Polar Jet Stream Wrecked By Climate Change Fuels Unprecedented Wildfires Over Canada and Siberia

This year, the warm air invasion started early. A high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream stretching for thousands of miles over the temperate Pacific and on up into Alaska and the Chukchi Sea slowly drifted eastward. Reinforced by a powerful bank of blocking high pressure systems over the northeastern Pacific, this ridge settled over Canada’s Northwest Territory in a zone from the Mackenzie Delta and over a broad region east and south. From mid June onward, temperatures in the 70s, 80s and even low 90s dominated sections of this Arctic region.

The heat built and built, drying the shallow soil zone over the thawing permafrost creating a tinder-dry bed layer waiting for the lightning strikes that were bound to follow in the abnormal Arctic heat.

By late June, major fire complexes had erupted over the region. Through early and mid July, these massive systems expanded even as the anomalous heat dome tightened its grip. Today, the fires in Northwestern Canada have reached a horrific intensity and one, the Birch Complex fire, alone has now consumed more than a quarter of a million acres.

According to reports from Canada’s Interagency Fire Center, total acres burned to date are more than six times that of a typical year. A rate of burning that, according to a recent scientific study, is unprecedented not just for this century, but for any period in Canada’s basement forest record over the last 10,000 years.

Birch Creek Fire Complex Aerial close-up of Birch Creek Fire complex

(Thunderstorm? No. Smoke from a major volcanic eruption injecting ash into the stratosphere? No. The upper frame shot is an aerial photo taken of the Birch Creek Fire Complex on July 14, 2014 from a distance of about 30 miles away. It is just one of the massive fires now raging in the Northwest Territory region of Canada. A closer picture, taken from a few miles out, reveals the flaming base of a massive smoke plume. Image source: NWT Fire Facebook.)

From helicopter and airplane, the volume of smoke pouring out of these massive tundra and boreal forest fires is amazing, appearing to mimic major thunderstorm complexes or volcanic eruptions. Closer shots reveal towering walls of flame casting billows of smoke thousands of feet into the air above.

The smoke from these fires, now numbering in excess of 186 separate blazes, is becoming entrained in the weakening circumpolar Jet Stream. The steely gray billows now trail in a massive cloud of heat-trapping black carbon that stretches more than 2000 miles south and east. Its southern-most reaches have left residents of the northwestern and north-central US smelling smoke for weeks, now. Meanwhile, the cloud’s eastern-most reaches approach Baffin Bay and the increasingly vulnerable ice sheets of Greenland.

Smoke from Canadian Wildfires drifts toward Greenland

(Satellite shot of smoke from massive fire complexes over Canada spreading eastward. Black carbon and related CO2 emissions from forest fires can serve as a powerful amplifying feedback to already dangerous human-caused climate change. Image source: NASA/LANCE-MODIS.)

Across the Arctic, Siberia Also Burns

As media attention focuses on the admittedly horrific fires of unprecedented magnitude raging over Canada, a second region of less well covered but possibly even more extensive blazes burns on the other side of the Arctic Ocean throughout the boreal forest and tundra zones of Central Siberia in Russia.

There, record heat that settled in during winter time never left, remaining in place throughout summer and peaking in the range of 80-90 degree Arctic temperatures over the past couple of weeks. Over the last seven days, massive fires have erupted which, from the satellite vantage, appear about as energetic as the very intense blazes that ripped through Siberia during the record summer fire year of 2012. It is a set of extreme conditions we’ve been warning could break out ever since March and April when intense early season fires ripped through the Lake Baikal and Southern Yedoma regions.

Now, what appears to be more than 200 fires are belching out very thick plumes of smoke stretching for more than 2000 miles over North-Central Siberia and on into the recently ice-free zone of the Laptev Sea:

Sea of Smoke and Fire From Lake Baikal to Arctic Ocean

(Massive sea of smoke and fire stretching from Lake Baikal and northeast over Central Siberia and on into the Arctic Ocean. Image source: NASA/LANCE-MODIS.)

As with the other set of fires in Canada, the smoke from these massive blazes is entraining in the Jet Stream and stretching across Arctic regions. An ominous blanket of steely gray for the roof of the world and yet one more potential amplifying heat feedback the Arctic certainly does not need.

Potential Amplifying Feedbacks in Context

During recent years, scientists have been concerned by what appears to be an increased waviness and northward retreat of the northern hemisphere Jet Stream. This retreat and proliferation of ridge and trough patterns is thought to be a result of a combined loss of snow and sea ice coverage over the past century and increasing over the past few decades. In 2012, sea ice coverage fell to as low as 55% below 1979 levels with volume dropping as low as 80% below previous values. Over the past seven years, not one day has seen sea ice at average levels for the late 20th Century in the north.

Meanwhile, northern polar temperatures have risen very rapidly under the rapidly rising human greenhouse gas heat forcing, increasing by 0.5 C per decade or about double the global average. It is this combination of conditions that set the stage for fixed ridges over both Russia and Canada creating extreme risk for extraordinary fires.

image

(Weak and wavy polar jet stream on July 17, 2014 shows fixed ridges over the Northwest Territory, Central and Eastern Siberia, Northern Europe and the adjacent North Atlantic and Arctic. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA GFS and various.)

Should both the current sets of fires continue to rage under anomalous high amplitude jet stream waves setting off extreme heat in these Arctic regions, it is possible that large clouds of heat absorbing black carbon could ring the Arctic in a kind of hot halo. The dark smoke particles in the atmosphere would trap more heat locally even as they rained down to cover both sea ice and ice sheets. With the Canadian fires, deposition and snow darkening are a likely result, especially along the western regions of the Greenland Ice Sheet — zones that have already seen a multiplication of melt ponds and increasing glacial destabilization over recent years.

Recent scientific studies have also highlighted the possibility that human-caused climate change is increasing high amplitude jet stream ridge patterns that are transporting more and more heat into Arctic tundra and boreal forest regions. These regions are more vulnerable to fires due to the fact that trees in boreal forest have uniform characteristics that favor burning and tend to rapidly ignite and spread once the upper branches become involved. The unfrozen soil features a narrow basement layer above tundra which dries more rapidly than the soils of more temperate areas, providing tinder fuel to aid in the initial ignition by lightning strike. Thawing, deeper tundra, when dried, is a meters-deep pile of fuel that has accumulated for thousands of years — a kind of peat-like layer that can smolder and re-ignite fires that burn over very long periods. It is this volatile and expanding basement zone that is cause for serious concern and greatly increases the potential fire hazard for thousands of miles of thawing tundra going forward.

Overall, both boreal forest and thawing tundra provide an extraordinary potential fuel for very large fire complexes as the Arctic continues to warm under the human greenhouse gas forcing. And though climate models are in general agreement that the frequency of fires in tundra regions will increase, doubling or more by the end of this century, it is uncertain how extensive and explosive such an increase would be given the high volume of fuel available. Direct and large-scale burning of these stores, which in tundra alone house about 1,500 gigatons of carbon, could provide a major climate and Earth System response to the already powerful human heat forcing.

Though the science at this point is uncertain, we observe very large and unprecedented fire outbreaks with increasing frequency:

“I think it’s really important for us to take advantage of studying these big disturbance events,” noted Dr. Jill Johnstone in a recent interview. “Because, if we can say anything, we can say that we think they’re going to be more common.”

UPDATE:

The smoke plume over North America has now expanded to cover a large section of the continental land mass. As you can see in the image below provided by NOAA, the smoke plume now stretches from the fire zones in the Northwest Territory (fires indicated by red dots), British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California across much of the North American continent extending as far to the north and east as the southern tip of Greenland and as far to the south and east as Maryland, West Virgina and Tennessee:

Smoke Plume

(Massive North American Smoke Plume fed by Tundra and Western Forest Fires. Image source NOAA.)

As of today and yesterday (17 and 18 July) major wildfires continued to burn over much of the Northwest Territory of Canada even as these very large and unprecedented fire complexes were joined by massive outbreaks in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Fire outbreaks were so extreme in both Washington and Oregon that state officials there were forced to declare states of emergency and seek federal assistance for dealing with the ongoing disasters.

You can see the large, steely-gray smoke plumes from these fires in the LANCE MODIS image taken by NASA yesterday in the satellite shot below:

Massive fire complexes in Washington, Oregon and BC

(Massive wildfires in Washington and Oregon prompt officials to issue disaster warnings. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The smoke has become so pervasive that commenter James Cole has made some rather stark observations from Northern Minnesota:

A sky filled with grey haze, you can hardly tell there is a sun up there. No clouds in the sky, but the haze is incredible. Surely from the great Canadian fires!

Due to black carbon loading, such a large cloud of smoke may result in substantial temperature spikes over regions affected. The heat dome over the US West is expected to expand into the central and northern US this weekend with some readings there predicted to reach the 100s. Already, the southwestern heat is spreading north and eastward under the dome of heat-intensifying smoke with a broad area of upper 80s and lower 90s stretching all the way to the southern shores of Hudson Bay.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Arctic, the expanse of wildfires continued to widen with the smoke plume now covering over 2,500 miles and with multiple very large blazes continuing over Central and Northeastern Siberia. Atmospheric black carbon and methane loading (more in a new post) likely contributed to temperatures in the range of 95 degrees F (35 C) near the shores of the Arctic Ocean’s Laptev Sea yesterday as recorded in the following screen capture from Earth Nullschool/GFS:

image

(35 C temperature [95 F]  recorded in northeastern Siberia near the Laptev Sea at about 12:30 AM EST on July 18. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: NOAA/GFS.)

Links:

Fires in Northwest Territories in Line with Unprecedented Burn

What Fires in the Northwest Territories Say About Climate Change

Recent Burning of Boreal Forest Exceeds Fire Regime Limits of Past 10,000 Years (PNAS)

NWT Fire Facebook

NASA/LANCE-MODIS

Earth Nullschool

NOAA GFS

Arctic’s Boreal Forests Burning at Unprecedented Rate

Large Particles From Wildfire Soot Found to Trap 90 Percent More Heat Than Small Particles

North American Smoke Plume Tracking by NOAA

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to James Cole

 

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Climate Change Alarm is Needed and Climate Scientists Aren’t Sounding it Loud Enough

Alarmist. It’s a term climate change deniers seem to bandy about often, these days, as if ‘alarm’ were some kind of bad word. As if alarm weren’t needed or necessary. As if climate change, a primary vehicle for a range of horrors ranging from mass extinctions to catastrophic Earth changes, were some kind of carnival ride or a happy walk in the park.

But what if alarm is entirely called for? What if, for example, you’re standing in or near a river and a massive glacial melt lake up-stream has suddenly released and an immense torrent is now rushing toward you (as happened to thousands in India this year). Would you want the person on the hill near shore who sees the onrushing water to say in a calm, steady voice:

“Hey, you might want to get out. That water could rise a little.”

Or, even worse, would you want them to say, as the deniers would:

“It’s all good. The water’s just fine for swimming.”

Is either of these responses appropriate?

How about just shouting:

“Megaflood on the way! Get the hell out!!”

The IPCC is version #1. The oil company dupes and lackeys are version #2. As for version #3 …

A Call For Climate Change Urgency

One fundamental point a rational observer of the ongoing catastrophe that is human-caused climate change should always keep in mind is that scientists are, by nature and as a group, very conservative. It’s one reason why science, in general, is not a very good indicator of alarm to an emerging crisis. Science is constantly checking itself, is rightfully uncertain about the nature of truth, is constantly challenging its own assumptions. This refinement is a needed part of the improvement of human knowledge. But this process, often, creates a marked underestimation of potentially large-scale events.

Take the cases of sea level rise, Arctic sea ice melt, human CO2 emissions, and ice sheet response over the last 30 years. The combined report of consensus science represented by the IPCC has consistently underestimated rates of loss or increase for all of the above. In short, the best description of past IPCC reports on climate change, and their related forecasts, could be that they were, overall, conservative, muted, and mild when compared to the changes that are being observed now.

The IPCC’s reports are so muted, in fact, that they tend to leave us very vulnerable to what can best be termed as catastrophic events that are ever-more likely as the vicious and violent pace of human greenhouse gas forcing continues to progress. In prognostication of these potential events, the IPCC is an abject failure. It does not take into account the very high likelihood that, if you push the world climate to warm faster than it ever has before, and if you hit temperature increases of 2, 4, 6 degrees Celsius within 30, 50, 100 years that set off Heinrich Events, large Earth system carbon responses (catastrophic CO2 and methane release), rapid sea level rise, and ocean anoxia (dead oceans) in the past, then you are likely to get at least some of these events coming into play over the next 100 years. Yet the IPCC does not issue a report on overall ocean anoxia, or the potential risk for catastrophic ice sheet collapse, or what might result from a massive methane and carbon release from a very rapidly thawing Arctic that is now liberating a massive carbon store to such violent processes as Arctic heatwaves, a raging pace of sea level rise, or a great and explosive outburst of wildfires.

Should the IPCC issue such reports, it might warrant the observation that it had sounded an alarm. But, then, it would be sounding a needed and necessary warning, one that was entirely outside the pejorative ‘Alarmist’ deniers so recklessly bandy at any hint of warning to an obvious and dangerous set of events. One entirely pertinent to the current age of rapid fossil fuel burning and rates of warming that are 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.

Sometimes, alarm is what is needed and absolutely called for.

In short, the scientists should be screaming at us to:

“Get the hell out!”

***

Related Reading:

NASA Scientist James Hansen:

“I suggest that a `scientific reticence’ is inhibiting the communication of a threat of a potentially large sea level rise. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control. I argue for calling together a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea level change issue.”

Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise

(Hat tip to Sourabh)

With ‘Warm Storm’ at Its Heart and Heatwaves Rushing in From The Sides, Arctic Sea Ice Braces for Major Blow

Over the past month, warmth and energy have been building in the Arctic. All around, from Siberia to Scandinavia to Alaska, heatwaves have flared beneath anomalous long-wave patterns in the Jet Stream. Patterns, that in many cases have persisted for months. The Alaskan heat dome sent temperatures there to 98 degrees (Fahrenheit). Temperatures in Siberia flared to the low 90s. And heat built and flared again in Scandinavia and Northeastern Europe, sending Arctic temperatures first into the 80s and then to 92.

This building and highly anomalous heat was coupled by another unusual event — a long duration series of Arctic storms that have thinned and weakened large sections of sea ice near the North Pole. This Persistent Arctic Cyclone has flared and faded, remaining in the Arctic since late May.

Now, with central sea ice weakened and with heat circling in from all around, the Arctic appears to be bracing for a period of rapid sea ice loss.

Part 1: The Monitors Start to Go Sharply Negative

The first hint that the Arctic may be at the start of a precipitous fall in sea ice came when the major monitors all went negative. Cryosphere Today, Jaxa, NSIDC — all these key monitors show Arctic sea ice coverage falling sharply over the past two days.

Cryosphere Today showed a substantial loss of more than 200,000 square kilometers of sea ice area in its most recent 24 hour period. Jaxa and NSIDC showed similar extent losses with NSIDC following a steeply declining curve to 10.6 million square kilometers and JAXA diving down to 10.1 million square kilometers.

You can vividly see this declining curve in the most recent NSIDC graph:

The Cliff Starts NSIDC

(Image source: Pogoda i Klimat, Data Source: NSIDC)

And you can see the stunning near-vertical recent decline in the Cryosphere Today graph here:

Sea Ice Cliff Area CT

(Image source: Pogoda i Klimat, Data source: Cryosphere Today)

Together, these monitors begin to show what could well be the emergence of a potential ‘sea ice cliff’ resulting from rapid loss of ice during a time of escalating impacts. And these impacts appear to be emerging in rapid succession. Most notably, a Warm Storm now melts the central ice even as massive heatwaves threaten to inject hot air into the Arctic’s perimeter.

Part 2: PAC 2013 Now a ‘Warm Storm’

We find that even as these sharp sea ice declines began to emerge, temperatures in the Central Arctic Basin are now all above freezing. Meanwhile, a 995 mb low churns almost directly over the North Pole. This low is part of the same complex of storms that has remained in the Central Arctic since about May 26. Though storms, even strong, long duration storm events like this one, have been known to occur in this region during June, a persistent storm thinning and melting the Central Arctic Basin ice is unprecedented. And this is exactly what has been happening.

Now, it appears this storm has shifted into a new phase that is likely to further enhance central sea ice thinning and melting. The Warm Storm appears to have taken hold.

In a previous post, I defined a ‘Warm’ Arctic Storm as a storm occurring in the Central Arctic in conjunction with average atmospheric temperatures in the range of 0 to 6 degrees Celsius. We are now decisively in the lower end of that temperature range as you can see in the current DMI temperature measure:

Warm Storm Temp June 28

(Image source: DMI)

Note the wide area of above freezing temperatures now dominating all but isolated portions of the Central Arctic. And, for reference, we have the position of our Warm Storm given in the DMI image below.

Warm Storm Pressure June 28

(Image source: DMI)

Here we can see our Warm Storm now hovering almost directly over the North Pole.

These Warm Storm conditions provide an added surface stress to the sea ice by burdening the ice will above freezing precipitation, winds, fog and air with higher moisture content. These forces add to the churning mechanism of the storm which tends to break the fresh water cap that protects the sea ice and pull up warmer, saltier water from below. It is a combined stress that has already greatly eroded and melted the Central Arctic’s sea ice.

A vivid modeling of current and projected impacts of this Warm Storm are graphically displayed in the US Navy CICE/HYCOM thickness monitor below:

Warm Storm Turns Central Arctic Into Puddle

(Image source: US Navy)

In this vivid model history we can see our ‘Warm Storm’ turning a growing section of the Central Arctic sea ice into one enormous melt puddle even as it continues to shove sea ice along the north coast of Greenland and out through the Fram Strait. It is also worth noting the speed and violence with which edge melt is projected to proceed between now and July 5th. Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay, the waters of the Canadian Archipelago, The Kara Sea, The East Siberian Sea, The Chukchi, and even the edges of the Beaufort are all projected (in this model) to see rapid to extraordinarily rapid melt.

As noted before, a ‘Warm Storm’ event is a potential nightmare scenario for sea ice loss. And we’re experiencing the early phase of such an event now.

Part 3: Mangled Jet Stream Delivers Major Arctic Heat Spike

As if the formation of a ‘Warm Storm’ in the Central Arctic wasn’t enough…

Today, the Jet Stream set up to begin to deliver an enormous heat spike based in the Western US, which is predicted to see blast furnace temperatures that challenge Earth’s all time record of 134 degrees (Fahrenheit), extending up across a Canada that I’m not sure is prepared for this level of heat, stretching over the Canadian Archipelago, and finally dumping an enormous heat load into the Beaufort Sea.

We can see the current Jet Stream configuration, which can well be described as a freaky hydra-head pattern with multiple rapid upper air flows converging on the high Arctic, in the image below:

Mangled Hydra-Headed Jet Stream June 28

(Image source: California Regional Weather Service)

In particular, we note the high amplitude Rossby Wave pattern emerging over the western US and reinforced by a second echoing pattern extending up over the Beaufort Sea. The wave height for this massive blocking pattern in the Jet is expected to jump northward over the coming days even as a terrific heat dome intensifies with a center near the ‘Devil’s Armpit’ (Hat Tip to X-Ray Mike over at Collapse) of the US (Southern California, Nevada, Arizona).

By Wednesday, we see extraordinary 35 degree Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) average 5,000 foot temperatures at the heat dome’s heart in the US Southwest (translating into 105 to 123+ degree surface highs over a broad area), and a long pulse of hot air jumping all the way up to the Beaufort Sea where it appears near 80 degree (F) high temperatures could emerge near or even over the sea ice.

You can view this uncanny record hot air pulse in the ECMWF weather model forecast below:

Mangled Jet Stream Delivers Severe Heat Pulse

(Image source: ECMWF)

Note the angry hot pink heat dome over the US Southwest and the long, hot arm extending from it and all the way into the Beaufort. It is also worth noting that a secondary, though somewhat less intense, heat surge also emerges above Scandinavia and extends deep into the Arctic from its opposite end, creating a kind of pincher of hot air keeping the Arctic in its grip.

By Thursday, this hot air gets wrapped into a 990 mb ‘Warm Storm’ that then goes traipsing through the Beaufort. Not a pleasant prospect, if one wishes to see sea ice preserved…

Worst Case Melt Scenario May be Emerging

So by late June, it appears that the worst case melt scenario — with a storm hollowing out and melting the Arctic sea ice from the center and powerful warm air pulses delivered by a mangled Jet Stream rapidly melting the sea ice from its edges — may be emerging. A start to a ‘melt cliff’ that occurred this week, therefore, may extend and rapidly advance over the coming days. Model ensembles seem to support this forecast even as atmospheric heat delivery to the Arctic ramps up. It is an extreme situation that is well worth monitoring.

Links:

NSIDC

Cryosphere Today

DMI

US Navy

California Regional Weather Service

ECMWF

Obama’s Climate Action Plan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Yesterday, President Barack Obama gave a rousing speech to promote his new Climate Action Plan. In it, he used a number of keywords that those concerned about the increasingly violent state of the world’s climate might appreciate. He used the term ‘tar sands,’ when making the equivocal statement that he ‘wouldn’t approve the Keystone XL Pipeline unless it was proved to be carbon-neutral’ and in his uplifting conclusion he used the terms ‘Invest’ and ‘Divest’ — slogans the climate movement have used in their efforts to shift investment funds from fossil fuel companies to those that support renewable energy.

The speech earned praise from the likes of Bill McKibben, Chris Hayes, Michael Mann, and Joe Romm. Joe Romm labeled Obama a ‘climate hawk,’ Michael Mann gushed saying:

“It is the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years and President Obama should be applauded for the bold leadership he has shown in confronting the climate change threat head on.”

Bill McKibben noted that Obama ‘had begun to advance the country in a sane direction.’ And Chris Hayes, citing the ‘invest, divest’ line from the speech, claimed these were the most ‘crypto-radical lines the President has ever uttered.’

And there is much in the plan to be praised though, perhaps, not enough to earn President Obama the label of ‘climate hawk,’ despite his very encouraging statements and use of language. In fact, there is compelling reason to believe that the Obama plan represents a response that is a too little, too late confrontation with a growing age of consequences.

The Good: Begins to Lay the Groundwork for Comprehensive Climate Policy

When we cut past the, admittedly encouraging, rhetoric and look at the nuts and bolts of the Obama plan, what we find are a few moderate steps in the right direction and a structured Action Plan that begins to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive climate policy. These steps in the right direction, however, may well represent walking when we should be running (see more on this in ‘The Bad’ and ‘The Ugly’).

The keystone (pun intended) of this plan is to establish carbon as a pollutant and to set in place a framework to begin direct legal regulation of the potent greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide (CO2). This is important because it spells the beginning of the end for CO2 emissions from a policy standpoint. It involves re-tooling and working with existing power infrastructure and supply lines to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions. So this first step is well worthy of the ‘good’ label.

It is worth noting that the US has achieved serious reductions in CO2 emissions over the first five years of Obama’s Presidency. These reductions were achieved via a combination of switching to a greater reliance on natural gas, markedly increased vehicular fuel efficiency standards, a rapidly increasing adoption of renewable energy generation, increased building efficiency and light bulb efficiency standards, and an increased reliance on biofuels (which currently uses a portion of the food crop to fuel vehicles).

Obama has also been helped by a massive campaign by environmentalists to shut down the nation’s dirtiest coal plants and to halt new construction of these carbon belching behemoths. These campaigns are one key reason why renewables and natural gas have had the opportunity to take greater market share.

If other countries around the world had achieved the CO2 reductions America has seen during Obama’s tenure, we would be in a much better place globally. Total CO2 emissions would have begun to fall off. Instead, the world has seen successive gains in the volume of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere with the total hitting nearly 32 gigatons this year. So US achievements in this area are both positive and noteworthy (Good).  But they occur against a very stark global background.

Natural gas, however, does have a darker side (see Bad and Ugly) in that its enhanced production via fracking results both in more methane emissions even as it threatens local water supplies. Obama is right to seek to regulate industry, via his action plan, in an attempt to reduce methane leaks. Sadly, his speech and plan had no content involving threats to water, which appears to have been left out.

Obama’s proposal to remove all funding for new foreign coal plants, except in the poorest of countries and when carbon capture technology is applied, can also be labeled ‘Good.’ It represents starting to apply pressure on almost all countries to begin to remove this most polluting of all greenhouse gas sources or to construct means to capture and store the carbon emitted. It could well be labeled extraordinarily good because it will give the US the opportunity to diplomatically oppose massive new coal plant construction projects on the books for India and China unless Carbon Capture and Storage CCS facilities are added. This particular policy measure does look rather ‘hawkish’ so I’m tentatively hopeful we may see more diplomatic effort on the CO2 front. If such policies are aggressively applied we could see a start to a falling off of new coal plant construction as well as some of the first actual applications of CCS (making renewables more competitive vs coal).

Lastly, the Obama plan includes a raft of new alternative energy and efficiency measures. These include setting aside enough public land to support new renewable energy projects for 6 million homes, a number of increased building efficiency standards, constructing gigawatts worth of wind and solar capacity for US military bases, and a number of more minor, but still worthwhile, measures. Such efforts can all well be labeled ‘Good.’

In sum, these policies seem to represent a grand vision on climate change that seeks to:

1. Regulate and reduce carbon emissions at the source.

2. Begin putting in place the regulatory precedent for requiring fossil fuel facilities to capture carbon, both in the US and overseas.

3. Target new coal plant construction overseas for removal of US funding or, otherwise, pressuring nations to build CCS at these facilities.

4. Reduce methane emissions that result from hydraulic fracturing.

5. Continue to increase renewable energy adoption while pushing efficiency standards higher.

6. Establish a precedent whereby the US can employ diplomacy in an effort to reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

When taken together, Obama’s approach is far more rational than those submitted by Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. At this point, Mitt would be submitting his policy to rapidly drill our way to oblivion while ignoring the fact that climate change is a problem altogether. Obama, on the other hand, moves gradually but decisively in the right direction. So all the efforts above are positive innovations. As such, we can expect loud and outrageous opposition to this, somewhat rational, approach to come screaming up from the ranks of conservatives. The ‘job killing’ rhetorical horse will be beaten to death yet again. So everyone prepare.

But despite the fact that Obama’s evolving climate policy is far, far better than anything submitted by the lunatics, deniers, fossil fuel cheerleaders, and curled into the fetal position while waiting for doomsday republican party, it still has a number of gaping holes in it. In short, there is reason for serious concern that Obama’s climate policy does not move fast enough.

The Bad: Slow Motion Carbon Reductions, Promoting Fracking Overseas, Pumping North American Oil and Gas Production

Though Obama’s proposed climate policy begins to construct the regulatory ‘stick’ to use against emitters in order to reduce carbon dumping into the atmosphere, it doesn’t apply this stick very liberally. Obama’s plan only calls for the US to reduce its total emissions by another 3 gigatons by 2030. Since the US in on track to dump 102 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere between now and then, the 3 gigatons reduction is less than 3%. This, somewhat blase, reductions plan is hardly worthy of the term ‘climate hawk.’ It’s more like a climate chicken trying to cross the road to climate hawk fame and getting creamed by an oil tanker on the way across.

Hyperbole aside, it is worth raising the question: does a US role as climate leader require more than a 3% total reduction in planned emissions between now and 2030? I would say the answer to this question is, unequivocally, YES. A more worthy and, safer for our kids, target of 20%, 30%, or even 50% by that time is what should be on the table for US climate leadership. By comparison, if the world took such an approach, global CO2 emissions would total in excess of 522 gigatons between now and 2030. This snail’s pace rate of reduction would surely consign ‘the kids’ to a devastating 2 degree Celsius warming by the end of this century and a brutal 4-5 degree Celsius warming long-term. It also almost assures that large-scale emissions will continue long past 2030, an event that puts in place serious risk of even more catastrophic consequences.

Even worse, the Obama plan openly pushes for the use of US hydraulic fracturing technology overseas. Recent reports show that fracking has added 11% to the world’s oil and gas reserves, thereby adding to the total volume of fossil fuels on the world’s oil and gas company books that will need to stay in the ground to prevent a climate nightmare. Yet the Obama administration appears keen on promoting this new technology. As a result, the conservative 11% addition to oil and gas reserves may well double to 20% or more — creating the potential for far more trouble than the US solves by cutting carbon emissions by 3 gigatons at home. It also dramatically eats into any gains policy-makers may achieve by reducing new coal plant construction. Further, there is no guarantee that the methane leaks associated with fracturing and which we are struggling with so mightily today will be responsibly contained in foreign countries. To wit, the countries most likely to make wide-spread use of fracturing — Russia, China, and India — are least likely to responsibly regulate these sources.

So it is worth noting that though natural gas burns cleaner than coal in power plants, new sources produce large volumes of methane via extraction and as such it cannot rationally be viewed as a bridge to anywhere but a climate change nightmare. The gas plants, extraction, and pipeline apparatus will create a carbon emitting structure that will last for many decades — perhaps 80 years or longer. So investing in its wide-spread expansion is a very, very risky endeavor. Though better than coal, it is certainly no leap frog, and use of the term bridge is highly questionable. In short, we achieve climate change game over faster with coal, slower with gas. So, at best, the expansion of natural gas production worldwide may buy us a little time. But even these marginal gains are called into question by the expanded methane emissions resulting from hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, the pace of climate change advances at such a rate as to indicate we have very little time left.

Lastly, the Obama plan continues to hint that North American oil and gas production will continue to expand for some time. Both his tacit support of expansion of domestic oil extraction via fracking and his continuing ambiguity on the issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline continue to be causes for concern.

Though Obama has rhetorically distanced himself from the ‘tar sands’ Keystone XL pipeline, there is no clear indication what his decision will be on a structure that is, in large part, already pre-constructed. Pipes are being laid at a feverish pace and simply wait signatory approval by leadership before they are joined. Should Obama not approve the Keystone Pipeline and endure a massive and vicious backlash from powerful vested business interests, we can shift this particular issue to the ‘Good’ category and even put a climate hawk feather in Obama’s cap. But this critical climate issue remains up in the air. Now, in all fairness, I had written earlier that we shouldn’t have the Keystone Pipeline without a comprehensive climate policy which pushes to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, I must say that the push for a 3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the course of 17 years is no-where near enough to allay my concerns. So, in light of a notably robust regulatory advancement but with paltry goals, I must continue to fervently support efforts to block said pipeline.

In light of these policy initiatives, it is worth noting that Obama is granted the unenviable position of attempting to balance an economic system that requires growth to survive against a coming climate catastrophe made worse by the exploitation of a resource upon which our economies are still mostly tooled to rely: fossil fuels. Obama appears to be attempting to keep the machine humming and build in fixes (renewables) while at the same time partly promoting economic expansion via enhanced fossil fuel extraction. Obama’s plan seems to, at least in part, cut against his rhetoric. If Obama were truly serious about achieving growth outside the structure of fossil fuels, he would promote alternative energy sources more and begin a more rapid cut-back of emissions-based fossil fuel use. His approach, therefore, is still heavy on the side of traditional, fossil fuel-based, growth and less so heavy on the side of safety for our children. His plan is extraordinarily risky and leaves open a high chance of serious climate change harm coming down the pipeline. On the other hand, I wouldn’t label his plan blatantly stupid. I reserve that for when republicans counter-propose with their ‘drill the world into oblivion and burn coal ’til the world burns’ mantra.

Together, slow motion carbon emission reductions, support for fracturing in the US and overseas, and continuing ambiguity over the Keystone XL Pipeline represent the ‘Bad,’ dark underbelly of an otherwise positive proposal. These particular issues raise the question of whether or not Obama’s new climate policy is serious enough to provide substantial help in addition to preventing and reducing the harm rumbling our way like a freight-train that inexorably accumulates steam and velocity.

The Ugly: Preparing Communities for Climate Disasters

Now we get to the Ugly part. The part that makes real all the troubles I’ve been doing my best to highlight here. The part where Obama talks about hardening communities against climate change.

Obama noted in his speech that he would set aside funds to make communities more resilient to climate troubles that are already emerging and are likely to continue to get worse at least for decades to come. He also noted that, in some cases, it may be impossible to prevent damage in some areas, so a system would be put in place to ensure that money is sent where it is likely to do the most good and not wasted in areas that cannot be saved. He didn’t use these exact words, but the implication in his speech is clear:

Some communities will probably not survive what we’ve already set in motion.

On the front line of our expanding climate emergency lies the coastal cities of the US and the world. In particular, Miami, has fallen into the cross hairs as a city that will be very difficult to save. Under current emissions scenarios, it is possible that the world will see a 10 foot or more sea level rise over the course of this century. In such a case, Miami would nearly be impossible to save. It sits on porous limestone and is surrounded on all sides by waterways. Few areas in Miami are more than 6 feet above sea level. Even if Miami were encircled by lines of barriers and levees, like New Orleans, the water would seep up through the limestone. City planners are aware of what’s coming. Some of the suggestions for saving the city including raising the whole structure (like Galveston) or even putting it on stilts.

Miami is just one example of a community under assault. Everywhere along the thousands of miles of US coastline, communities will face flooding, rising waters, and increasingly powerful storms. It is likely that there will not be enough in the way of resources to save all of these communities. And it is this new, Ugly, reality that Obama, for the first time, broaches in his speech. Communities will be harmed, homes, businesses, valuable infracture will be lost. In some cases, entire cities may well be lapped up by the ocean.

We were warned of this possibility more than 30 years ago. And had we aggressively pursued policies to reduce greenhouse gasses and to aid developing countries in building renewable energy infrastructures, we could probably have avoided the troubles we now stand at the brink of. Now we face rising costs, rising damage, more powerful storms, more rapidly rising seas. Now our President raises the entirely real possibility that some communities may well need to be abandoned. That funding must go where it is most needed and most useful.

This is the very definition of triage and we are currently involved in planning for climate change triage for our communities. A more clear sign that we are in the grips of a growing emergency could not be seen than this: the President proposes triage funding for coastal communities now under severe threat from storms and rising waters. And this was the ugly part of Obama’s speech. Not because he was wrong in proposing it. But because it is terrible that we have come to this pass. Because it is terrible that we must now begin to assess the potential loss of our communities. Potential losses in the billions and trillions of dollars. But more importantly, potential losses to lives and livelihoods.

Considering these emerging realities brings new urgency to light. Obama’s proposed policies, though rational, are not fast enough, do not cut fossil fuels deep enough, and do not promote the renewables strongly enough. We don’t need to begin walking in the right direction to avoid serious trouble. We need to begin moving with a measured and rapid urgency.

Links:

Obama’s Climate Speech

Obama’s Climate Action Plan

Joe Romm Says Obama Goes Full Climate Hawk (I somewhat disagree)

Anne Petermann, Ecologist and Global Climate Justice Advocate, Says Obama’s Climate Plan is ‘Greenwash’

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