Welcome to +1℃ warmer Earth


This is the limit to average global temperature rise that the world has decided we should not cross this Century in order to prevent dangerous climate change. Some think of it as the safe limit despite many scientists warnings that we should really stay below 1.5℃ since two degrees would most likely have devastating consequences (Hansen et al. 2013; Hansen et al. 2015).


This is the amount of average global warming that we are now (2015) experiencing, according to the latest data from NASA. The recent reading is the first to show a consistent break at 1℃ above 1880s levels and is a scary milestone towards the catastrophic 2℃ we really want to avoid.

NASA’s geographic temperature anomalies for a record hot June in 2015. Source:NASA GISS.

The map above shows June temperature anomalies. We can see that there are large areas of 2-4℃ (orange-red) above average readings, mostly located in the Northern Hemisphere. Alaska, western Canada and western Asia has the highest readings. On average we can also see that most of the globe is at least 1℃ above normal, the exceptions being parts of the Atlantic ocean south of Greenland, Scandinavia and the South pole. This illustrates how one degree warming actually means a lot of different conditions around the globe. We have had heat waves in India and Pakistan, massive forest fires in western US and Canada and record breaking heat in parts of South America. But I’m afraid that most Swedes can only think of the rainy summer we are currently experiencing, which runs opposite to the global trend.

For those who don’t think +1℃ is such a big deal, lets look at some climate refugee statistics. Only 40 years ago, Earth’s climate was more stable with less extreme weather, when average temperatures were only 0.5℃ cooler than today. Mainly because there was less available heat energy to pump up storms and melt the polar regions, which is now impacting global wind patterns. We now live in a more dangerous world with a climate system more prone of producing extreme and disruptive weather events.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Agency (IDMA) every person on Earth is now on average 60% more likely to be forced out of their homes by natural disasters, compared to 1975 (population growth accounted for). This is a staggering increase! Over the past 7 years some 158 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters. In 2014, 92% of the total or 17.5 million people were forced to flee due to extreme weather events. The typhoons and floods in the Philippines and India ranking as the worst. Between 2008-2014, floods (55%), storms (29%), Earthquakes (14%) and extreme temperatures (1%) were the most common natural hazards leading to displacement. East Asia and the Pacific, which are densely populated developing regions, have been worst impacted.
Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people have been displaced from their homes each year by disasters brought on by natural hazards, equivalent to one person displaced every second. Source: IDMC 2015

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Abrupt climate changes in the past

Abrupt climate changes to drier conditions impacted the fall of ancient civilisations in the fertile crescent

New research reveals that some of the earliest civilisations in the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent may have been affected by abrupt climate change. Abrupt climate changes occur in the span of years to decades.

A team of international scientists led by researchers from the University of Miami have found that during the first half of the last interglacial period known as the Holocene epoch, which began about 12,000 years ago and continues today, the Middle East most likely experienced wetter conditions in comparison with the last 6,000 years, when the conditions were drier and dustier.

The Fertile Crescent, a region in west Asia that extends from Iran and the Arabian Peninsula to the eastern Mediterranean Sea and northern Egypt is one of the most climatically dynamic regions in the world and is widely considered the birthplace of early human civilisations. The research team found that transitions in several major civilisations across this region, as evidenced by the available historical and archaeological records, coincided with episodes of high atmospheric dust. Higher fluxes of dust are attributed to drier conditions across the region over the last 5,000 years.

Credit: Arash Sharifi
Climate variability during the past 5000 years is shown in the diagram above. The vertical orange bands denote periods of dry and dusty conditions, which correlate to historical records of drought and famine. Transitions between ruling dynasties (grey arrows) in Iran and North Mesopotamia coincides with the episodes of dry and dusty condition in the region.

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Strange summer extremes around the globe

Forest fires, heat waves and heavy precipitation events

In June this year we saw record heat in South America and Western United States but the weather here in Scandinavia has been very rainy and a bit cold this summer. How come? 

The heat wave that struck Pakistan in June resulted in many deaths and temperatures reached 40-44 degrees Celsius in Portugal and Spain at the end of the month. As we can see on the map below, some regions of the world have experienced high temperature anomalies for June. Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia noted new heat records, and massive forest fires have been burning in Canada and Alaska, while we here in Scandinavia have experienced a very rainy summer. It's like weather patterns are getting stuck, perhaps they are?

Source: SMHI (2015)

Changing wind patterns

That is at least one credible theory discussed by Francis & Vavrus (2015). According to the authors new metrics and evidence support a linkage between rapid Arctic warming, relative to Northern hemisphere mid-latitudes, and more frequent wavy jet-stream configurations that favour persistent weather patterns. Results suggest that as the Arctic continues to warm faster than elsewhere on the planet in response to rising greenhouse-gas concentrations the frequency of extreme weather events caused by persistent jet-stream patterns will increase. In that context, heat waves in Pakistan, forest fires in Alaska and Canada and heavy precipitation events in Scandinavia makes sense. Because the temperature gradient between the north pole and the equator has decreased, as more ice melts due to warming, wind patterns start forming more strange patterns that tend to “get stuck”. 

The Arctic has warmed approximately twice as fast as the Northern mid-latitudes since the 1990s, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. This disproportionate temperature rise has influenced large wind circulation patterns, i.e. the polar jet stream, slowing them down. In areas and seasons which temperature gradient have weakened due to Arctic amplification we can now observe wavier and meandering jet-stream patterns.

Changing Ocean Currents

In another study Moore et al. (2015) points out that the loss of sea ice in Greenland and Iceland Seas is affecting the production of dense water that forms the deepest part of the Atlantic ocean current (AMOC) that carries warm water from the tropics northward to Europe and the North Atlantic and cold water southwards. The authors state that this could potentially lead to colder climate in northwest Europe.

Because the Greenland Sea provides much of the mid-depth water that fills the Nordic Seas the observed change in ocean mixing, from once deep mixing to now only shallow mixing, could potentially change the temperature and salinity characteristics of these seas. A slowing down of the Atlantic ocean mixing currents could have dramatic impacts on the climate of the North Atlantic and western Europe. In particular, it would reduce the volume of warm water transported at the surface towards western Europe. More research is needed before we can really understand how the slowing down of North Atlantic ocean currents could impact European climate. But one thing is sure, we are experiencing some weird climate these days and we have only warmed the planet to about 0.85 degrees Celsius, imagine what 2 degrees would be like! 

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Committing to several meters of sea-level rise?

Projected sea-level rise of 5 meters in western Europe. Source: Rowley et al. (2007)

New research indicates we could be heading for 6 meters of sea-level rise

Researchers part of the international Past Global Changes project, have analysed sea levels during several warm periods in Earth's geological past when global average temperatures were similar to or slightly warmer than today (~1C above pre-industrial levels) (Dutton et al. 2015). The team concluded that during the last interglacial, a warm period between ice ages 125, 000 years ago, the global average temperature was similar to the present and this was linked to a sea-level rise of 6-9 meters, caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica. And 400,000 years ago sea-levels rose 6-13 meters. 

What is scary about these two periods is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained around 280 parts per million (ppm). The research group also looked at sea levels during the Pliocene, 3 million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels reached around 400 ppm, similar to today's levels. According to the scientists, sea levels were at least 6 meters higher than today. This could happen to us, but surely it would take a long time, right?

Risk of rapid sea-level rise

Well, in another recent study a group of 17 scientists describes a scenario where the world oceans rise much faster than models have predicted (Hansen et al. 2015). The study basically points out that a 2C global average rise in temperature, a political limit to induced warming, would result in a rise of the world's oceans to dangerous levels. The team looked at what happened during the Eemian period when atmospheric temperatures were approximately 1C warmer than they are now and found that ocean levels were much higher than they should have been based on modern climate models. The explanation for this could be that even a small climate forcing could set in motion reinforcing feedback loops in the climate system. In this case, warming led to a small amount of ice sheet melt, which changed ocean currents, which melted more ice. Such complex dynamics are not well incorporated into modern climate models.

Sea-level rise is speeding up. Source: Hansen et al. 2015

Hansen and colleagues conclude that humanity faces near certainty of eventual sea level rise of at least Eeemian proportions, some 5-9 meters, if fossil fuel emissions continue on current trajectory. This would mean that coastal cities and low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, European lowlands, and large portions of the United States eastern coast and northeast China plains could be completely lost or almost impossible to protect. If reinforcing feedbacks kick in then rapid sea level rise could beigin sooner than most models assume. If the Southern Ocean subsurface warming of the Antarctic ice sheets continues to grow we will probably not be able to avoid sea level rise of several meters. And it could happen over decades, not centuries. But this is highly uncertain. What we do know is that we are on a very dangerous climate trajectory and time is running out to change course.

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Civil society green media

Small is beautiful. Credit: Linda Bergqvist

The fourth estate is dead

We have been able to read about the Greek crisis all summer now, but really is that the biggest crisis we face right now? What is of most public interest. Nope, of course not, what is Greece compared to the planet? I'm so fed up with lousy reporting on critical environmental news, last week several international and Swedish newspapers ran the story about “a new little ice age” heading our way. It so completely incorrect, since we are warming the planet, I am truly baffled how journalists could pick and run with this story. 

And why are we not getting daily updates on the real environmental news, like: Arctic sea ice melting, the amount of icebergs calving off Greenland, oceans pH values, CO2 uptake in the world's forests, rising greenhouse gas emissions, reduction in fish stocks or the amount of chemicals and plastics we let our into the oceans??? The fourth estate is truly dead. Now we need bloggers, civil society and NGOs to spread the real stories about the state of the planet.

Long live civil society media

We need new “green” news sites, blogs and pages that can complement all the financial drivel in mainstream media. Many seem to believe that if we get more environmental news we will just lose interest, but that is not the case. Only by being fed daily with challenges and solutions for our degraded planet can we finally get the idea that it is a big deal, and that we have to deal with it now. 

Today there is a lack of continuity that makes us relax and forget about the problems. But wait a minute, parts of west Antarctica is now in irreversible melt, that will add at least 1 meter of sea level rise! It will affect hundreds of million people especially in the developing world but no nation can escape the impacts. It is not “something happening over there”, climate change and biodiversity loss are global problems and affects all of us. When did you last see world leaders going forth and back trying to solve the planetary crisis?, like the politicians are now doing in Europe regarding the Greek crisis. Never, is the sad answer. Not even this critical year (2015) when global leaders are supposed to meet in Paris to negotiate a new climate deal that will determine all of our futures. Amazing, where is the political will? We as a civil society need to get more active and push our leaders, hold them accountable to promises and call them out when needed. If corporate media cannot handle it we will have to do it ourselves.

Examples of good websites for more environmental news:

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Moving beyond facts and figures - Climate Change Ethics

7/02/2015 , 0 Comments

Turning the Tide on Climate Change. Credit: LucAleria (CC-BY-3.0)

Thinking about climate change from an ethical perspective

Imagine the following situation. A drug addict is told by his/her doctor that the addiction has taken a heavy toll on the body, so badly that any further drug intake could lead to death. When the addict gets home he/she sees the drugs still at the table. The addict sits down and stares at the drugs. In his/her mind thoughts are swirling, like “the doctor probably exaggerated, a little fix can't be so bad” and “one has to be an optimist, if I become worse the doctors will probably find a solution” . The person is in a conflict between the short term pleasure felt by taking the drugs and the long term goal to survive.

The planet's upper- and middle class people have developed this kind of addiction problem, however, the addiction in question is to fossil fuels. Short term economic benefits are preferred over long term well-being and survival. Despite scientists warning us of the consequences of our behaviour. Famous NASA physicist James Hansen describe the consequences clearly. If we burn all the fossil fuels left in the ground it will result in runaway temperature increases that with all likelihood will lead to all the ice on Earth melting which would raise sea levels by 75 meters. If we also burn all the tar sand and shale oil left we can be certain that Earth will turn as uninhabitable as the planet Venus (Hansen, 2010).

Options out of this situation seems to be four. The first is that Hansen and other scientists have misjudged the situation. The second is that large parts of the mentioned fossil fuels will not be used as it turns out we need more energy to extract them than they contain (i.e. no net energy gain). The third is that renewable fuels will become so economical that much of the fossil fuel will be left in the ground. To lean on any of these options is to hope for luck. The fourth option, instead, builds on the precautionary principle which states that we shouldn't take substantial risks today that might create great hardship for future generations. The question then becomes: do we have workable strategies to realise such a goal? To have a shot at containing global warming within the safe operating space we will need a carefully prepared analysis of the character of the problem.

Are we focusing on the right things?

A second analysis to think about is if our society is focusing on the right questions. Jared Diamond shows in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005) how vulnerable human societies are, and how they risk collapsing if people don't challenge old beliefs. Despite our society’s enormous richness, our main focus is always on increasing economic growth. Economic growth is still believed to be the solution to all our societal problems, like unemployment. But societies that focus on economic growth will not solve the climate crisis. First of, the focus is wrong since the global warming problem is more important than the unemployment problem. However, most politicians will say that there is no conflict of interest, that we can solve both problems at once through “green investments”. But this does not give equal weight to the welfare of future generations since it relies on economic growth, or so called “green growth”. To solve the unemployment problem we probably need to think about different solutions, like sharing the jobs that already exist, that challenges old beliefs and doesn't rely on economic growth, while keeping focus on the climate problem. Focus is thus necessary to solve difficult problems.

Are some solutions part of the problem?

The last analysis is about how certain suggested solutions might actually be part of the problem. A classic example of failure to solve a problem is “doing more of the same” and expecting a different result. Paradoxically, if the strategy is to do more of the same that we already know doesn’t work we need to think about trying to do the opposite of that strategy. However, some solutions whereby doing more of the same is the strategy could work, as for example in the case of raising fines for committing environmental crimes. But if a supposed solution doesn’t work it could be that it is of the wrong type. This risk is high in the case of global warming. Currently we are headed in the wrong direction since greenhouse gases are increasing and not decreasing. It’s easy to think that the solution is to do more of the same, e.g. spread awareness about the problem, with the implicit assumption that if one does it enough our development trajectory will change. However, such a solution assumes that we are capable of handling the problem with the survival instincts inherited from our evolution

Limitations of the human mind

Most research shows that our survival instincts are not good at handling large slow-moving threats. Basically, our survival instincts have not evolved to solve problems as complex as global warming. Humans have only evolved to solve threats that arise in our close proximity, triggers fear and motivates fast action. In short, threats that can be handled by fight or flight. If the threat is caused by human activity it should be clear who is responsible so that we know whom we should fight. It should also be a problem that has happened before so that we know from experience how to handle it. And the people with power to solve the problem should be granted short term benefits if they manage to complete the task. None of these criteria is true for global warming. Thus, humans ordinary psychological response is not part of the solution but part of the problem. Instead of trying to spread awareness we need to focus on solutions which circumvents the human tendency to be steered by short term benefits. Our moral side, our tendency to have opinions about what is right and wrong, allow for other solution. A global ethic that includes all people on Earth and considerations for future generations could help us move forward.

The Future

If the drug addict realised that the only way to survive was to stop taking the drug it wouldn’t be without the transient hardships of withdrawal. In a similar way, society doesn’t know what to do to emerge from either economic crisis or climate crisis. Instead of talking about doing more of the same, i.e. more economic growth and raising awareness, we should focus on new ways to handle our economy, that needs to be tested, as it will involve both benefits and disadvantages. We cannot escape change that might be perceived by some as worsening conditions. Those who look for solutions that only contain benefits will be looking in vain. The big challenge is thus to create a new society that is steered by a global ethic instead of the belief in never ending economic growth.

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