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Beyond Paris, Part 1: Humans are Changing the Climate for the Worse

Matthew Stepp's picture
Center for Clean Energy Innovation

Matthew Stepp is the Executive Director for the Center for Clean Energy Innovation specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology...

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Humans and Global Warming

By Matthew Stepp and Amanda Kibbe, Center for Clean Energy Innovation

In 2012, Jesse Jenkins and Matthew Stepp took stock of the global climate policy challenge in an online series titled The Future of Global Climate Policy. Since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its Fifth Assessment and many countries are taking stock of their existing—and some argue, failed—climate policies. Looking to the future, the latest round of international climate negotiations is set to close in Paris at the end of 2015, potentially offering the end of one era of global climate policymaking and the start of something new. With an eye on the long-term impacts of the 2015 negotiations, Amanda Kibbe and Matthew Stepp take an updated look in a five-part series on the state of the climate challenge.

Global climate change is often difficult to assess. The weather changes daily and global climate changes on long timescales. Regions and countries are impacted differently. It is challenging to express complex, long-term climate trends in comparison to daily and seasonal changes in the weather that the general public experiences. But with each passing year, the science, observations, and modeling of global climate change become even clearer: humans continue to influence global climate change by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which increases Earth’s average temperature.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the United Nations sanctioned scientific body tasked with synthesizing the mountains of scientific literature on climate change—completed its Fifth Assessment in 2014. It’s overwhelming scientific consensus is more confident than ever that the climate is changing, going so far as to describe the warming of the Earth’s climate as “unequivocal” and “unprecedented,” and that human activity is the cause. In an aggressive rhetorical flourish, the IPCC states that, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

To be clear, the IPCC’s confidence isn’t much of a profound statement of new scientific theory. Rather, it is a renewal of scientific fact long-argued for much of the last decade that is now being played out in Earth observation data and weather events, and often to a much more dangerous degree than originally predicted. Of course, capturing all of the factors that shape the world’s climate is a monumental task; we will summarize some of the main indicators captured in the IPCC report:

Increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations:The concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere continues to increase.  In 2011, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the most significant GHG emitted into the atmosphere—reached 390.5 ppm or 40 percent higher than concentrations measured prior to the industrial revolution (280 pm). In April 2014, global CO2 concentrations hit 402 ppm, the highest levels in over 800,000 years. There is near universal consensus in the scientific community that this increase in GHG and CO2 concentrations, due to human activity, has triggered a series of dynamic changes in the Earth’s climate system.

Increasing Ocean and Air Temperatures: As a result of increasing GHG concentrations, global mean surface temperature (both land and oceans) has increased by 0.85°C since the late 19th century. More specifically, the last three decades have been the warmest period of the past 1400 years. The number of warm days and nights has increased on a global scale, resulting in fewer cold days and nights. And because of better data collection since the Fourth Assessment, the IPCC is also certain that global average sea surface temperatures (SST) have increased as well.

Changes in Extreme Weather:  In the United States, the impacts of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina are beginning to leave a lasting impression of climate change. And while economic and population growth also play a significant role in the overall impact of extreme weather events, the IPCC states that heat waves, heavy precipitation events, tropical cyclones, and drought have increased in many regions across the world. With only a few exceptions, wet regions are becoming wetter, and dry regions are becoming drier, exacerbating impacts of both floods and droughts around the world.

Loss in Ice Sheets, Glaciers, Sea Ice Extent, and Snow Cover: With the rise in air and ocean temperatures, it’s no surprise that the planet’s ice and snow has begun to melt. In the past 20 years, ice sheets in both Greenland and Antarctica have been losing mass. The rate of ice loss in the most recent decade was eight-times faster in Greenland, and nearly five-times faster in Antarctica, compared to the prior decade. Similarly, glaciers, Arctic sea ice, and snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere have also decreased substantially.

Rise in Sea Level: Accounting for ocean currents, wind, and geography, global sea levels have risen, largely due to the loss of glacier mass, sea ice, and ice sheets, as well as ocean expansion due to warmer temperatures. According to the IPCC, sea levels have risen by 1.7 mm/year since 1901, a faster rate since the mid-19th century compared to the previous two millennia. In the last 20 years, the rate of sea level rise has nearly doubled.

In the previous series on the Future of Global Climate Change, the consensus was, “dangerous warming is coming, if not already here today.” It might sound like a broken record, particularly within the climate policy debate in Washington, but the main takeaway from the IPCC’s 2014 consensus on climate science is: climate change is real, it’s already happening, and it’s accelerating. The question remains how badly the climate will change, not whether it will change at all. In Part 2 of the series, we’ll take a look at the IPCC’s projections of potential impacts of climate change if the world doesn’t act fast.

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Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Jun 5, 2014

This article omits what is likely (dare I say “extremely likely”?) to be the most serious near-term issue: the destruction of ecosystems caused by a physical environment that is changing faster than they can adapt. For a good example, see

Matthew Stepp's picture
Matthew Stepp on Jun 5, 2014

Tim –

You’re certainly right that global warming is changing the physical environment. Though I would put examples like the baby Puffins under the category of “increasing air and water temperature” as that is the direct driver of Puffin deaths. It all goes towards saying, changes are happening now and it’s only going to get worse.

Matthew Stepp

Erich J. Knight's picture
Erich J. Knight on Jun 5, 2014

Pleistocene Net Primary Production;
Reaching into prehistory we have no accounts to rely on. The myths and stories written at the dawn of history, the human record, of being cast from Eden, fending for our selves, then scourged by the great flood of Gilgamesh have been potent lessons for human aspirations & guidance through the millenniums.

More exacting are the geologic records in sediments & ice cores, written on pages of stone, preserved chronologically in layers of ice. These records have no need for myth nor metaphors. Stark truth tellers of what weather & climate was, pollen micro-fossils produced. Stone for billions of years, sediments for millions and Ice & stalactites for hundreds of thousands of years.

Many Climate researchers look to the Pliocene epoch 2.5 million years ago because it was the last time our world experienced 400 PPM CO2, to show folks what we are in for now.
I feel a greater lesson and model to follow however is to look at the late Pleistocene. Just 12,900 years ago, the dawning of the Ag Revolution, with new findings in Jericho & Turkey setting this revolutions beginnings to 0ver 12,000 years ago.

The late Pleistocene to Holocene boundary shows a prestigious pedogenesis, the loess–paleosol sequences of the central and northern Great Plains record a broad peak of high effective moisture, a pedogenesis we can emulate with the bio-remediation techniques we avocate on this list.
The new research concerning the ecologically limiting effects of Phosphorous caused by the loss of the Mega-Fanua means we have never seen the true vigor that forest & grass lands could be. That what we now see as “pristine” systems are but a shadow of their primary production potential.

If we replicate the Ecologic Services of the extinct megafauna, since our 7 billion makes us the new Megafauna, then we could build back Soil Carbon with massive increases of Net Primary Production. An ecology not seen for 12,900 years.
An Ecology not limited by Phosphorous, Sodium & lost Soil-C.

. Biochar/Biofuel technology has so many market applications yet to be cultivated; “Carbon Fodder” feeds for Livestock, enhancing Plant Chemical Communications, (plant signaling), even Char building materials such as Biochar-Plasters which block Cellphone signals, the potential markets are massive.

CoolPlanet’s  investors & CEOs project (assert) that they will be the first Trillion Dollar Company, based on their $1.50/Gal. cost to produce Bio-Gasoline, $2.00/gal Jet & Diesel fuels

For a complete review of the current science & industry applications of Biochar please see my 2014 Soil Science Society of America Biochar presentation. How thermal conversion technologies can integrate and optimize the recycling of valuable nutrients while providing energy and building soil carbon, I believe it brings together both sides of climate beliefs.

A reconciling of both Gods’ and mans’ controlling hands.

Agricultural Geo – Engineering; Past, Present & Future
Across scientific disciplines carbons are finding new utility to solve our most vexing problems

2014 SSSA Presentation;
Agricultural Geo-Engineering; Past, Present & Future.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jun 11, 2014

I broadly agree with Matt’s recommendation of an innovation-focused strategy for dealing with AGW.

But the title of this piece is exaggerated and misleading. There is broad agreement among scientists and other analysts that human activities have been affecting the global climate. On average over the last century or so, global surface temperatures have increased. Most scientists believe that most of the average increase can “very likely” be attributed to human greenhouse gas emissions.

But the increase in average surface temperature did pause for about 17 years recently, as the IPCC’s latests reports concede. And the comprehensive Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study showed that while average temperatures increased in about 2/3 of measuring stations over a span of several decades, temperatures actually declined at about 1/3 of the places measured. Similarly while sea level has been rising on average the change is greater in some places and less in others. Some coastal areas are actually rising out of the sea faster than the increase in ocean volume, while others are sinking as fast or faster because of land subsidence.

So it is a leap to say that the apparent change in climate is “for the worse.” The latter is a value judgment that lies outside the domain of geophysics and the subject of IPCC’s inquiries. Changes are diverse and vary over time and from place to place. Some are beneficial and some may be deleterious. And benefits or damages are distributed unequally among different countries, regions, economies, industries, and so on.

For instance, Tim Havel raises a germane issue in his comment: “…the destruction of ecosystems caused by a physical environment that is changing faster than they can adapt.” That is the sort of widely repeated worry that, while possible in some circumstances, may also be wrong. Contrast it with this excerpt from an essay on “Adaptation, Global Warming and Evolution” by Katy Horder (Cambridge U.):

So there is precedent for rapid climate change leading to catastrophic extinction events but there is some evidence that the rate of evolution may increase as the earth heats up.

It has been shown that bodily functions of squid living in warmer water become faster allowing greater levels of reproduction, meaning that there is a larger population with the potential for greater genetic variation due to random mutation events. It follows that with increased genetic variation in the population and increased pressure to adapt, evolution by natural selection should occur faster, always providing that temperatures do not increase so drastically that the entire population dies.

Looking at past events can often be useful in predicting the future, and it appears that an increase in temperature 50 million years ago resulted in a great diversification due to an increased rate of evolution in insects and bats. This is in fact thought to be the point at which several types of bat evolved aviation and sonar abilities to seek out their newly evolved insect prey.

While blurring these nuances may make for a catchier headline, it may undermine the credibility of the valuable policy case the authors are aiming to make.


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