Blog Archive

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Harvests will shrink as the planet heats up and crops will be less nutritious

Shrinking harvests likely as heat increases

A warmer world could mean shrinking harvests and a more meagre diet for millions of people, according to two new studies.
by Tim Radford, Climate News Network, June 19, 2018

– A hotter world could also be a hungrier one, with shrinking harvests and poorer quality plants. As planetary temperatures rise in response to ever more profligate combustion of fossil fuels, climate change could lower the yield of  vegetable and legume crops – and at the same time reduce their nutritional content.
And the same high end-of-the-century temperatures could raise the risk of massive, near-global losses for the world’s most widely grown cereal, maize.
This double blow comes close upon the evidence – from field trials over many years – that another global staple, rice, is likely to become less rich in protein and vitamins as temperatures increase.
British researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they studied 174 research papers based on 1,540 experiments in 40 countries between 1975 and 2016, on the probable effect of changes in water supplies, ozone, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and ambient temperatures, on vegetables and legumes.
They found that on the basis of changes predicted for later this century, average yields of vegetables could fall by 35%, and legumes by 9%. There has been evidence that more atmospheric carbon dioxide could fertilize more plant growth, but other accompanying changes – greater extremes of heat, drought, flood and so on – could cancel out any such gains.
“As the planet warms, it becomes more likely for different countries to simultaneously experience major crop losses”
Pauline Scheelbeck, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the study, called the finding “a real threat to global agricultural production, with likely impacts on food security and population health.”
Scientists have been warning for at least five years of the potential impact of climate change on agriculture and food supply: other studies have shown that fruit and vegetable supplies could be at risk.
US researchers report – once again, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – that they took a fresh look at the response of markets to what they call “volatility” in the global crop of just one cereal: maize, or corn.
Heavy dependence
This is grown widely: it is a staple for humans and fodder for livestock; it provides oil for cooking and has even been turned into fuel for motor cars. It is traded worldwide, but four countries – the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Ukraine – account for more than 85% of all exports. The chance that all four exporters would have bad harvests in the same year right now is almost zero.
But under a warming of 2 °C – a level which 195 nations agreed in Paris in 2015 to keep well below – this risk would rise to 7%. If global temperatures rise by 4 °C, which is what will happen if humans go on burning ever more fossil fuels, the chance that all four maize exporters would have harvest failures at the same time rises to 86%. And, if that happened, corn prices would rise dramatically.
“When people think about climate change and food, they initially think about drought, but it’s really extreme heat that’s very detrimental for crops,” said Michelle Tigchelaar of the University of Washington, who led the research.
“We find that as the planet warms, it becomes more likely for different countries to simultaneously experience major crop losses, which has big implications for food prices and food security.”

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Europe's Largest Asset Manager Sees 'Tipping Point' on Climate Risk Pricing

The world’s deepest-pocketed investors are starting to take climate change seriously, according to Amundi SA.

by Anna Hirtenstein, Bloomberg, May 30, 2018

“We are really observing a tipping point among the institutional investors on climate change,” said Frederic Samama, co-head of institutional clients at the Paris-based firm. “Until recently, that question was not on their radar screen. It’s changing, and it’s changing super fast.”
Risks from global warming range from damage to physical assets from extreme weather to falling prices on fossil fuel-related assets, as the world moves away from burning coal and oil. Bank of England governor Mark Carney has repeatedly warned that these risks are not priced in adequately and that investors may have exposure to a “climate Minsky moment” if they don’t take action.
Amundi’s remarks hold weight because it has 1.4 trillion euros ($1.6 trillion) under management, making it the largest asset manager in Europe. It runs the world’s largest green bond fund with the International Finance Corp. and is planning to deploy $2 billion into emerging markets. Mainstream investors are beginning to recognize both the threats and opportunities coming from climate-related issues, Samama said.
“If we have this major shift required in terms of how we manage the planet, for sure it will impact the asset prices,” he said. “Can we evaluate the automakers without taking into account the new bans of diesel cars? Can we evaluate the fossil fuel industry without taking into account the risks of regulation related to the drop of the price of renewable energy?”
The Paris climate deal reached by representatives from nearly 200 countries in 2015 sent a signal to the global economy that decarbonization was on the agenda. As just about every industry comes under pressure to become greener, the rules will change for the asset owners as well. France was the first country to make it mandatory for investors to disclose the carbon footprint of their portfolios, mandating it in a law the same year.
Another reason that institutional investors’ views are evolving is the availability of green financial instruments, according to Amundi. The asset manager developed low-carbon equity indexes, removing the polluting companies from commonly-used ones such as the S&P 500 and MSCI indexes. Investors from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System to Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund are shifting their portfolios to these indexes, according to Samama.
“It means that if nothing happens, you have the market returns and that if the opposite, if polluting companies are getting penalized, they will bring the index down and if you have excluded them, you will outperform,” he said.
Green bonds are another avenue for redirecting institutional capital into environmental projects. The industry has soared from non-existence just over a decade ago to global issuance of $163 billion last year.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ben Santer, Charles Manski & Ray Weymann: Scientific American: Speaking Science to Power

A statement released by 317 [now at least 634] National Academy of Sciences members challenges the widespread dismissal of science and scientific understanding by the Trump administration

Speaking Science to Power

Credit: Jeff Greenberg Getty Images

by Ben Santer, Charles Manski, and Ray Weymann, Scientific American, April 23, 2018

Today, on April 23, 2018, a statement was released by 317 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. It calls for “the Federal Government to maintain scientific content on publicly accessible websites, to appoint qualified personnel to positions requiring scientific expertise, to cease censorship and intimidation of Government scientists, and to reverse the decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord.
We are the three writers and organizers of this statement. Although our expertise is in very different areas—economics, astrophysics and climate science—we share a common concern. It relates to the dismissal of science and scientific understanding by the current administration. This piece explains why we decided to write the statement, what we hope to accomplish with its release, and how interested readers can help to achieve the goals quoted above.  
Today’s statement had its genesis in an open letter by members of the National Academy of Sciences published in September 2016. The open letter warned of the potentially serious negative consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, an action called for by then-candidate Donald J. Trump.

In the aftermath of the last U.S. presidential election, many of the negative consequences mentioned in the September 2016 open letter are now unfolding. The Trump administration has initiated the process of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and continues to cast doubt on the reality and seriousness of human-caused climate change. Negative consequences are now affecting many areas of science—not just climate science. The administration has shown a systematic disregard for using sound scientific information in public policy making. Science inconsistent with the administration’s ideological goals is ignored, suppressed, portrayed as too uncertain, and dismissed as politically and financially motivated.
This systematic disregard for science prompted our efforts to develop today’s new statement. We strongly believe that there is no future in ignorance. The United States does not benefit if it kicks the problem of human-caused climate change down the road, if it ignores sensible energy policies or if it regards access to clean air and clean water as a privilege of the few.
The ability to perform research and advance scientific understanding is not an inalienable right, given to us in perpetuity by virtue of the accident of our birthplace. Powerful forces in the current administration seek to constrain our understanding of the world, and how and why it is changing. Such forces of unreason are emboldened if they encounter inaction and silence; they thrive if scientific myths, misconceptions and disinformation are repeated without being challenged.
The statement we and our NAS colleagues issued today is an attempt to move beyond inaction and silence. Its message is clear: “Ignore science at your peril.” Perhaps the administration will pay no heed to this message; perhaps the message will be lost in the daily background noise of political events. Even if the administration is not listening, there is still value in warning publicly about the consequences of living in a country that pursues an anti-science agenda. We believe that millions of U.S. citizens are listening to this warning, and share our concern about the kind of country we are passing on to future generations.
Scientists have special responsibilities to inform the public on key societal issues that are relevant to their specific expertise. We are doing that today. But scientists are only a small part of the overall effort to rebut ignorance. Each of us has the ability to change our society for the better.

There are many creative ways of catalyzing change. We can seek reliable information on complex scientific issues, drawing on sources like the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Climate AssessmentScientific American and government agencies. We can share that information with our colleagues, friends, family and neighbors, through conversation, letters to newspapers, and social media. We can encourage quality science education in our public schools, and ensure that science is taught accurately. We can support organizations advocating for the importance of science in society. We can become involved in the political process, and elect representatives who understand the value of science.

We live in a complex world. We face many existential problems: climate change, pandemics, terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and diminishing food and water security. How we deal with these issues will shape the well-being of many future generations. The statement issued today is a reminder that ignorance is a poor strategy for solving complex challenges. We all lose if science is excluded from government. We hope you help us to share this message widely.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Ben Santer, Charles Manski and Ray Weymann

Ben Santer is an atmospheric scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Charles Manski is Board of Trustees Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His most recent book is Public Policy in an Uncertain World (Harvard, 2013). Ray Weymann is director emeritus of the Carnegie Observatories and has done research in cosmology and on the intergalactic gas. Since retirement he has concentrated on public education regarding climate change.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Algae, Impurities Darken Greenland Ice Sheet And Increases Melting

by Keith Cowing, SpaceRef, April 4, 2018

Impure Ice at Jakobshavn Isbrae on western Greenland. ©MODIS/NASA
The Dark Zone of Greenland ice sheet is a large continuous region on the western flank of the ice sheet; it is some 400 kilometers wide stretching about 100 kilometres up from the margin of the ice.
Some previous theories have attributed this darkening to water on top of the ice sheet - often seen as strikingly sapphire blue ponds, rivers and lakes. But a new study in Nature Communications provides a new hypothesis based on the character of the impurities on the ice surface itself.
"What we show is that the Dark Zone is covered in a finely distributed layer of dust, and black carbon, which provide nutrition for dark coloured algae. These are the main cause of the darkening," says professor Alun Hubbard, the co-author of the study and professor at CAGE (the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway).
A dirt belt in the melt zone
The Dark Zone is literally a dirty belt of the melting area - the ablation zone - of the ice sheet. The darker this ablation zone is, the more of the sun's energy it absorbs, and the faster the ice melts.
Albedo is a measure of the reflectance of the ice sheet. It is the major factor governing how much incoming solar radiation is used to melt the ice and is the main positive feedback in Arctic climate change. Bright white surfaces, like snow or pure ice, reflect the sun's energy, but dark surfaces absorb it.
"The fact that a large portion of the western flank of the Greenland ice sheet has become dark means that the melt is up to five times as much as if it was a brilliant snow surface. " says Hubbard.
Algae - a major player
The ice algae seem to be one of the major players in this scheme - even the slight increase of the atmospheric temperature and liquid water production seems to promote algae colonization across the ice surface.
"The algae need nutrients and food, essentially dust, organic carbon, and water. In summer, these are plentiful and the algal bloom takes off. Because algae are dark in colour - they reinforce the dark zone. Thereby you get a positive feedback effect where the ice sheet absorbs even more solar radiation producing yet more melt."
Innovative drone study
The Dark Zone of the Greenland ice sheet is vast and previously observed by satellites such as MODIS. But for this study the scientists employed relatively modest drones - or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) - to survey the darkened ice belt in unprecedented detail.
While satellite data are great for the big picture of what's happening across the entire Greenland ice sheet, they only work at really coarse pixel resolutions.
"If we compare it to camera pixels, even the best satellites for the ice sheet imaging have resolution of tens of metres. They can't see the detail of what's happening on the ground. Our fixed-wing UAVs can take hundreds of images with pixel resolutions on the centimeter scale with an operating range of hundreds of kilometres," says Hubbard.
Scientists could see in real detail what the dark zone is made up of. In effect, this UAV survey across the ablation zone of the ice sheet perfectly bridges the gap between people on the ground studying what's under their feet in just one part of the ice sheet, and the satellite data that shows what's going on across the entire ice sheet.
"The UAV survey, with its amazing detail, allows us to identify and characterize all the different surface types and impurities across the entire dark zone, not just a small local little part of it."
The AUV images used in this study were collected by Johnny Ryan (Aberystwyth University, Brown University, University of California), Jason Box (GEUS) and Alun Hubbard (Aberystwyth University/CAGE) in the summer of 2014.
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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Ted Glick: Helping in Puerto Rico

by Ted Glick, February 11, 2018

From January 28 to February 7, my wife and I were in Vieques, Puerto Rico, helping as best we could with recovery from Hurricane Maria, which hit on September 20th, almost five months ago.  Help is very much still needed. I don’t think I realized how much that is true until I got home to New Jersey and experienced all of the things I didn’t experience during those 10 days:
  • the lights and everything electrical turning on or being on all day and night whenever I need it;
  • a hot, not cold, water shower;
  • not worrying about hitting something or falling when I had to get up and go to the bathroom or move around at night;
  • not hearing (or smelling) loud gas generators behind the house where I was staying and several other places in the neighborhood as day turned into night;
  • not having to do extra-special filtering of the tap water because of concerns about its quality;
  • reliably accessing my cell phone apps, telephone and the internet whenever I want to.

These were the main differences.
I was staying at Casa de Kathy in Esperanza, the second largest town in Vieques. The only street in Esperanza that fully had electrical power when we were there was the Malecon, the downtown street next to the water where bars, restaurants, and hotels are, and they didn’t get that power until the fifth day we were there. What electrical power there was elsewhere in town came from gas-powered generators bought by residents who could afford them.
There was concern about the tap water. Neither the EPA nor anyone else had done tests to determine how safe it is to drink.
There were still piles of debris and branches that had been blown down by the storm, as well as collections of stoves and refrigerators disabled by it.
Despite all of these serious problems, the sense I had was that people in general were pulling together, some more than others, to climb out of the hole the hurricane put them in. They were doing so even though there was a lot of criticism of FEMA for its slowness and for it denying aid to a number of people whose homes had been damaged.
I was glad to learn that the use of solar energy, in different forms, is growing, from small solar lights, which are popular, to solar panels on roofs to provide an alternative to an unreliable electric grid.
One of the big takeaways for me was the reinforcement of something I have known intellectually for years, that extreme weather events, like the climate changing which makes them worse and more frequent, hurts low-income people the most. Middle- and upper-class people who have access to financial and other resources had found ways to lessen their suffering or discomfort, like through personal generators. But those without those resources were in a different situation. I heard of at least one family that was sleeping in a tent in their living room because there had been serious damage to their roof that they had not yet been able to afford getting fixed.
The pro-statehood Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, announced just before we got there that he wanted to privatize that electrical system, currently publicly owned, which would certainly lead to higher electrical rates for many struggling Puerto Rican consumers as the corporate buyer looks to make its profits.
Then there is the relatively large Puerto Rican debt (though hugely smaller than the US debt) of $73 billion. There have been calls for that debt to be forgiven, for obvious reasons. Lin-Manual Miranda, for example, creator and star of the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” called for that in a December opinion piece in the Washington Post. He wrote:
“Puerto Rico’s creditors should do the right thing and walk away. It is the only way forward. Anything short of full debt forgiveness would be a brutal form of economic punishment to a people already suffering.”
But to add insult to injury, the Republican tax bill passed at the end of 2017, unless challenged and changed, will make things even worse.
A December 20 Washington Post story reported that the Puerto Rican Governor “is calling on lawmakers to rewrite a key part of the tax bill that he says might cause the island’s hefty manufacturing sector to contract, jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of jobs. [It] includes a new 12.5% tax on profits derived from intellectual property held by foreign companies — a move designed to compel those companies to move back to the United States. The new tax ‘is a big hit, and Puerto Rico both fiscally and economically is downtrodden, and this is the last thing they need,’ said Federico de Jesus, a former Puerto Rico government official who has been tracking congressional relief efforts for the island.”
US citizens have a special responsibility to help Puerto Rico, which has been a colony of the United States since 1898. It is our humanitarian and moral responsibility, and it is our duty as citizens of the nation which has the power to help Puerto Rico either move forward or backwards after Maria. We must do what we can as far as practical hurricane recovery support but also support groups calling for a cancellation of the debt, changes to the Republican tax bill, and reform of the electric power system, not its privatization.

Ted Glick is a former activist with the Puerto Rico Solidarity Committee in the 1970s. He was a supporter of the historic civil disobedience campaign in Vieques in the early 2000s, which led to the removal of the US Navy. He has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at, and he can be followed on Twitter at

January 2018 posts

2018 (16)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bill Nye Does Not Speak for Us and He Does Not Speak for Science

by 500 Women Scientists, Scientific American, January 30, 2018

Tonight, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” will accompany Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s nominee for NASA Administrator, to the State of the Union address. Nye has said that he’s accompanying the Congressman to help promote space exploration, since, he asserts, “NASA is the best brand the United States has” and that his attendance “should not be … seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks on science and the scientific community.
But by attending the SOTU as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest, Nye has tacitly endorsed those very policies, and put his own personal brand over the interests of the scientific community at large. Rep. Bridenstine is a controversial nominee who refuses to state that climate change is driven by human activity, and even introduced legislation to remove Earth sciences from NASA’s scientific mission. Further, he’s worked to undermine civil rights, including pushing for crackdowns on immigrants,ban on gay marriage, and abolishing the Department of Education.
As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.

Scientists are people, and in today’s society, it is impossible to separate science at major agencies like NASA from other pressing issues like racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Addressing these issues should be a priority, not only to strengthen our own scientific community, but to better serve the public that often funds our work. Rather than wield his public persona to bring attention to the need for science-informed policy, Bill Nye has chosen to excuse Rep. Bridenstine’s anti-science record and his stance on civil rights, and to implicitly support a stance that would diminish the agency’s work studying our own planet and its changing climate. Exploring other worlds and studying other planets, while dismissing the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and its damage to our own planet isn’t just dangerous, it’s foolish and self-defeating. 
Further, from his position of privilege and public popularity, Bill Nye is acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but without our approval. No amount of funding for space exploration can undo the damage the Trump administration is causing to public health and welfare by censoring science. No number of shiny new satellites can undo the racist policies that make our Dreamer colleagues live in fear and prevent immigrants from pursuing scientific careers in the United States. And no new mission to the Moon can make our LGBTQ colleagues feel welcome at an agency run by someone who votes against their civil rights.
As women and scientists, we refuse to separate science from everyday life. We refuse to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. As someone with a show alleging to save the world, Bill Nye has a responsibility to acknowledge the importance of NASA’s vast mission, not just one aspect of it. He should use his celebrity to elevate the importance of science in NASA’s mission—not waste the opportunity to lobby for space exploration at a cost to everything else.
The true shame is that Bill Nye remains the popular face of science because he keeps himself in the public eye. To be sure, increasing the visibility of scientists in the popular media is important to strengthening public support for science, but Nye’s TV persona has perpetuated the harmful stereotype that scientists are nerdy, combative white men in lab coats—a stereotype that does not comport with our lived experience as women in STEM. And he continues to wield his power recklessly, even after his recent endeavors in debate and politics have backfired spectacularly.
In 2014, he attempted to debate creationist Ken Ham—against the judgment of evolution experts—which only served to allow Ham to raise the funds needed to build an evangelical theme park that spreads misinformation about human evolution. Similarly, Nye repeatedly agreed to televised debates with non-scientist climate deniers, contributing to the false perception that researchers still disagree about basic climate science. And when Bill Nye went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to "debate" climate change in 2017, his appearance was used to spread misinformation to Fox viewers and fund raise for anti-climate initiatives.
Bill Nye does not speak for us or for the members of the scientific community who have to protect not only the integrity of their research, but also their basic right to do science. We stand with others who have asked Bill Nye to not attend the State of the Union. Nye’s complicity does not align him with the researchers who have a bold and progressive vision for the future of science and its role in society.
At a time when our ability to do science and our ability to live freely are both under threat, our public champions and our institutions must do better.
[The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.]

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Ben Santer: Our Coastlines Are Eroding, Along with Our Democratic Norms and Institutions

Civility and decency are crumbling on a daily basis, undercut and weakened by language emanating from the White House

Our Coastlines Are Eroding, Along with Our Democratic Norms and Institutions
Cliff erosion in Pacifica, California. Credit: Brocken Inaglory Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

by Ben Santer, Scientific American, January 2018

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine—let’s call him Peter—bought a house in a coastal town north of San Francisco. The house is on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The location is spectacular. Ospreys commute past it, carrying fish for breakfast. The steady background noise of waves on the beach is interrupted by the strange cries of seals. The view of the Pacific changes with the season and with the vagaries of light and weather. The view is never the same. It is always beautiful.
That physical beauty is why Peter and his wife bought the house. They made a bet. The bet was that they’d be able to enjoy the house for the rest of their lives. As a climate scientist, Peter understood that the gradual erosion of the cliff’s edge would be exacerbated by human-caused increases in sea level. The risk was visibly evident. A neighboring house closer to the cliff’s edge was already partly suspended over the void, awaiting the inevitable transition from the horizontal to the vertical.
Having seen the view from the house on the cliff, watched the ospreys, and listened to the seals, Peter and his wife took a risk that seems acceptable. We all need things of beauty in our lives.
Erosion does not gnaw away at their cliff at exactly the same rate each month, each season and each year. Heavy rains affect the stability of the cliff’s soil. High tides and large waves can take big bites out of the beach protecting the cliff. Given the complexity of erosion, it’s not possible to make a confident prediction about the lifetime of the house. But one prediction can be made with absolute certainty. Human activities are warming the world’s oceans, raising sea levels and bringing the Pacific Ocean closer to Peter’s front door.
Over the past year, the United States has witnessed a different kind of erosion. There has been an erosion of our democratic norms and institutions, with attacks on the legitimacy of courts and judges, the professionalism and integrity of intelligence agencies, and the fairness and patriotism of the press. Protections on clean air, clean water and human health are crumbling before our eyes. The boundaries of our national parks are eroding. The borders between what is real and what is imaginary are eroding, caving in to the relentless assault of “alternative facts,” outright lies and declared reality. Civility and decency are eroding on a daily basis, undercut and weakened by language emanating from the White House.
Trust is eroding. The rest of the world no longer trusts our word. They no longer believe that the United States is committed to solving the problem of global warming—a problem for which our country bears primary responsibility. Trust in our fellow citizens is being eaten away, undermined by the rhetoric of fear, of otherness, of “American carnage.” And trust in our political systems is eroding: achieving desired political ends seems to justify any means, and any meanness.
In the political world, as in the physical world, erosion creeps up on you. One day the United States is signing the Paris climate accord, part of the community of nations working to ensure the long-term habitability of this planet. A year later our country is alone, isolated, mistrusted, mocked for the ignorance and irrationality of our leaders. We are an object of pity and concern. Other countries witness this erosion of our centuries-old democracy and wonder how close the United States is to the cliff.
Peter and his wife had to decide whether they were comfortable living with coastal erosion. Soon, we must all decide whether we are comfortable living with a very different kind of erosion, which threatens something far more important than our houses—who we are, what we value and what type of world our descendants will inherit. 
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.