Dear EarthTalk: Was Hurricane Harvey caused by global warming? — Tom Dell, Bern, NC
The short answer is no. No single hurricane or weather event can be directly linked to the general phenomena known as climate change. “Climate change does not cause things, because climate change is not a causal agent,” writes David Roberts on Vox.com. “‘Climate change’ is a descriptive term — it describes the fact that the climate is changing.”
That said, global warming likely did contribute to the severity of Harvey, and has created an overall climate more hospitable to the formation of extreme weather events of every stripe. “For hurricanes, we would ask the question as to what are the possible hurricane developments in the world we live in and compare that to the possible hurricane developments in a world without climate change,” Dr Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford tells BBC News.
One definite “fingerprint” of global warming on Harvey is the intensity and amount of rainfall. Climatologists cite the Clausius-Clapeyron equation (a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture: for every extra degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7 percent more water) as one link between global warming and stronger storms. Houstonians have witnessed a 167 percent increase in the frequency of the most intense downpours since the 1950s.
Adam Sobel of Columbia’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate estimates that as much as 10 percent of Harvey’s rainfall could be blamed on global warming, while Kevin Trenberth of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research pegs the number at closer to 30 percent. “It may have been a strong storm, and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway — but (human-caused climate change) amplifies the damage considerably,” Trenberth reports in The Atlantic.
We’re also heating up our seas. “The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer above what they were from 1980-2010,” reports Sir Brian Hoskins from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change. “That is very significant because it means the potential for a stronger storm is there.”
Meanwhile, even the fact that Harvey hung around so long and dumped rain on and around southeast Texas for nearly four days suggests a climate connection: A recent report from climate scientist Michael Mann suggests that near-stationary summer weather patterns are more common in a warmer world.
But others think we are focusing too much on the climate underpinnings of Harvey. Ilan Kelman of University College London’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction tells the BBC that the real human contribution to the catastrophe in Houston is more about the type of development we allow than about the emissions we are pumping skyward.
“The hurricane is just a storm, it is not the disaster,” says Kelman. “The disaster is the fact that Houston population has increased by 40 percent since 1990 (and) that many people were too poor to afford insurance or evacuate.” He adds: “Climate change did not make people build along a vulnerable coastline so the disaster itself is our choice and is not linked to climate change.”
Contacts: U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, ncar.ucar.edu; Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, extremeweather.columbia.edu; “Influence of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Planetary Wave Resonance and Extreme Weather Events,” www.nature.com/articles/srep45242.
Dear EarthTalk: Could global warming really already be a factor in the evolution of wildlife species? — Vince Dominick, Camden, NJ
No doubt the quickly changing climate is already triggering various evolutionary shifts in a wide range of species. And while we can’t be sure just how different wildlife species will adapt (or not), scientists are already noticing some surprising changes as a result of rising surface and ocean temperatures thanks to human-induced global warming.
To wit, a recent study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Global Change Biology, by scientists from the University of British Columbia, found that the body size of larger fish species decreases 20 to 30 percent for every one-degree Celsius increase in water temperature, given their gills’ inability to keep up in our warmer and increasingly oxygen-deprived seas. (The top 2,000 feet of the ocean water column has warmed 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969, and the speed of the warming is faster than ever.) The researchers add that smaller fish are likely to have an advantage given that their body sizes are less likely to outgrow their respiratory systems. The result could be a profound shift in marine food webs with untold consequences for the health of the ocean, not to mention the state of our dinner plates (nearly a billion people around the world rely on fish as a primary source of protein).
And there’s proof that global warming is shrinking wildlife species on land, too. An October 2014 study by scientists at Durham University in Britain found that chamois mountain goats in the Italian Alps weigh 25 percent less than their same age counterparts did 30 years ago. University of Maryland researchers found that six out of seven species of U.S. salamanders studied have shrunk an average of eight percent overall since the 1950s, with each successive generation shrinking in average body size by one percent. Another example comes from a National University of Singapore study that found that ectotherms (toads, turtles, snakes) are also shrinking around the world in response to hotter climatic conditions.
A February 2017 review of scientific literature on global warming’s broad footprint on wildlife by 17 researchers collaborating from around the world suggests that we may actually be underestimating how much climate change is affecting wildlife populations. The analysis of 130 studies on the ecological consequences of climate change revealed that 47 percent of land mammals and 23 percent of birds — more than 700 wildlife species overall — have already been affected by global warming. “There has been a massive under-reporting of these impacts,” says University of Queensland researcher and study co-author, James Watson, adding that only 7 percent of mammals and 4 percent of birds showing a negative response to climate change are currently listed as “threatened” by the IUCN, which maintains the world’s “Red List” of endangered species.
“We need to greatly improve assessments of the impacts of climate change on species right now; we need to communicate this to the wider public and we need to ensure key decisions makers know that something significant needs to happen now to stop species going extinct,” warns Watson. “Climate change is not a future threat anymore.”
Contacts: Fish study: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13831/abstract; goats: www.dur.ac.uk/biosciences/about/news/?itemno=22559; salamanders: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12550/abstract; broad footprint: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13831/abstract.
Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called green patent sharing and how does it work? — Bill Gilmore, Albuquerque, NM
The idea behind so-called green patent sharing is that researchers, inventors and companies can share the rights to make, use or incorporate certain patented technologies that benefit the environment, theoretically expediting the development of energy efficiency, pollution prevention, recycling, water conservation and other advances for the common good.
The concept of patent sharing isn’t new. Back in the 1850s, the four major manufacturers of sewing machines in the U.S. got tired of fighting over patent infringement and joined ranks in a patent sharing pool. Outside manufacturers would have to pay licensing rights to the pool, but otherwise the four partner companies were free to make use of any and all shared patents.
It took another 150 years, though, for green patent sharing to institutionalize. In 2008, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) created the Eco-Patent Commons, an online exchange of green-friendly patents that can be downloaded and used for free. Eleven companies — Bosch, DowDuPont, Fuji, HP, IBM, Nokia, Pitney Bowes, Ricoh, Sony, Taisei and Xerox — have pledged over 100 different patents to the Commons to try to encourage new innovations in sustainability and conservation.
“Companies are increasingly realizing the value of partnering and sharing expertise on sustainability issues,” says Wayne Balta, IBM’s Corporate Environmental Affairs VP. “The Eco-Patent Commons provides an opportunity for business to share intellectual property that can further sustainable development.”
A few examples of patents available in the commons include: a battery recycling kiosk for consumers to swap out their used batteries for new replacements; a process that eliminates the need for antioxidant metal coatings in the assembly of microchips and circuit boards; a lab-designed organism that lights up to indicate the presence of pollutants in water treatment facilities; and environmentally superior refrigerants to replace the ozone-destroying fluorocarbons phased out by the Montreal Protocol and other international agreements. These shared patents and dozens more are accessible via WIPO GREEN, an online marketplace for sustainable technology.
The concept of green patent sharing came up recently with the worldwide launch of Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. The film documents a December 2015 phone call that Gore made to try to convince SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive to be the corporate hero of the Paris climate accord by offering holdout India free use of his company’s photovoltaic patents to ease the costs of, and hasten the country’s transition away from, fossil fuels. Indian negotiators had been complaining that they could not get access to enough credit to pay for the expensive transition to solar on their own.
It isn’t clear by the end of the movie whether Rive extended the offer (he did) nor whether it had any impact on India’s decision to join the rest of the world in eventually signing onto the Paris accord (Indian negotiators say the patent sharing offer wasn’t a factor). Regardless, there’s been no evidence of any intellectual property transfer to date, although SolarCity “formally invited” Indian officials to visit its headquarters in 2016, so the wheels could be in motion.
Dear EarthTalk: Since when did Michael Bloomberg become a great environmentalist? — Jackie Miller, New York, NY
Michael Bloomberg was primarily known as a financier and media tycoon long before he became one of the most beloved mayors in New York City history. But what most people still don’t know about Bloomberg is that he is fast becoming one of the world’s great environmentalists through his work to hasten the transition to renewable energy and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Indeed, working to stave off cataclysmic global warming is nothing new to Michael Bloomberg. In 2005, he represented New York City as a founding member of the C20 Cities Climate Leadership Group (later expanded and renamed “C40”) where the world’s largest cities forged a working agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010, Mayor Bloomberg took over as chair of C40 and is credited with spearheading the establishment of measurable benchmarks for success and expanding knowledge-sharing between cities and partner organizations while staging two landmark mayoral climate summits in Brazil and South Africa. During his three-year stint as chair, C40 grew to include 63 major cities.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg has been quietly directing hundreds of millions of dollars toward climate-related environmental causes through his Bloomberg Philanthropies. In 2011, he made waves with the fossil fuel industry by donating $50 million (and later another $30 million) to help the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign close half of all U.S. coal power plants (and replace them with clean energy) within six years.
In late 2013 Bloomberg teamed up with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and another billionaire environmentalist, Tom Steyer, on Risky Business, an initiative to assess and publicize the economic risks to the U.S. associated with climate change. Their inaugural report identified the “large and unacceptable” economic risks from unmitigated climate change to American businesses and long-term investors, while a follow-up analysis two years later details how cities and states can respond.
In January 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Bloomberg as Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. That same month, the Bloomberg Philanthropies went big on oceans, committing $50 million over five years to the Vibrant Oceans Initiative to help reform fisheries and increase marine wildlife populations.
Most recently, Bloomberg led the charge to align voluntary emissions reductions efforts by U.S. cities, states and businesses to meet Paris climate accord goals even without buy-in from the Trump White House. He points out that the closing of dozens of coal plants across the country is already helping to get the U.S. within two-thirds of its Paris targets, and that the last third is within reach if the private sector and cities and states resolve to do it.
Bloomberg then pledged $15 million to help the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change make up for climate mitigation funding it would be losing with the U.S. pulling out of the climate deal. And a good chunk of his subsequent $200 million commitment to back inventive municipal policies to give mayors a stronger hand in national politics is slated to fund climate solutions.
It’s no wonder that environmentalists are among those calling for a Bloomberg presidential bid in 2020.