Blog Archive

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2017’s costly climate change-fueled disasters are the ‘new normal,’ warns major reinsurer Munich Re

“We have a new normal” thanks to climate change, explains leading reinsurer.

by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, January 4, 2018

Hurricane Harvey Impacts. CREDIT: Getty Images
It turns out 2017 was a uniquely disastrous year in more ways than one, evidenced by German reinsurer Munich Re’s recently released review of the year’s global catastrophes.
Led by massive, climate change-fueled hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, 2017’s natural disasters will cost insurers a record $135 billion. Adding in uninsured losses brings the total global damages to $330 billion, which is second only to 2011.
“We have a new normal,” Munich Re’s Ernst Rauch told Reuters. Rauch, who runs the group tracking climate change risks, pointed out that “2017 was not an outlier” in having more than $100 billion in insured losses (see chart below). “We must have on our radar the trend of new magnitudes,” Rauch said.
The big reinsurers like Munich Re make their money by insuring the companies that directly insure your property. Those smaller companies are often required by law to buy reinsurance because they lack the capital resources to pay out if there is a major disaster, like superstorm Harvey for instance.
Since the reinsurers must pay out billions and billions of dollars for such mega-disasters, they have a unique incentive to understand and predict trends in mega-disasters. That’s why companies like Munich Re and Swiss Re have been at the forefront of warning businesses and the public about the rise in extreme weather events due to climate change.
Indeed, back in September 2010, another year of stunning warming-driven extreme weather events, Munich Re issued a release noting it had analyzed its catastrophe database, “the most comprehensive of its kind in the world,” and concluded, “the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” 
Then in October 2012, the company released a massive 274-page report, “Severe weather in North America,” analyzing weather catastrophes and related losses since 1980 to understand trends and their causes, including man-made climate change.
Munich Re found that the number of weather-related loss disasters has been rising much faster in North America than anywhere else, and concluded, “Climate-driven changes are already evident over the last few decades for severe thunderstorms, for heavy precipitation and flash flooding, for hurricane activity, and for heatwave, drought and wild­fire dynamics in parts of North America.”
Prof. Peter Höppe, who heads Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research unit, said at the time, “In all likelihood, we have to regard this finding as an initial climate-change footprint in our U.S. loss data from the last four decades.”
And last April, Munich Re published an article on “rapid attribution,” which explained that we can now rapidly determine how much intensity or frequency of some extreme weather events is affected by man-made climate change. Learning that, for instance, climate change has sharply increased the chances of individual extreme rain and flooding events – such as devastating August 2016 deluge and flooding of Baton Rouge, Louisiana – allows communities to do better planning and Munich Re to do better risk management.
The latest annual report amplifies the message that humans are changing the climate, boosting the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, and that the longer we dawdle, the higher the costs we will incur. The only question is, is anyone listening?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ed Hummel: thoughts on the state we're in and what is to come

by Ed Hummel, google group thread, August 12, 2107

This thread has got me thinking again about some things that have to do with humanity's place in the Universe and our perceptions of that place.  For the past 10,000 years, humans have embarked on a vast enterprise of trying to make our lives much more comfortable and secure by using as many resources from our surroundings in as many ingenious ways as we can think of.  Over this time, the gradual evolution of our global civilization has led the vast majority of us to come to believe that a comfortable civilization is the normal condition for humans that somehow sets us apart from the rest of life forms on this planet.  We have developed cultures and religions that help to solidify this perception and make it into an assumed truth.  But in reality, it's become the ultimate delusion!  The following summary is based on all the latest understanding of where we came from, along with some of the conclusions that I have come up with based on all the latest science. 

Modern humans have been around for approximately 200,000 years since our branch differentiated from the general hominid line in eastern and southern Africa, and for the next 190,000 years we basically lived as any other animal did.  Every day was an adventure with death lurking behind every tree and bush and rocky outcrop.  We also lived through approximately two whole Milankovitch cycles with all the climate variability that occurred during that time.  Our ancestors had no illusions about their place in the scheme of things, and their ways of thought were passed down through the ages in various forms that became manifest in the cultures of so-called indigenous peoples that have survived to the present day.  Our ancestors understood that life was fleeting and a process that could end at any time and for a variety of reasons.  They accepted death as just another part of life which was in turn an integral part of the whole Earth system.  They understood that there was a fundamental relationship among all the various parts of the Earth and that they couldn't deal with just one part without dealing with the whole thing.  There was a profound wisdom in the way our ancestors viewed the world and how it worked, as well as their place within the whole thing.

But 10,000 years ago, some groups of humans in a few parts of the world discovered that they could domesticate certain animal and plant species by partially controlling how they behaved and get some additional benefits from this partial control.  One of the benefits of this control was acquiring the ability to stay put in one relatively comfortable place since the food supply could now be kept within easy reach.  Village life soon evolved and the whole enterprise of civilization took off and became firmly established by 6,000 years ago in a few areas of the globe that were especially favorable for such things, such as the Middle East, China and India, and later on in Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa and Europe.  However, as civilization became more pervasive and led to the alteration of more and more land and sea environments, some humans could see that there were dangers ahead, especially as more people started to accept a civilized life as the ideal that should be attained by all humans, even if by violent methods.  The authors of Genesis seemed to sound the alarm more than once with their stories about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden once they had eaten a fruit from the tree of knowledge, and about the great punishing flood that saw Noah and his family as the sole survivors to try again and do things right.  The ancient Greek playwrights, the authors of the Baghavad Gita in India, and the writings and sayings of Lao-Tse, the Buddha and Jesus were all filled with warnings about the excesses and flawed pathways of civilization and the way humans were behaving.  But the overall charge into the future where humans would come to control everything seemed to trump all warnings to beware of where we were going with our increasing delusions of power over Nature and our incessant drive to become the Rulers of the Universe.

One of the major flaws of civilization, in my view, has been the idea that humans should make our lives as easy and comfortable as possible by taking advantage of all the resources we can extract from any place we can find them for as long as they last and then move on with "substitutes" once they are gone.  I have to admit that all animal species have a tendency to do the same thing, since their main aim in life is to survive long enough to pass on their genes to their descendants and do everything they can to make sure that happens.  And so, a herd of elephants will eat and destroy all the edible vegetation in a certain area and then move on to another area and do the same thing over and over again to make sure they have enough food to keep their huge bodies healthy enough and long enough to produce a new generation and raise that new generation to adulthood.  But there are enough natural constraints on their activities as part of the whole ecological system of which they are a part to make sure that their numbers don't overrun the various areas within their range before certain areas have a chance to regenerate before the next onslaught.  Meanwhile, various other species take advantage of the transition periods within those areas and do their thing before the elephant returns for another round a few years or even decades later.  The same thing happens over and over again at various scales of time and place all over the globe, with all the millions of species taking part in a continuous dance of life forms interacting with each other and with other features such as the rocks and oceans, etc.  But the key to allowing this to happen is that all the species have constraints that keep their numbers and activities reasonable.  Death for individuals and sometimes for whole populations becomes necessary to allow this relatively balanced dance to continue indefinitely.  However, the problem with civilization, the way humans generally tend to view it, is that there are no constraints on human activities; we take what we need and also what we want because we're humans and we can.  And one of the major results of civilization has been the removal, at least temporarily, of as many constraints as we can possibly manage so that nothing interferes with our quest for Universal domination.  This includes the removal of all predators that might prey on us or our domestic animals, the eradication of all diseases that could sicken and kill us, and the removal or modification of all ecosystems that interfere with our desires for comfort and an easy life, as well as anything that could shorten our lives from the exceptionally long period that we have come to assume is normal for humans.  In fact, we strive to find ways to make it even longer and possibly even eternal, if such a thing were physically possible.  Our hubris knows no limits!

But the reality is that "shit happens,, whether we want to admit and accept it or not.  The Universe doesn't care about human sensibilities and desires.  We're just one more life form that just so happens to have an extraordinary ability for manipulation and reflection, not to mention self-delusion.  As far as we can tell, the physical Universe just keeps on truckin' and doing its occasionally violent things because of the way energy is transferred and transformed around the whole thing.  Any time one of these inevitable violent things occurs near human activities, we pay a price, sometimes a very dear price, and there is nothing we can do about it in the long run.  We think we can learn more about certain phenomena to be able to predict them and ultimately control them, but it's definitely a fool's errand, if there ever was one!  It turns out that blocking the effects of some small-scale hazard to save a few lives over the course of many centuries has allowed the human population to explode to a point where nothing we do is going to make any difference in the long run to save civilization and possibly even our species and a lot of our companion species, too.  It's been said that the present human population has become a cancer afflicting the Earth since a cancer is an uncontrolled growth that keeps using up all available resources until the whole system collapses and, in the case of a body, it dies.  I think such a description of humanity living in an unconstrained "civilized" society is about as perfect a description as can be conjured up.  When any force in the Universe grows to such a point where it overwhelms everything around it, catastrophe inevitably occurs, at least for the structure involved, while the rest of the systems in the Universe just continue on as before until some overwhelming force grows again and destroys or "remodels" another system for as long as the Universe exists.  If we think we can interfere with this ultimate game that the Universe plays with itself, we are really living in a fantasy land.

Of course there is the possibility that a species with our level of intelligence might be able to heed the warnings of its prophets and doomers before it's too late to let Nature take its course and "correct the unstable situation" (in other words, kill us off).  After all, we do have the capacity for constructing amazing things in the arts and sciences, all of which makes being human quite rewarding.  But the arts and sciences, which by the way don't need civilization to flourish (!), aren't the only things that keep humans occupied, and for most of us in this present world are not even on our radar.  The overriding drives for food and sex predominate for us, just as they do with all animals, and in fact for all eukaryotic organisms (everything not a bacterium or other prokaryote).  And being social animals, the drive for power over others also predominates, especially among the elite few who manage to make it to positions of leadership at all scales of social order.  I have the feeling, if we were somehow able to override these base instincts for food, sex, and power and concentrate on the wonders available to us through the arts and sciences, we might be able to have a more fulfilling existence with much less impact on the whole Earth system and therefore a much better chance not to "fuck things up beyond all recognition" (FUBAR).  Of course, that still doesn't mean that an asteroid, comet, gamma ray burst, or other such occasional cosmic force couldn't do a FUBAR on us anyway.  But at least we would accept that as part of being alive and acknowledging that death comes to all in some way or another, usually when we least expect it.  Otherwise, it should come as no surprise that our grand enterprise of an ever-expanding civilization with an exponentially growing population extracting more and more resources from a finite planet should lead to the looming "clusterfuck" that we see lurking in the coming years.  The prophets and doomers have been trying to warn us for the last 10,000 years, and yet we still find ourselves on this precipice on the verge of falling off as the cracks in the ledge we're on get larger and longer.  The current generation of such prophets are really trying hard to alert humanity to what's to come in the near future now that we've most likely finally passed the point of no return (probably some time over the last 200 years, though that's probably still up for debate until well past the event if there's anyone left to debate it).  I see Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, Jim Hansen, Eric Rignold, Jason Box, Al Gore, and all the others as trying as hard as they can to wake up the masses to the physical realities that we face now and in the near future.  But I also have the feeling that they know deep inside that it's probably a losing battle and all they can do is go down swinging until that reality floods over us and leads to the largest mass casualty event that humans have ever faced in our relatively short time on this little world.  I also see our little group as being something that helps all of us cope with what we're certain is going to be a very tragic affair.  Being social creatures, having such a group to fall back on is good for our mental well-being, no matter how dark things get.

As you all know, I've gotten to know Alder Fuller quite well over the last few years, and he's helped me understand things from a systems and complexity perspective much better than I have before.  But despite his conviction that it's already way too late to stop the abrupt climate change that's already started because of the way complex systems operate, he still manages to remain positive and even optimistic in the face of the near certain disasters that wait us.  He feels that humans made it through the trials and tribulations of a volatile climate during the Pleistocene (though our numbers were small and there was plenty of room to roam around in search of "greener pastures").  So, he's convinced that some of us will probably survive what's coming and those survivors will hopefully learn from our past mistakes.  His favorite saying is that the coming changes are "not a catastrophe, but an adventure."  I tend to be a lot more pessimistic than he and probably most of you are since I'm convinced that our collective human nature won't allow the vast majority of us to actually learn from our mistakes unless most of any survivors tend to be the outliers among us that I've referred to in the past and which include all of us in this group. 

I don't know if you remember a hypothesis which I came up with a few years ago based on the complexity idea that the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be thought of strictly as the tendency for all energy gradients to dissipate by the most efficient means possible.  I also tied it in with Fermi's Paradox which said if there are millions of intelligent life forms out there, where are they?  According to complexity theory, the emergence of life is an inevitable consequence of Nature's search for the most efficient ways to dissipate energy gradients since the more complex a system is the more efficiently it uses and transforms energy from an ordered state to a disordered state (the growth of entropy in classical physics).  As far as we can tell, the most complex systems in the Universe are living systems that use an astounding array of complex chemical and physical processes to function while using enormous amounts of energy per unit of activity.  And of all living systems, those organisms with large brains and high intelligence seem to be the most complex of all and so the most efficient at processing energy and dissipating gradients.  Therefore, it's probably true that intelligent life is common in the Universe since Nature strives for more complexity in order to more efficiently dissipate the innumerable energy gradients that have been scattered around the Universe since the great expansion of the Big Bang.  However, one of the corollaries of high intelligence is the ability to manipulate the home planet to the extreme the way humans have done over the last 10,000 years, and such manipulation inevitably leads to the destruction of the planetary systems and the ultimate dissipation of energy gradients with high efficiency.  Therefore, to answer Fermi's question, whenever an intelligent species reaches a certain level of intelligence that allows it to manipulate and exploit its home world's resources to the extreme (that's where we are right now), that species destroys itself and most if not all of its home world to provide the ultimate in gradient dissipation for that particular corner of the Universe.  I guess that's the ultimate in doomer porn!! 

Personally, I feel that if people are receptive for one reason or another, we can tell them about what we see coming based on all the latest research.  If they're not receptive, why even bother wasting our time.  The life we have left is too precious to waste on beating our heads against a brick wall.  The best thing we can do is love and respect all those we care about including family and friends and resign ourselves to the fact the chances for avoiding disaster have become vanishingly small, to use a mathematical term which implies approaching zero.  There are still a lot of amazing things we can do and experience, and we should while they're still available to us and they don't conflict with what we're trying to do. 

There was a very poignant scene in "Saving Private Ryan" toward the end of the film where the small American Ranger patrol has hooked up with the remnants of a paratroop unit in an abandoned French village in Normandy that controls a very important bridge needed by both the Americans and the Germans.  The American group knows that they are way understrength and the chances of holding off a much larger and more powerful unit of the German army located nearby are "vanishingly small" unless they are quickly re-enforced, which is also not very likely.  But they know they must protect that bridge from German use or else destroy it before the main American force can make it to that spot, and so they prepare their defenses as well as they can with whatever is available to them.  Once they've finished their preparations, they can only wait for the inevitable German attack.  But in the meantime, they all relax and try to make the best of the short time they have with stories and jokes and general good feelings about what they've done and the lives they'd left back at home.  I found that to be one of the most powerful scenes in a very powerful movie about all the extremes that humans are capable of, both the good and the bad.

I guess one can say that I've become a stoic and a fatalist in my old age.  I still take full enjoyment from all the wonders I see around me, but I also am under no illusions about what is likely to happen, and I've become very accepting of whatever our fate may be.  That's not to say that I've given up, it's just that as a soldier in an impossible battle situation I've come to understand the phrase, "Que sera, sera!"

Monday, January 15, 2018

Detecting the permafrost carbon feedback: talik formation and increased cold-season respiration as precursors to sink-to-source transitions

The Cryosphere, 12(1) (2018) 123144

Detecting the permafrost carbon feedback: Talik formation and increased cold-season respiration as precursors to sink-to-source transitions

Nicholas C. Parazoo1, Charles D. Koven2, David M. Lawrence3, Vladimir Romanovsky4, and Charles E. Miller1
1Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, 91109, USA
2Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA
3National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA
4Geophysical Institute UAF, Fairbanks, AK, 99775, USA

Received: 31 Aug 2017; discussion started: 18 Sep 2017
Revised: 20 Nov 2017; accepted: 29 Nov 2017; published: 12 Jan 2018


Thaw and release of permafrost carbon (C) due to climate change is likely to offset increased vegetation C uptake in northern high-latitude (NHL) terrestrial ecosystems. Models project that this permafrost C feedback may act as a slow leak, in which case detection and attribution of the feedback may be difficult. The formation of talik, a subsurface layer of perennially thawed soil, can accelerate permafrost degradation and soil respiration, ultimately shifting the C balance of permafrost-affected ecosystems from long-term C sinks to long-term C sources. It is imperative to understand and characterize mechanistic links between talik, permafrost thaw, and respiration of deep soil C to detect and quantify the permafrost C feedback. Here, we use the Community Land Model (CLM) version 4.5, a permafrost and biogeochemistry model, in comparison to long-term deep borehole data along North American and Siberian transects, to investigate thaw-driven C sources in NHL ( >  55° N) from 2000 to 2300. Widespread talik at depth is projected across most of the NHL permafrost region (14 million km2) by 2300, 6.2 million km2 of which is projected to become a long-term C source, emitting 10 Pg C by 2100, 50 Pg C by 2200, and 120 Pg C by 2300, with few signs of slowing. Roughly half of the projected C source region is in predominantly warm sub-Arctic permafrost following talik onset. This region emits only 20 Pg C by 2300, but the CLM4.5 estimate may be biased low by not accounting for deep C in yedoma. Accelerated decomposition of deep soil C following talik onset shifts the ecosystem C balance away from surface dominant processes (photosynthesis and litter respiration), but sink-to-source transition dates are delayed by 20–200 years by high ecosystem productivity, such that talik peaks early ( ∼  2050s, although borehole data suggest sooner) and C source transition peaks late ( ∼  2150–2200). The remaining C source region in cold northern Arctic permafrost, which shifts to a net source early (late 21st century), emits 5 times more C (95 Pg C) by 2300, and prior to talik formation due to the high decomposition rates of shallow, young C in organic-rich soils coupled with low productivity. Our results provide important clues signaling imminent talik onset and C source transition, including (1) late cold-season (January–February) soil warming at depth ( ∼  2 m), (2) increasing cold-season emissions (November–April), and (3) enhanced respiration of deep, old C in warm permafrost and young, shallow C in organic-rich cold permafrost soils. Our results suggest a mosaic of processes that govern carbon source-to-sink transitions at high latitudes and emphasize the urgency of monitoring soil thermal profiles, organic C age and content, cold-season CO2 emissions, and atmospheric 14CO2 as key indicators of the permafrost C feedback.
Citation: Parazoo, N. C., Koven, C. D., Lawrence, D. M., Romanovsky, V., and Miller, C. E., Detecting the permafrost carbon feedback: Talik formation and increased cold-season respiration as precursors to sink-to-source transitions, The Cryosphere, 12, 123-144,, 2018.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Joe Romm: Stunning NASA chart shows how fast the ground beneath our feet is heating up

The land is warming twice as fast as the oceans … too bad we live on the land

by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, August 22, 2017

Global temperatures are rising faster on the land, where we live, than the oceans, where we don’t, NASA charts reveal. Since scientists have long predicted this trend and say it will continue, it’s worth a closer look.
Let’s start with the long-term global warming trend. According to NOAA, “Since 1880, surface temperature has risen at an average pace of 0.13 °F (0.07 °C) every 10 years, for a net warming of 1.71 °F (0.95 °C).”
But the warming is not evenly distributed: “Over this 136-year period, average temperature over land areas has warmed faster than ocean temperatures: 0.18 °F (0.10 °C) per decade compared to 0.11 °F (0.06 °C) per decade.” So over the entire record, the land is warming nearly 70 percent faster than the oceans.
But the warming is also speeding up. Over the last 45 years, surface temperature has been rising at an average rate of around 0.3 °F per decade — more than double the rate over the whole 135-year period. This speed up was also predicted. After all, emissions of CO2, the most important heat-trapping greenhouse gas, have increased by a factor of six since 1950 — and the rise of overall CO2 levels has sped up.
The disparity between the rate of land and ocean warming has also gotten bigger.  NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) recently posted some charts that show just how much faster it has been warming in recent decades — and how much the  disparity has grown.
In the past six decades, land temperatures have risen about  2.3 °F, a warming rate of nearly 0.4 °F a decade, as the top chart shows. That’s nearly double the temperature rise of the ocean, which is 1.25 °F per decade. Moreover, in the past 30 years, the rate of warming appears to have sped up even more, with land temperatures rising more than 0.6 °F a decade. That’s now a bit more than double the ocean warming.
But the key point, of course is that we live on the land. So when you see a rate of global warming quoted, remember, the rate of warming where we live is much higher — and growing fast.
Finally, you may be wondering why temperatures over the land are warming so much faster than temperatures over the ocean. Part of the reason is that the heat capacity of the ocean is so much greater than that of the land so its initial temperature response to warming is slower. As one explainer put it, “Think of the hot sand and cool water at the beach in the summer.” This is also why the ocean stores more than 90% of all of the excess heat from global warming.
Part of the reason the ocean warms more slowly is that much of the heating of the ocean goes into evaporation. But the land, particularly the drier parts of the planet, don’t have much moisture to evaporate  so much more of the global warming goes directly into temperature rise. For those technically minded readers who want a fuller explanation, start with this 2009 study, “Understanding Land–Sea Warming Contrast in Response to Increasing Greenhouse Gases.” Then try this 2013 study.

Three-quarters of the total insect population lost in protected nature reserves

from Radboud University Nijmegen, October 18, 2017

Since 1989, in 63 nature reserves in Germany the total biomass of flying insects has decreased by more than 75%. This decrease has long been suspected but has turned out to be more severe than previously thought. Ecologists from Radboud University together with German and English colleagues published these findings in the scientific journal PLoS ONE on October 18th, 2017.
In recent years, it became clear that the numbers of many types of insects such as butterflies and bees were declining in Western Europe and North America. 'However, the fact that flying insects are decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an even more alarming discovery,' states project leader at the Radboud University Hans de Kroon.
Thorough research
Entomologists (insect researchers) in Krefeld, Germany, led by Martin Sorg and Heinz Schwan, collected data over the past 27 years in 63 different places within nature reserves across Germany. Flying insects were trapped in malaise traps and the total biomass was then weighed and compared. The researchers from Nijmegen, Germany and England have now been able to analyse this treasure trove of data for the first time.
Decline also recorded in well-protected areas
The researchers discovered an average decline of 76 percent in the total insect mass. In the middle of summer, when insect numbers peak, the decline was even more severe at 82%. According to Caspar Hallmann from Radboud University who performed the statistical analyses, 'All these areas are protected and most of them are managed nature reserves. Yet, this dramatic decline has occurred.'
The exact causes of the decline are still unclear. Changes in the weather, landscape and plant variety in these areas are unable to explain this. The weather might explain many of the fluctuations within the season and between the years, but it doesn't explain the rapid downward trend.
A decline in other parts of the world too
Researchers can only speculate about the possible causes. 'The research areas are mostly small and enclosed by agricultural areas. These surrounding areas inflict flying insects and they cannot survive there. It is possible that these areas act as an 'ecological trap' and jeopardize the populations in the nature reserves,' explains Hallmann. It is likely that the results are representative for large parts of Europe and other parts of the world where nature reserves are enclosed by a mostly intensively used agricultural landscape.
Wake-up call
'As entire ecosystems are dependent on insects for food and as pollinators, it places the decline of insect eating birds and mammals in a new context,' states Hans de Kroon. 'We can barely imagine what would happen if this downward trend continues unabated.'
Because the causes of the decline are not yet known, it is difficult to take any concrete measures. The researchers hope that these findings will be seen as a wake-up call and prompt more research into the causes and support for long-term monitoring.
De Kroon: 'The only thing we can do right now is to maintain the utmost caution. We need to do less of the things that we know have a negative impact, such as the use of pesticides and prevent the disappearance of farmland borders full of flowers. But we also have to work hard at extending our nature reserves and decreasing the ratio of reserves that border agricultural areas.'

Shocking > 75% decline in flying insects in last 27 years

Since 1989, numbers of flying insects have dropped by more than 75% in parts of Germany, with serious implications for the rest of Europe.

by Tim Radford, Climate News Network, October 20, 2017

LONDON – The mass of flying insects in parts of Germany has fallen by three-quarters in the last 27 years. Since the territories sampled were all nature reserves in some way protected from pesticides and other disturbance, the implications are alarming: winged insects may be flying to oblivion across much of Europe.
The cost to natural ecosystems and to human economies could be devastating. Insects pollinate 80% of wild plants, feed on species that could otherwise become pests, recycle plant and animal waste, and are themselves food for 60% of birds. One calculation places the value of wild insect pollination at $57bn a year in the United States.

Vanishing insects

Researchers have already expressed concern about the vanishing numbers of butterflies in parts of Europe, possibly as a consequence of climate change. But the latest study does not distinguish individual species or even groups. It concentrates just on the sheer mass of flying insects in a German growing season.
The research – published in the Public Library of Science journal, PLOS ONE – assembles 1,503 records of winged insects, all caught in a standard field trap, in 63 unique locations in protected areas in lowland Germany during spring, summer and early autumn from 1989 to 2016. The data told a disconcerting story: the average seasonal mass of flying insects declined by 76% in under three decades. At the height of summer, the decline reached 82%.

“We need to do less of the things that we know
have a negative impact, such as the use of
pesticides, and prevent the disappearance
of farmland borders full of flowers”

The decline was consistent regardless of the type of habitat – dunes, heath land, rich and poor grasslands, wastelands, shrub cover and so on – and changes of land use or weather, or shifts in the habitat itself offered no obvious explanation. Researchers have identified reasons that one species, or a group of insects, might be at risk from climate change, perhaps because earlier flowering disrupts the feeding cycle or because the mix of species in an ecosystem changes with rising temperatures.
But there has always been an unspoken assumption that other species or groups of species may be likely to benefit from the change, by extending their range. The study is based on observations made only in one country. However, the finding implies that ecosystems across the whole of Europe could be affected, on a huge scale and at every level.

Downward trend

“As entire ecosystems are dependent on insects for food and as pollinators, it places the decline of insect-eating birds and mammals in a new context. We can barely imagine what would happen if this downward trend continues unabated,” says Hans de Kroon, an ecologist at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, one of the authors.
The only thing we can do right now is to maintain the utmost caution. We need to do less of the things that we know have a negative impact, such as the use of pesticides, and prevent the disappearance of farmland borders full of flowers. But we also have to work hard at extending our nature reserves and decreasing the ratio of reserves that border agricultural areas.”

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Climate risk: going mainstream

The governor of the Bank of England and ExxonMobil shareholders are just some of those changing the narrative on climate risk, says Dylan Tanner
Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late
by Dylan Tanner, The Actuary, September 7, 2017
In June this year, the Financial Stability Board’s (FSB’s)Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) published its recommendations on how the corporate sector should disclose climate risk to investors. The FSB apparently regards climate change as a systemic financial risk, as articulated in a speech by the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in 2015. Meanwhile, at ExxonMobil’s annual general meeting in May this year, a majority of shareholders demanded that the oil and gas giant discloses its thinking on climate risk more clearly.
Data, analysis and advice on climate risk to portfolios have been around and available to investors for at least 20 years. By the late 1990s, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Financial Initiative was messaging regularly on the risk of climate-change-induced weather events to the insurance sector and hence the wider markets.
In 2000, the investor-enabled Climate Disclosure Project (CDP) began collecting and aggregating carbon emissions information from thousands of companies around the globe. Financial data sets such as MSCI, Thomson Reuters Eikon and Bloomberg create and sell climate-related metrics on companies as part of their environment, social and governance (ESG) offering.
These observations beg two questions. Is climate risk now going mainstream in portfolio assessment? If so, what has changed? 
The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes, given the mainstream remit of the FSB and the universal nature of ExxonMobil’s shareholder base. The answer to the second is more complex. A key reason that climate risk analysis has not been widely accepted by financial analysts until now is that the messengers have largely come from the climate change and sustainability communities. The UNEP’s remit is to solve environmental issues, not advise on financial risk. Data sets such as CDP and the ESG metrics are regarded as originating in the sustainability agenda, and are used by investors mostly to satisfy sustainable investment commitments rather than inform mainstream risk strategy.
A more significant reason is captured by Carney in his 2015 ‘Tragedy of the Horizons’ speech, where he notes the disconnect between time horizons for current financial risk assessment and manifestation of the effects of climate change.

Predictions come to pass

Two decades have passed since the CDP and UNEP initiatives began, and some of the early indicators of these risks are now appearing. One of these relates to the fossil-fuel production sector, where groups such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative have predicted that a variety of climate-induced pressures could threaten the value of the reserves of oil, gas and coal on balance sheets. In November 2016, Shell shocked the market by estimating that oil demand could peak in as little as 5 years, “driven by efficiency and substitution,” according to then chief financial officer Simon Henry.
A 2016 report from think tank InfluenceMap showed the disparity between the predictions of global electric vehicle (EV) proliferation by the oil companies and those of the automakers and regulators. Toyota predicts 100% EVs and hybrids by 2050 in its sales. France pledges to ban petroleum-powered cars by 2040, and India has a goal of selling only EVs by 2030. Yet, the report notes, ExxonMobil forecasts that EVs will account for “less than 10% of new-car sales globally in 2040.” For a company that probably derives more than 30% of its revenues from petroleum-related transport, this disconnect is a concern. Shareholders are correct to demand further disclosure on the climate risk scenarios it is working with.
Other sectors on investors’ radar when it comes to climate risk and its disclosure include utilities. Reputational, financial and regulatory pressure on the use of coal for power generation is growing, while incentives for the scale-up of renewables is similarly accelerating. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates new power generation capacity will be mostly solar and wind by 2040, leaving gas, and especially coal generation and related value chains, as niche businesses. The power sector is one with long-term horizons and multi-decade plant life cycles, so understanding management strategy on future scenarios is essential for investors.

Funds flex their muscle

Pension funds are an important part of the global financial system, with the top 6,000 funds holding around $26trn (£20trn) of capital market assets. They have the ability to create market trends, and account for a significant portion of revenue generated by the financial sector as a whole. 
One of the largest such funds is Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, with close to $1trn in assets. It adopted criteria in late 2015, allowing it to “exclude companies whose conduct to an unacceptable degree entails greenhouse gas emissions.” In June this year, the smaller but still substantial AP7 pension fund of Sweden announced it was divesting from ExxonMobil and five other companies for violation of the Paris climate agreement. Many other such funds may follow this trend. Such divestment and exclusion actions may be the last resort in an engagement chain, or intended as a signal on acceptable corporate governance. In the case of the Norwegian fund, its managers have a direct remit from the country’s parliament to consider global climate change risk in its management.

Change in data needs

While climate risk is now mainstream, the data needs of the investment community have shifted. For one thing, they are now highly sector-specific. Certain industries, such as energy and power generation and energy-intensive sectors like cement, are the focus, and investors want to understand management thinking on climate issues. To this end, the FSB recommendations stress disclosure by companies on the “resilience of an organisation’s strategy under climate-related scenarios, including a 2 °C or lower scenario” and the regulatory, market, technology and other changes these will bring.
Crucially, the FSB also extends its recommendations to the financial sector, and urges asset owners to test the resilience of the portfolio under the same scenarios. This approach necessitates a focus on forward-looking corporate behavioural metrics and analysis, as well as the carbon emissions accounting approach. For example, investors need to understand the capital asset allocation strategy of an electricity utility, and how this relates to regulatory trends. Likewise, they need to understand whether an oil/gas company’s business model is based on expecting to continue to be able to suppress climate-motivated regulations, and likely scenarios should the political climate shift suddenly.

Mainstream methods apply

Disclosures in line with the TCFD’s recommendations do not feed into any legally binding financial disclosure processes, such as those of the U.S. Securities And Exchange Commission. As a result, achieving universal participation – especially by the most at-risk companies –remains a challenge. 
The TCFD and other disclosure systems aside, mainstream analysis of corporations by investors involves reliance on other sources of information, such as discussions with senior management and third-party investigations.
In the climate risk context, this process will spur the financial research and data sectors to acquire expertise, and perhaps to form unusual alliances with climate specialists in the NGO, academic and technology sectors, to better understand the nuances of portfolio, sector and company risk.

Dylan Tanner is executive director at InfluenceMap

Michael Mann: A 'Perfect' Storm: Extreme Winter Weather, Bitter Cold, and Climate Change

by Michael Mann, The Climate Reality Project, January 4, 2018
The US East Coast is experiencing an “old-fashioned” winter, with plenty of cold weather and some heavy snowfall in certain places. Listening to climate contrarians like President Donald Trump, you might think this constitutes the death knell for concern over human-caused climate change.
Yet, what we were witnessing play out is in fact very much consistent with our expectations of the response of weather dynamics to human-caused climate change.
Let’s start with the record five-plus feet of snowfall accumulation in Erie, Pennsylvania, in late December. Does this disprove global warming? “Exactly the opposite,” explains my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. 
Global warming is leading to later freeze-up of the Great Lakes and warmer lake temperatures. It is the collision of cold Arctic air with relatively warm unfrozen lake water in early winter that causes lake effect snows in the first place. The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture in the air, and the greater potential for lake effect snows. Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century (see figure below).
iew image on Twitter
How about those frigid low temperatures back east this winter? Surely that extreme cold must disprove global warming?
Once again, the claim is misguided. While we have seen some daily all-time lows for a smattering of locations in the US, these pale in comparison with the number of all-time highs we’ve seen over the past year. In fact, the record highs have outpaced the record lows 61 to seven, i.e. nine times more often (see table below), consistent with what we expect to see as the globe continues to warm.
Moreover, while we’ve seen some cold weather in the eastern half of the North America (see the pattern for New Year’s Day below), the western half of North America has been unusually warm. Indeed, most of the Northern Hemisphere, and the globe overall, have been unusually warm. That’s why we call it global warming, folks.
(Image obtained using Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA)
But what about this pattern of cold in the eastern US and warm in the western US? This so-called “dipole” pattern has become more common in recent winters, and recent research suggests that climate change may be favoring this contrast in temperature by causing the jet stream to meander in a particular pattern, with an upward meander or “ridge” in the west bringing warm air up from the south and a downward meander or “trough” in the east, bringing cold air down from the north. Some scientists think that the dramatic loss of sea ice in the Arctic may be favoring this jet stream pattern.
Finally, the news is abuzz today with an impending “massive Nor’easter,” a “bomb cyclone” that is “set to explode” in the days ahead (see plot below). This isn’t just hype. The National Weather Service has warned that “this rapidly intensifying East Coast storm will produce strong, damaging winds — possibly resulting in downed trees, power outages, and coastal flooding.”
With a central pressure forecast to drop very low (see plot below), the storm will threaten the record set by unprecedented 2012 Superstorm Sandy as the lowest surface pressure ever measured in the North Atlantic north of Cape Hatteras (the central surface pressure of a storm is one measure of its strength).
(© 2018 ECMWF cc by nc nd 4.0)
Surely such a massive winter storm, with its promise of bitter cold winds and potentially heavy coastal snowfalls, must be evidence against the climate crisis?
Once again, rather the opposite is true. East Coast winter storms, known as “nor’easters” because of the unusual northeasterly direction of the winds as the storm spirals in from the south, are unusual in that they derive their energy not just from large contrasts in temperature that drive most extratropical storm systems, but also from the energy released when water evaporates from the (relatively warm) ocean surface into the atmosphere.
This is a characteristic that these storms share with tropical storms and hurricanes. The warmer the ocean surface, the more energy that is available to intensify these storms. And the warmer the ocean surface, the more moisture there is in the atmosphere – moisture that is available to form precipitation. As the winds wrap around in a counter-clockwise manner, they bring all of that moisture northwest, where it is chilled and ultimately falls not as rain but snow. Lots of snow.
As the oceans continue to warm, cold Arctic air masses collide with increasingly warm Atlantic Ocean waters. That means larger temperature contrasts and potentially stronger storms. But those warmer oceans also mean more moisture in the atmosphere, even more energy to strengthen the storm, and the potential for larger snowfalls.  We might, if you’ll forgive the pun, call this a “perfect storm” of factors for intensification.
Indeed, climate model simulations indicate that we can expect more intense nor’easters as human-caused climate change continues to warm the oceans.
(Image obtained using Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA)
This leads us back to the current strengthening storm. The entire North Atlantic is unusually warm right now (+0.6 degrees Celsius) relative to the already-globally-warmed, late-twentieth-century average (1971-2000), and there are large patches of ocean water off the US East Coast that are 2-4 degrees Celsius above that average. The storm will be encountering that exceptional ocean heat as it travels northward along the US coastline, and that is part of why it has a very good chance of becoming the most intense nor’easter we’ve yet observed.
So, to the climate change doubters and deniers out there, the unusual weather we’re seeing this winter is in no way evidence against climate change. It is an example of precisely the sort of extreme winter weather we expect because of climate change.
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Dr. Michael Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and author of The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars and, more recently, The Madhouse Effect.