Science

How U.S. Can Lead on Short-Lived Climate Pollutants

With Secretary Clinton’s announcement this week of a new coalition aimed at short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and soot, the U.S. is helping to focus international attention on a critical but frequently overlooked dimension of the climate challenge. To maximize its leadership on this front, the U.S. should also take stronger steps to tackle these pollutants at home.

The new multilateral effort to address short-lived climate pollutants (also called short-lived climate forcers) is an important recognition of both the scientific and political realities that surround climate change. A growing body of scientific evidence underscores the importance of near-term action to slow the rate of climate change, which is proceeding more rapidly than scientists predicted. Because methane, black carbon and hydroflurorocarbons (HFCs) have relatively short atmospheric lifetimes, reductions in these compounds will have significant near-term benefits in reducing climate change.  In contrast, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Reductions in CO2 are critical to limit the amount of warming over the longer term, but have more limited impact in the near term.   

Eileen Claussen Comments on the Climate and Clean Energy Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollution

Statement of Eileen Claussen
President, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

February 16, 2012

The Climate and Clean Energy Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollution offers a promising avenue for practical action to slow the pace of global warming.

Going after black carbon, methane and other short-lived climate forcers is no substitute for a strong, sustained effort to significantly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change. Nor can this new coalition take the place of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the principal forum for mobilizing the global climate response.

But targeted efforts to reduce short-lived climate pollution can moderate climate impacts in the near term while we work toward the longer-term strategies needed to rein in carbon dioxide emissions. They could prove especially critical in slowing the loss of sea ice and of glaciers that millions rely on for freshwater. Many of these measures would also protect public health by curbing local air pollution, particularly in developing countries.

At a time when comprehensive solutions to the climate challenge are not yet at hand, we need to tackle it piece by piece, pursuing practical strategies wherever we can. This coalition is a good example. If the countries launching it can deliver the resources, and succeed in recruiting others to the effort, this new initiative has the potential to make a real difference.   

Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 703-516-4146

Learn more about short-lived climate forcers

 

Addressing Climate Change in the Near Term: Short-Lived Climate Forcers

There is growing recognition within the scientific and policy communities that efforts to address climate change should focus not only on substantially reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but also on near-term actions to reduce climate-warming substances with much shorter atmospheric lifetimes. These are called short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs). This two-pronged strategy would accomplish two goals:

  1. Reducing CO2 emissions limits the ultimate amount of warming. Because CO2 represents by far the largest source of climate-warming emissions, and because it stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, large reductions in CO2 emissions are required to meet any long-term climate stabilization goal, such as the 2°C goal set by the international community.
  2. Reducing emissions of short-lived climate forcers would, on the other hand, slow the near-term rate of climate change. Scientists estimate that SLCFs account for 30 to 40 percent of the human-induced warming to date. Yet as SLCFs remain in the atmosphere for periods of only a few days to a few decades, their warming effect is short-lived, and reducing their emissions would result in more immediate benefits. In addition to limiting climate impacts already underway, including important regional impacts such as glacial melting, SLCF reductions would reduce local air pollution and produce other co-benefits. The U.N. Environment Programme recently estimated that aggressive efforts to reduce SLCFs would avoid 2.4 million premature deaths by 2030 and reduce warming between now and 2040 by a half a degree.

 

Key Short-Lived Climate Forcers

Methane has an atmospheric lifetime of about 12 years. Human-induced methane emissions result primarily from oil and gas production and distribution, coal mining, solid waste landfills, cultivation of rice and ruminant livestock, and biomass burning. Reductions in methane emissions improve local air quality by reducing ground-level ozone, which harms agriculture and human health, and is itself an SLCF.

Black carbon (BC) results from incomplete combustion of biomass and fossil fuels. Its major sources are diesel cars and trucks, cook stoves, forest fires, and agricultural open burning.

Because of a very brief atmospheric lifetime measured in weeks, black carbon's climate effects are strongly regional. BC particles give soot its black color and, like any black surface, strongly absorb sunlight. In snow-covered areas, the deposition of black carbon darkens snow and ice, increasing their absorption of sunlight and making them melt more rapidly. BC may be responsible for a significant fraction of recent warming in the rapidly changing Arctic, contributing to the acceleration of sea ice loss. BC also is contributing to the melting of Himalayan glaciers, a major source of freshwater for millions of people in Asia, and may be driving some of the recent reduction in snowpack in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

Black carbon's short lifetime also means that its contribution to climate warming would dissipate quickly if emissions were reduced. Additionally, since BC contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, reductions in BC emissions would have significant co-benefits for human health, particularly in developing countries.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are a family of industrially produced chemicals widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning. They were developed to replace ozone-depleting substances a few decades ago, HFC-134a, the most widely used of these compounds, has an atmospheric lifetime of 13 years.

As many ozone-depleting substances are also potent greenhouse gases, their phase-out under the Montreal Protocol has contributed indirectly but very significantly to climate mitigation efforts to date. The treaty's net contribution to climate mitigation is estimated to be five to six times larger than the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period targets.

Many countries now favor working through the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs. A proposal by the United States, Mexico and Canada would require an 85 percent reduction in specified HFCs by 2033 for developed countries, and 2043 for developing countries. A proposal by the States of Micronesia and Mauritius calls for a 90 percent reduction by developed countries by 2030, but specifies no schedule for developing countries.

 

C2ES Resources:

  • Bachmann, John and Seidel, Stephen, Domestic Policies to Reduce the Near-Term Risk of Climate Change. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 2013.
    This paper sets out a series of cost-effective steps that the Obama Administration can implement under existing authorities that would deliver substantial near-term reductions in the rate of climate change.
  • Fast Action to Reduce the Risks of Climate Change: U.S. Options to Limit Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, Feb. 2012
  • Bodansky, Daniel, Multilateral Climate Efforts Beyond the UNFCCC, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Nov. 2011.
    This report looks at a number of multilateral entities that could play a role in addressing certain of the SLCFs including: the Montreal Protocol as a possible venue for HFCs and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution as a possible venue for BC, methane and other ozone-precursors.
  • Bachmann, John, Black Carbon: A Science/Policy Primer, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change), 2009.
    This paper summarizes current knowledge on the effects of soot components—black carbon and organic particles—on climate, and identifies sources and technologies to mitigate their impacts. It also presents perspectives on the potential role of soot mitigation approaches in developing more comprehensive climate strategies.
  • What is Black Carbon?, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change), April 2010.
    This factsheet provides an overview of black carbon as a major contributor to global climate change. It describes why reducing black carbon is a win-win scenario for both climate and health reasons.
  • Read Eileen Claussen's statement on the Climate and Clean Energy Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollution

 

Additional Resources:

 

International Forums Focused on SLCFs:

 

SLCF-Related Initiatives:

Weather on the Juice?

A common analogy to explain the link between climate change and extreme weather is gambling with “loaded dice.” For people who aren’t the gambling type but love America’s pastime, perhaps Barry Bonds’ homerun statistics would be more enlightening, or at least more entertaining. A new video from the National Center for Atmospheric Research draws an analogy between a batter on steroids and the “doping” of the atmosphere with manmade CO2. 

January 2012 Newsletter

Click here to view our January 2012 newsletter.

Learn about the Climate Leadership Conference, Australia's new carbon pricing mechanism, the Make an Impact energy conservation challenge, and more in C2ES's January 2012 newsletter.

Global Survey Names C2ES the World’s Top Environmental Think Tank

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) was named the world’s top environmental think tank in a global survey of top public policy research institutes.

The University of Pennsylvania’s 2011 Global Go-To Think Tank Rankings are based on a survey of more than 1,500 policymakers, scholars, journalists, think-tank executives and others worldwide. The survey assessed more than 5,300 organizations nominated in 30 categories to create a global list of top think tanks by region and policy area.

C2ES’s predecessor organization, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, was named the world’s top environmental think tank in the same survey in 2009.  The center began operating as C2ES in November 2011, and is listed in the new survey under its former name.

“While our name has changed, we remain as committed as ever to fact-based analysis and common-sense solutions to our climate and energy challenges,” said C2ES President Eileen Claussen. “We are thrilled to again be recognized as the world’s top environmental think tank.  I’d like to commend the C2ES staff and thank all of our partners and supporters in the United States and abroad for helping to make this possible.”   

The independent, nonpartisan center provides impartial information and analysis on energy and climate challenges; convenes policymakers and stakeholders to work toward consensus solutions; works with members of its Business Environmental Leadership Council and others to promote on-the-ground action; and promotes pragmatic, effective climate and energy policies at the state, national and international levels.

The annual survey, first published in 2007, is directed by James G. McGann, assistant director of the University of Pennsylvania’s International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program.

The World Resources Institute and Chatham House ranked second and third, respectively, among the study’s top 30 environmental groups. Brookings Institution was named the top overall think tank. Additional categories in which the report ranks organizations include health policy, international development, and security and international affairs, among others.

The complete study, released in January 2012, is available online here.

More about C2ES's work to advance climate and energy solutions can be found here.

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Extreme Weather and Climate Change
Understanding the Link, Managing the Risk

Updated December 2011

by Daniel G. Huber and Jay Gulledge, Ph.D.

Download the paper (pdf)

Press release

Listen to the press briefing

 

Executive Summary:

Thousands of record-breaking weather events worldwide bolster long-term trends of increasing heat waves, heavy precipitation, droughts and wildfires. A combination of observed trends, theoretical understanding of the climate system, and numerical modeling demonstrates that global warming is increasing the risk of these types of events today. Debates about whether single events are “caused” by climate change are illogical, but individual events offer important lessons about society’s vulnerabilities to climate change. Reducing the future risk of extreme weather requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changes that are already unavoidable.

Introduction:

Box 1. Why can’t scientists say whether climate change “caused” a given weather event?

Climate is the average of many weather events over of a span of years. By definition, therefore, an isolated event lacks useful information about climate trends. Consider a hypothetical example: Prior to any change in the climate, there was one category 5 hurricane per year, but after the climate warmed for some decades, there were two category 5 hurricanes per year. In a given year, which of the two hurricanes was caused by climate change? Since the two events are indistinguishable, this question is nonsense. It is not the occurrence of either of the two events that matters. The two events together – or more accurately, the average of two events per year – define the change in the climate.

Typically, climate change is described in terms of average changes in temperature or precipitation, but most of the social and economic costs associated with climate change will result from shifts in the frequency and severity of extreme events.[1] This fact is illustrated by a large number of costly weather disasters in 2010, which tied 2005 as the warmest year globally since 1880.[2] Incidentally, both years were noted for exceptionally damaging weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the deadly Russian heat wave in 2010. Other remarkable events of 2010 include Pakistan’s biggest flood, Canada’s warmest year, and Southwest Australia’s driest year. 2011 continued in similar form, with “biblical” flooding in Australia, the second hottest summer in U.S. history, devastating drought and wildfires in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona as well as historic flooding in North Dakota, the Lower Mississippi and in the Northeast.[3]

Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, has compiled global disaster for 1980-2010. In its analysis, 2010 had the second-largest (after 2007) number of recorded natural disasters and the fifth-greatest economic losses.[4]  Although there were far more deaths from geological disasters—almost entirely from the Haiti earthquake—more than 90 percent of all disasters and 65 percent of associated economic damages were weather and climate related (i.e. high winds, flooding, heavy snowfall, heat waves, droughts, wildfires). In all, 874 weather and climate-related disasters resulted in 68,000 deaths and $99 billion in damages worldwide in 2010.

The fact that 2010 was one of the warmest years on record as well as one of the most disastrous, begs the question: Is global warming causing more extreme weather? The short and simple answer is yes, at least for heat waves and heavy precipitation.[5] But much of the public discussion of this relationship obscures the link behind a misplaced focus on causation of individual weather events. The questions we ask of science are critical: When we ask whether climate change “caused” a particular event, we pose a fundamentally unanswerable question (see Box 1). This fallacy assures that we will often fail to draw connections between individual weather events and climate change, leading us to disregard the real risks of more extreme weather due to global warming.

Climate change is defined by changes in mean climate conditions—that is, the average of hundreds or thousands events over the span of decades. Over the past 30 years, for example, any single weather event could be omitted or added to the record without altering the long-term trend in weather extremes and the statistical relationship between that trend and the rise in global temperatures. Hence, it is illogical to debate the direct climatological link between a single event and the long-term rise in the global average surface temperature.

What about climate change and tornadoes?

Scientists are unsure if tornadoes will become stronger or more frequent, but with increased temperatures changing the weather in unexpected ways, the risk is real that tornado outbreaks will become more damaging in the future.  The lack of certainty in the state of the science does not equate with a lack of risk, since risk is based on possibility.  The lack of scientific consensus is a risk factor itself, and we must prepare for a future that could possibly include increased tornado damage.

Nonetheless, individual weather events offer important lessons about social and economic vulnerabilities to climate change. Dismissing an individual event as happenstance because scientists did not link it individually to climate change fosters a dangerously passive attitude toward rising climate risk. The uncertainty about future weather conditions and the illogic of attributing single events to global warming need not stand in the way of action to manage the rising risks associated with extreme weather. Indeed, such uncertainty is why risk managers exist – insurance companies, for example – and risk management is the correct framework for examining the link between global climate change and extreme weather.

An effective risk management framework accommodates uncertainty, takes advantage of learning opportunities to update understanding of risk, and probes today’s rare extreme events for useful information about how we should respond to rising risk. Risk management eschews futile attempts to forecast individual chaotic events and focuses on establishing long-term risk certainty; that is, an understanding of what types of risks are increasing and what can be done to minimize future damages. An understanding of the meaning of risk and how it relates to changes in the climate system is crucial to assessing vulnerability and planning for a future characterized by rising risk.

 

 

For more on the relationship between extreme weather and climate change, visit our Extreme Weather web page, where you'll find our extreme weather events map, along with other reports and C2ES resources.

Endnotes


[1] Karl, T. R., Meehl, G. A., Miller, C. D., Hassol, S. J., Waple, A. M., & Murray, W. L. (2008). Weather and Cliamte Extremes in a Changing Climate; Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Washington, D.C., USA: Department of Commerce, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.

[2] National Climatic Data Center. (2010, December). State of the Climate Global Analysis: Annual 2010. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from http://1.usa.gov/fxdFai

[3] BBC News. (2011, January  1). Australia's Queensland faces 'biblical' flood. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from http://bbc.in/fNzGgK; Associated Press. (2011, May 1). Federal fire crews bring expertist to huge TX fire. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from http://bit.ly/iz6JRs; Associated Press. (2011, June 16). Concern over human-caused blazes grows as wind-driven wildfires promp more evacuations. Retrieved June 22, 2011, from Washington Post: http://wapo.st/iWxirz; Sulzberger, A.G. (2011, June 26). In Minot, N.D., Flood Waters Stop Rising. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from New York Times: http://nyti.ms/ufT9jY; Doyle, R. (2011, September 8) U.S. sweltered through hottest summer in 75 years. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from USA Today: http://usat.ly/o73h4o; Robertson, C. (2011, May 15). Record Water for a Mississippi River City. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from New York Times: http://nyti.ms/lp0cTA; Freedman, A. (2011, September 12). Historic Flooding Recedes in Pennsylvania, New York; at least 15 dead. Retrieved November 22, 2011, From Washington Post: http://wapo.st/qvywOo

[4] Munich Re. (2011, February). Topics Geo Natural catastrophes 2010: Analyses, assessments, positions. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from http://bit.ly/i5zbut

[5] Karl et al., Weather and Cliamte Extremes in a Changing Climate, Op. cit.

 

 

Daniel Huber
Jay Gulledge
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Extreme Weather in 2011

For the second year in a row, unprecedented numbers of extreme weather events have occurred across the globe. However, more of 2011’s impacts occurred in the United States. From the drought in Texas to the floods in the Midwest and Northeast, this past year underscored the huge economic costs associated with extreme weather.  While specific weather events are not solely caused by climate change, the risks of droughts, floods, extreme precipitation events, and heat waves are already climbing as a result of climate change. This year reminded us of our vulnerability to those events.

December 2011 Newsletter

Click here to view our December 2011 newsletter.

C2ES's December 2011 features updates from the 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban, South Africa, policy options for a clean energy standard, a blog post on the landmark new fuel economy standards, and more.

Drowning and Drought: Extreme Weather Impacts on our Economy and Society

Promoted in Energy Efficiency section: 
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This Capitol Hill lunch briefing with leading experts will examine extreme weather hazards, with a case study on the Texas drought, their relationship to changes in our climate, and how the country can better prepare for such events.

Friday, December 2, 2011
12:30 -2:00 pm
B-339 Rayburn House Office Building

2011 has been a record year for weather disasters. From historic drought in Texas to record-breaking flooding in North Dakota, to an unprecedented number (> 5600) of record high temperatures across the United States, much of the country has seen severe damage from extreme weather. The year is not yet over, and economic losses already exceed $45 billion.

This lunch briefing with leading experts examines extreme weather hazards, with a case study on the Texas drought, their relationship to changes in our climate, and how the country can better prepare for such events. Speakers at this lunch briefing include:

  • Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University; Coordinating Lead Author, IPCC Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation
  • John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist and Regents Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University
  • Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America

Moderated by Jay Gulledge, Senior Scientist and Director for Science and Impacts, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

 

Sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

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