technology.

In Sawin’s view, the pandemic’s multi-layered impact supports an argument U.S. Green New Deal backers have been making: Tackling our biggest problems in tandem may be more effective than taking them on one at a time. Just as those without sick leave may spread the virus because they must work while infected, unaffordable child care and an employer-based health insurance system can rob people of the flexibility to relocate for jobs in growing industries like clean power, she said. “People are starting to understand that to have a whole society shift behavior really quickly, you need to support everyone,” Sawin said. “A social safety net reduces the friction of change.”

Another parallel between the two crises is that we could have headed them off, said Michele Wucker, author of The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. The book’s title is the metaphor Wucker uses for a high-probability, high-impact event, a counterpoint to the popular idea of a black swan, the term writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined for a very unlikely but highly damaging event that is by its nature hard to foresee.

Voters reward politicians for fixing problems,
but rarely for preventing them.

Both viral spread and climate change are gray rhinos, Wucker said — “the 2-ton thing that’s coming at you, and most of the time we downplay it or neglect it. We kind of miss the obvious.”

The Trump administration, which has aggressively rolled back measures meant to reduce carbon emissions, also axed the National Security Council’s global health security office and sought to cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, like many other countries, the United States did little to ramp up coronavirus preparations even as the disease ravaged China.

Wucker said there were political, structural, and psychological reasons for such inaction. “Heading off a risk is risky in and of itself,” she said. “People are afraid of doing the wrong thing,” more than they are of doing nothing. Voters reward politicians for fixing problems, but rarely for preventing them, giving leaders incentive to kick knotty issues down the road.

And powerful interests are vested in maintaining the status quo, she pointed out. That dynamic has been central to the global failure to act on climate, with the fossil fuel industry funding a decades-long effort to cast doubt on climate science, and lobbying to thwart changes that would threaten its profits.

In the case of COVID-19, while some have sought to deny the seriousness of the coronavirus, people and governments have mostly been far quicker to appreciate its danger. That may in part be because we are instinctually more frightened of disease than of climate threats that many people struggle to envision, Sawin said.

More importantly, though, “one of the richest industries in human history [fossil fuels] isn’t trying to prevent people from understanding” the coronavirus, she said.

The global response to COVID-19 — a near halt in international aviation, factories closing in China and elsewhere, a panicked scramble to enable remote work — will almost certainly bring a downward blip in carbon emissions.

But such changes are likely to be temporary, with emissions from driving, for example, expected to bounce back as soon as people return to workplaces. If many grow fearful of public transportation, commuting’s carbon footprint might even rise further, experts say.

But some new behaviors could outlast the pandemic, including carbon-cutting shifts climate activists have sought for years. The changes most likely to stick in such a crisis are those that were already underway before it hit, said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The question is what trends were out there that could now happen faster,” she said. At the top of the list, Jaffe believes, is a fall in business travel, as big companies realize video meetings can often accomplish as much as in-person ones.

Similarly, she said, the pandemic may hasten a flattening, or even reversal, in the growth of international trade, which began to slow in 2019 because of tensions over tariffs. “Now, of course, it’s really crashing,” Jaffe said. If virus-induced shutdowns or border closings create shortages of drugs, medical equipment, or other essential items, many nations and companies may be anxious to reduce their vulnerability to highly globalized supply networks. “If we shrink supply chains, if countries are going to produce more of their own goods, I think that is structurally going to reduce oil demand” and shrink shipping’s carbon footprint, she said.

A shift toward remote working may also be here to stay,
with some companies abandoning offices altogether.

A shift toward remote working may also be here to stay, said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. And it doesn’t just mean workers logging on from home in the same city as their company. It offers the freedom to work from anywhere — in a small town with a lower cost of living, for example, or wherever a spouse’s job is, he said. Some companies and organizations have gone completely virtual, abandoning offices altogether.

“There’s a lot of latent demand” among workers for such arrangements, and companies may welcome the change as they realize they can save money by maintaining smaller offices, or none at all, Choudhury said.

Those workplace changes may bring real emission reductions, but Sawin said the pandemic’s most important climate impact could come from people applying the lessons the coronavirus teaches about the urgency of swift action.

When the outbreak finally ends, “if we can tell that story of what we just went through and help people understand that this is an accelerated version of another story we’re going through that has the same plot structure but a different timeline, that could be transformative,” she said.

No one could celebrate a disease spreading so much fear and suffering, Sawin emphasized, but with the losses inflicted by the coronavirus sure to mount, “maybe there’s a kind of honoring of that, to at least take what we learn and put it to good use.”

Original source: https://e360.yale.edu

There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet

There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet

Factories were shuttered and streets were cleared across China’s Hubei province as authorities ordered residents to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

It seems the lockdown had an unintended benefit — blue skies.
The average number of “good quality air days” increased 21.5% in February, compared to the same period last year, according to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

And Hubei wasn’t alone.

Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions — those released by vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities — in major Chinese cities between January and February. The visible cloud of toxic gas hanging over industrial powerhouses almost disappeared.

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“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” says Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize the spread of the virus.”

 A similar pattern has emerged with carbon dioxide (CO2) — released by burning fossil fuels such as coal.

From February 3 to March 1, CO2 emissions were down by at least 25% because of the measures to contain the coronavirus, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an air pollution research organization.

As the world’s biggest polluter, China contributes 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions annually, so the impact of this kind of drop is huge, even over a short period. CREA estimates it is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide — more than half the entire annual emissions output of the UK.

“As a measure that took place effectively overnight, this is more dramatic than anything else that I’ve seen in terms of the impact on emissions,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.

But while lockdown measures designed to stem the spread of the virus have caused a momentary uptick in China’s pollution levels, experts warn that when the county starts to reboot its economy the toxic chemicals could up to higher levels than before the epidemic hit.

Coal consumption falls

A fall in oil and steel production, and a 70% reduction in domestic flights, contributed to the fall in emissions, according to the CREA. But the biggest driver was the sharp decline in China’s coal usage.
China is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal, using this resource for 59% of its energy in 2018. As well as running power plants and other heavy industries, coal is also the sole heat source for millions of homes in the vast rural areas of the country.

The country’s major coal-fired power stations saw a 36% drop in consumption from February 3 to March 1 compared to the same period last year, according to CREA
analysis of WIND data service statistics.

“Revenge pollution”

The concern, Li said, is that once the coronavirus threat has passed, China will be solely focused on restarting its economy, which was already hurting in the wake of the US-China trade war. That could come at the expense of the environment.

“There might be a round of economic stimulus which would inject cheap credits to heavy industries in China, and as a result of that we might see increasing pollutants and also carbon emissions in the second half of this year,” Li added.

This bounce-back effect — which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions — is something Li calls “revenge pollution.” And in China it has precedent.

In 2009, the Chinese government launched a giant $586 billion stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis — the majority of which went to large-scale infrastructure projects.

But the resulting explosion in pollution in the following years — particularly in the “airpocalypse” winter of 2012-2013 — led to a public outcry which ushered in the Chinese government’s first national air pollution action plan in September 2013.

President Xi has made clear that workers and factories need to ramp up activity as soon as possible if the country is to avoid a steeper economic downturn.

Myllyvirta hopes China has learned lessons from the past.

“It was really those previous episodes where it boiled over,” says Myllyvirta, who also warns of a public backlash if the skies turn gray again.

“The reduction in air pollution has been very clear so if the pollution does come back, because of stimulus measures, because of heavy industry going into overdrive to make up for lost time, there could be a counter reaction.”

This brief period of cleaner air should send a message for people to push for longer-term changes. “If we want the children, the elderly, who could live healthily, then we should think how to make business as usual change.

Original source: https://edition.cnn.com

Why don’t we panic about climate change like we do coronavirus?

Why don’t we panic about climate change like we do coronavirus?

Short-term politics and human nature shape a bias to address
only what’s right in front of us

Because “outbreak” and “pandemic” and any of a dozen high-stakes words accompany dispatches about the deadly novel coronavirus, it’s not surprising, nor ill-advised, that the news media and financial markets respond with alarm to COVID-19. Still, the critical response leaves scientists, environmental advocates and long-view money managers imploring: Where’s the impetus for moving on policy change and market-driven fixes (solutions to store carbon, for instance) to limit a future environmental health crisis — one on par with or even greater than a coronavirus?

For one thing, the public may feel compelled to only respond to what’s in front of them.

“Americans are seeing coverage of the virus across multiple media platforms in a consistent manner, which is bringing awareness and driving public concern,” write Monica Medina and Miro Korenha of Our Daily Planet. “On the other hand, you’ve probably seen very little coverage that [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] predicts this year’s flooding in the Midwest could rival last year’s catastrophic floods that claimed lives and also helped spread disease to livestock and people.”

According to a recent study by the organization Media Matters, news shows on the major networks aired only 238 minutes of climate crisis coverage in 2019, which was actually up from 2018 significantly, but as a whole still made up only 0.7% of overall nightly broadcasts and the Sunday morning news shows.

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It is true that climate change and its response appear in specialized media and occasionally crack the lineup of mainstream coverage. Investing giant BlackRock’s admission in recent months that climate change and sustainability would drive investment decision-making dominated financial outlets and cable television programming. Just this week, via the Associated Press, any interested reader could have learned that the “EU unveils a new climate law — Greta Thunberg calls it ‘surrender’”

“The nature of a risk matters greatly in how we react to it. Coronavirus can be considered a present threat over which there is a great deal of uncertainty about its scale and impact, [yet] there is a significant possibility that its long-term impact is negligible,” writes Joe Wiggins, a researcher in portfolio and fund management, who’s behind the Behavioural Investment blog.

The stock market SPX, -11.98% , for now, has priced in more than “negligible risk.”

But Wiggins stresses: “Contrastingly, climate change is predominantly a future threat, but there is a high level of confidence that its long-term impact without intervention will be catastrophic for humanity.”

According to the American Lung Association, about four in 10 Americans live in counties that have monitored unhealthy ozone and/or particle pollution. And respiratory ailments, including asthma, are only part of the rising risks that led at least one major medical journal to declare climate change the health issue of the century.

Politics is mostly a short game, which is at odds with a climate-change response.

“If [politicians] make the electorates’ life more difficult it reduces their chances of being re-elected; even if the imposition of discomfort now is designed to deliver incalculable benefit in the future,” he said. “As heretical as it may sound, there are valid questions to be raised about whether a democratic system with regular elections is suited to dealing with an issue that requires short-term sacrifice for long-term benefits.”

Surveys show that Americans do care, even if politicians need more convincing to respond. According to the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication, a record 69% of voting-age Americans say they are worried about climate change. Almost one third say they are “very worried,” the highest percentage ever recorded.

Professor Michael Livermore, an expert in cost-benefit analysis with the University of Virginia School of Law, said that media and politicians essentially respond to, and adjust their alarm to what the public demands. They more often follow than lead.

“We’re talking horse-race politics. Left. Right. The base. People do get passionate about climate change but it takes more effort and doesn’t immediately strike people,” he said. “And the extremes are apparent. The public either doesn’t care at all or declares it end times. The human mind finds it hard to find the middle.”

There is a clear link between a public health epidemic and climate change. Economic downturns, such as that linked to a coronavirus, tend to slow environmental impacts, including reducing emissions from industry and transportation. Therein lies a challenge, say environmental advocates: behavioral change and infrastructure investment, not worrisome headlines, are needed for lower emissions to become structural.

“As with the rare instances when worldwide carbon pollution dipped in the past, driven by earlier economic shocks, diseases, and wars, emissions are likely to rise again as soon as the economy bounces back,” said James Temple, the senior editor for energy, writing in the MIT Technology Review. “In the meantime, if the virus leads to a full-blown global pandemic and economic crash, it could easily drain money and political will from climate efforts.”

He listed other factors: restrictive capital markets could turn off the financing necessary for solar, wind and battery expansion at companies; China, initially hit by coronavirus, is a major hub for production of solar, wind and battery technologies; and cheaper oil could make electric vehicles a harder sell.

That said, a sustained drop in oil prices CL00, 4.181% could make longer-term investments in clean energy more attractive for major energy players, a Eurasia Group analyst told Axios.

Coronavirus and climate change are linked in other ways.

Officials may have to postpone or cancel the upcoming COP26 — the next United Nations gathering of top climate officials due to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November — as other major conferences around the world have been nixed due to contagion fears.

Perhaps one global crisis can inform the other.

Coronavirus is producing an enforced experiment in behavioral change, as increasing numbers work from home and reduce travel, environmentally friendly practices by most measure. Coronavirus response could also be a catalyst for structural investment as businesses review their resilience, say analysts.

“One possibility is that cultural change already under way, on the evidence of consumer trends such as flight shaming [finger-pointing at celebrities and others for swelling their carbon footprint via frequent travel] will be reinforced,” said Julie Hudson, a senior equity research analyst, focused on ESG and sustainability, for UBS, in a research note.

Original source: https://www.marketwatch.com

Tropical forests losing their ability to absorb carbon, study finds

Tropical forests losing their ability to absorb carbon, study finds

Amazon could turn into source of COin atmosphere
by next decade, research suggests

Tropical forests are taking up less carbon dioxide from the air, reducing their ability to act as “carbon sinks” and bringing closer the prospect of accelerating climate breakdown.

The Amazon could turn into a source of carbon in the atmosphere, instead of one of the biggest absorbers of the gas, as soon as the next decade, owing to the damage caused by loggers and farming interests and the impacts of the climate crisis, new research has found.

If that happens, climate breakdown is likely to become much more severe in its impacts, and the world will have to cut down much faster on carbon-producing activities to counteract the loss of the carbon sinks.

“We’ve found that one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun,” said Simon Lewis, professor in the school of geography at Leeds University, one of the senior authors of the research. “This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models.”

For the last three decades, the amount of carbon absorbed by the world’s intact tropical forests has fallen, according to the study from nearly 100 scientific institutions. They are now taking up a third less carbon than they did in the 1990s, owing to the impacts of higher temperatures, droughts and deforestation. That downward trend is likely to continue, as forests come under increasing threat from climate change and exploitation. The typical tropical forest may become a carbon source by the 2060s, according to Lewis.

“Humans have been lucky so far, as tropical forests are mopping up lots of our pollution, but they can’t keep doing that indefinitely,”. “We need to curb fossil fuel emissions before the global carbon cycle starts working against us. The time for action is now.”

At this year’s UN climate talks, known as Cop26 and to be held in Glasgow in November, many countries are expected to come forward with plans to reach net zero emissions by mid-century. But some rich countries and many companies plan to reduce their emissions via offsetting, often by preserving, replanting or growing new forest.

This research shows that relying on tropical forests is unlikely to be enough to offset large-scale emissions. “There is a lot of talk about offsetting, but the reality is that every country and every sector needs to reach zero emissions, with any small amount of residual emissions needing to be removed from the atmosphere,” said Lewis. “The use of forests as an offset is largely a marketing tool for companies to try to continue with business as usual.”

The uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by tropical forests peaked in the 1990s when about 46bn tonnes were removed from the air, equivalent to about 17% of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities. By the last decade, that amount had sunk to about 25bn tonnes, or just 6% of global emissions.

The difference is about the same as a decade of fossil fuel emissions from the UK, Germany, France and Canada put together.

Climate scientists have long feared the existence of “tipping points” in the climate system, which when passed will condemn the world to runaway global heating. There are many known feedback mechanisms: for instance, the melting of Arctic ice leaves more of the sea uncovered, and, as it is darker than the reflective ice, it absorbs more heat, thus leading to more melting.

These feedback mechanisms have the potential to accelerate the climate crisis far ahead of what current projections suggest. If forests start to become sources of carbon rather than absorbers of it, that would be a powerful positive feedback leading to much greater warming that would be hard to stop.

Forests lose their ability to absorb carbon as trees die and dry out from drought and higher temperatures, but the loss of forest area from logging, burning and other forms of exploitation is also a leading factor in the loss of carbon sinks.

Tom Crowther, founder of the Crowther Lab, who was not involved with the research: “This analysis provides concerning evidence that, along with continuing deforestation rates, the carbon sequestration rate of tropical forests could also be threatened by increasing tree mortality under climate change. This is very important information, as the capacity of tropical forests to capture anthropogenic carbon emissions could be severely impaired.”

The study, published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, tracked 300,000 trees over 30 years, providing the first large-scale evidence of the decline in carbon uptake by the world’s tropical forests. The researchers combined data from two large research networks of forest observations in Africa and the Amazon, as well as years spent travelling to remote field sites, including a week spent in a dug-out canoe to reach Salonga national park in the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They used aluminium nails to tag individual trees, measuring the diameter and estimating the height of every tree within 565 patches of forest, and returning every few years to repeat the process. This enabled them to calculate the carbon stored in the trees that survived and those that died. They found that the Amazon sink started weakening first, but that African forests are now rapidly following. Amazonian forests are exposed to higher temperatures, faster temperature increases, and more frequent and severe droughts, than African forests.

Their projection that the Amazonian forest will turn into a carbon source in the mid-2030s is based on their observations and a statistical model and trends in emissions, temperature and rainfall to forecast changes in how forests will store carbon up to 2040.

Doug Parr, the chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said governments should heed the science and make strong commitments to cut greenhouse gases at the Cop26 summit, and agree to measures to protect and restore forests. “For years, we have had scientific warnings about tipping points in the Earth system and they’ve been largely ignored by policy and decision-makers,” he said. “That forests are now seemingly losing the ability to absorb pollution is alarming. What more of a wake-up call do we need?”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com