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  1. 2015 will likely be the hottest year on record, according to a preliminary analysis released by the World Meteorological Organization. Worldwide temperatures are expected for the first time to reach more than 1℃ above pre-industrial temperatures. The five years from 2011-2015 will also likely be the hottest five-year period on record. Average global atmospheric CO₂ concentrations over three months also hit 400 parts per million for the first time during the southern hemisphere Autumn this year. On top of this, we are experiencing one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded. According to Dr Karl Braganza, head of climate monitoring at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, these climate milestones are both symbolic and highly significant. “One degree is half way to the 2 degree guardrail of warming that the global community is aiming for in terms of future climate change,” Dr Braganza said. “400 parts per million of CO₂ in the atmosphere is a composition that the climate system has not likely seen in probably the past 2.5 million years.” In Australia, 2015 is likely to fall into the top 10 warmest years on record, all of which have occurred this century. Dr Braganza said that record breaking hot weather was now six times more likely than it was early last century. Meanwhile, the oceans continue to warm at an alarming rate. “About 90% of the additional heat from the advanced greenhouse effect goes into warming the oceans,” he said. This is particularly worrying as any change to sea temperature is potentially very significant in terms of impacts on Australia’s weather, from droughts to flooding rains. Dr David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Melbourne, said that there was little doubt as to the cause of the warming. “It is now all but certain that 2015 will be the hottest year since record keeping began. “The new record high global temperature in 2015 is mainly due to human-caused global warming, with smaller contributions from El Niño and from other natural climate variations,” Dr Karoly said. According to calculations by Karoly and colleagues as part of the World Weather Attribution Project coordinated by Climate Central, temperatures will likely reach around 1.05℃ above pre-industrial temperatures. Of this, about 1℃ can be attributed to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, about 0.05ºC-0.1ºC to El Niño, and about 0.02ºC to higher solar activity. The numbers don’t quite add up to 1.05℃ due to uncertainties and natural variability. The World Meteorological Organization statement comes as world leaders are set to meet in Paris next week to begin the next round of negotiations on taking action against climate change.
  2. More than 146 countries covering 87% of global greenhouse gas emissions have now submitted their national pledges to tackle climate change in advance of the major climate summit in Paris. These are known as Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions. Note the language: these aren’t commitments and are only “intended”. Since collectively these INDCs would still leave us on course for nearly 3℃ warming, some way beyond the 2℃ target that the international community has settled on as a safe threshold, the hope is that they will be ratcheted up at Paris and beyond. But will countries stick to these pledges? And what happens if they don’t? Climate negotiations have a long history of countries failing to deliver on their commitments. More than 16 countries failed to meet their targets under the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol up to 2012 and some major emitters like Canada simply reneged on their commitments without consequences. But the problem of getting countries to implement their commitments is certainly not unique to climate change. Indeed it is a general feature of international relations that in the absence of a global police force and with weak judicial systems, there is no overriding central authority to force states to abide by national or international law. Essentially the only sanctions available are moral pressure (stigmatising non-compliant countries, as happens over human rights), trade sanctions (used to isolate governments such as the apartheid regime in South Africa) or military sanctions (applied to various countries in the Middle East in recent years). Military sanctions are clearly not going to be applied in this case. Trade measures have been used in climate policy however, sometimes controversially, such as subsidies to solar and wind industries or so-called border tax adjustments, where countries impose a fee on products coming from markets where carbon is not regulated or taxed giving them an unfair competitive advantage. It is moral pressure that climate diplomacy really relies upon though. This has pressured the EU to adopt and maintain a leadership role, for example in setting out a more ambitious target than that adopted by many other major industrialised regions. Often, however, even that is ineffective. The pariah status that the Bush government earned for walking away from the Kyoto Protocol had only minimal effect on the US’s position at the time. A change of administration ultimately brought about a shift in policy. There have been calls in the past for more ambitious approaches to enforcing climate commitments. In 1997 Brazil proposed the establishment of a Clean Development Fund to fine countries failing to meet their emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol. The funds generated from fines on richer (“annex 1” in UN language) countries would then have been distributed to poorer nations to meet their adaptation costs or fund local mitigation actions. The proposal was vetoed and instead turned into the Clean Development Mechanism which allows richer countries to pay poorer ones to reduce emissions on their behalf. In a cunning political move, rather than targeting tougher compliance for richer countries, the solution became to pay poorer countries to comply instead. In reality, the tools that will be used to hold governments to account for their climate commitments will be a combination of public and civil society pressure and the threat of litigation on behalf of those people affected by inaction, of which we have seen an increase in recent years. The Dutch government was subject to the first climate liability case in June 2015, but there have been earlier attempts by affected indigenous groups in the Arctic to bring cases against the US government over its lack of action on climate change. We will likely see more such cases in future. This activism will increase thanks to a growing realisation of the gains to be made from moving rapidly to a lower carbon economy in terms of jobs, competitiveness and energy security. In other words, pressure from below is likely to be the driver of change as much as, if not more than, pressure from above.
  3. The revelation that Volkswagen deliberately circumvented emissions tests on many of its diesel vehicles has provoked a huge storm of controversy. This diesel deception has understandably angered car owners. And some have suggested that VW’s management either must have known about the scandal, or effectively lost control of the company. The allegations are severe. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VW deployed a “defeat device” enabling its cars to meet emissions standards under official test conditions, even though they can release up to 40 times the legal level of nitrogen oxides (NOx) under normal driving conditions. Worse was to come though. VW went on to admit that 11m vehicles worldwide had been fitted with the device. An analysis by the Guardian puts the collective impact of this number of cars at nearly one million additional tonnes of air pollution per year. Loopholes In the EU, it increasingly seems that there is more to this scandal than car manufacturers using underhand tactics to “hotwire” official emissions tests. Leaked documents have revealed that three powerful member states – the UK, France and Germany – have all recently lobbied for the inclusion of loopholes in a new emissions test planned for roll-out in 2017. Germany, it seems, even called for this new test to be conducted on a sloping downhill track. In Brussels itself, my own conversations with EU officials have exposed a tendency to accept carmakers’ behaviour as an unavoidable part of the regulatory “game”. On more than one occasion I have heard the argument that what vehicle manufacturers are doing can’t really be classed as cheating, because – after all – wouldn’t any rational economic actor seek to “exploit the flexibilities” in this kind of regulatory test to their advantage? All of this should give us serious pause for thought. Circumventing an emissions test is one thing. But if member states are actively calling for Brussels to enable the continuation of this behaviour, and EU officials themselves see it as a natural part of the “game”, then we must ask who – if anybody – is left to represent the interests of the public, or indeed the climate, in the development of the EU’s environmental agenda. Debate and data stifling The scandal in fact reveals deep-seated pathologies in the way the EU’s environmental policies are made. It is, crucially, the EU’s privileging of “expert”, industry-generated data on these emissions, produced by a supposedly objective, repeatable test, that has allowed VW to deceive its customers and the wider public. Yet these are the same industry experts who stifle debate about the sustainability of petrol and diesel carmakers’ contributions to the EU’s economy. This, even as Europe faces growing crises of urban air pollution, obesity, and of course climate change. Meanwhile, on-the-road emissions data, such as that painstakingly assembled by the International Council on Clean Transportation, is all too often dismissed as unscientific, and open to the corrupting influences of a messy and complex “real world”. These data are effectively crowdsourced from thousands of drivers and other road users, many with an economic interest in averting the depreciation of their vehicles. And it is these road users – and the wider public at large – who have no choice but to subject themselves to urban air pollution across Europe. According to a recent Transport & Environment report, this “invisible killer” leads to 500,000 premature deaths a year. And diesel vehicles are the principal cause of those deaths. VW’s diesel deception doesn’t just point to an urgent need for a better vehicle emissions test; it highlights the requirement for a more open and inclusive approach to dealing with environmental problems in Europe. As the EU seeks to address and move on from this scandal, Brussels must break the stranglehold exerted over its vehicle pollutant emissions legislation by an inner circle of hubristic industry experts. Instead, it must embrace the ideas, concerns and knowledge of those who most suffer in the face of air pollution – the European public.
  4. Many observations have shown that sea level rose steadily over the 20th century – and at a faster rate than over the previous centuries. It is also clear from both satellite and coastal observations that seas have risen faster over the past two decades than they did for the bulk of the 20th century. More recently, several studies have shown that the flow of ice and water into the oceans from Greenland and West Antarctica has increased since 1993. This raises an interesting question: has the rate of sea-level rise changed since 1993, when satellite observations began to give us a more complete picture of the global oceans? Our new research tackles this question by comparing satellite observations of sea level with those measured at the coast by tide gauges. We use this comparison to determine small biases in the satellite data that have changed over time. Understanding how the land supporting the tide gauges is moving becomes an important part of these comparisons. We found three important results. First, the seas really have risen faster since 1993, relative to the slower rate over previous decades as evident in the tide gauge data. Second, comparison of the coastal and satellite measurements reveal small differences in the early part of the satellite record from 1993 to 1999. After allowing for land motion at the tide gauges, the first six years of the satellite record marginally overestimates the sea-level trend. Our revised estimate of global mean sea-level rise for the satellite era (1993 to mid-2014) is about 2.6-2.9 mm per year (the exact value depends on how we estimate land motion) – slightly less than the previous estimate of 3.2 mm per year. Satellite altimeters measure sea level by measuring the time it takes a radar pulse to make a round-trip from the satellite to the sea surface and back. NOAA/STAR Third, previous estimates of the rate of rise from satellite data that didn’t incorporate the careful comparison with coastal sea-level measurements, as we have done in our recent study, showed a slower rate of rise over the past decade relative to the one before. Our revised record is clearly different and suggests that the rate of rise has increased, consistent with other observations of the increased contributions of water and ice from Greenland and West Antarctica. However, sea level varies from year to year, as water is exchanged between the land and oceans (for example during the Australian floods associated with the 2010-11 and 2011-12 La Niña events), and as a result the observed increase in the rate of rise over the short satellite record is not yet statistically significant. Strikingly, our estimate of the increase in the rate of rise is consistent with the projections of future sea level published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Currently, these projections forecast a rise of up to 98 cm by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to continue unabated (and even more if parts of the Antarctic ice sheet collapse). If the world makes strong cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the rise by 2100 is projected to be significantly less, somewhere between 28 cm and 61 cm. Coping with the impacts The increasing rate of sea-level rise is not good news for our coastal population, nor for the natural and built environment in the coastal zone. The world is currently not on track to achieve the lower range of projected sea-level rise. And of course, sea-level rise will not stop in 2100 – as in the current century, the magnitude of future sea-level rise will be linked to our greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing rates of sea-level rise will place increasing stress on the coastal margin. Extreme sea level events will become more frequent. Inundation and erosion will affect our infrastructure, affect ecosystems and, in some regions, displace populations. Adaption in the coastal zone will occur – this adaption can be either planned or forced upon us by the natural environment. Information on regional sea level changes and their projections are needed to underpin adaptation and mitigation strategies. It is important that agencies in Australia and worldwide consider the impact of accelerating sea levels and provide communities with advice and planning directions that are commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. Failure to consider these issues will mean painful and costly impacts, particularly during extreme events. Continued monitoring of sea level is essential Despite progress, our understanding of sea-level change is incomplete, particularly when it comes to forecasting contributions from the ice sheets. Currently, observed sea-level rise is consistent with the most recent projections. Continuing to know where sea level is tracking relative to projections is important for planning and early warning of any rate of rise that differs from current projections is vital. Australia relies on other countries for launching and maintaining satellite missions such as those used in our study. We provide an important contribution to the long-term monitoring of altimeter data that spans several different missions and space agencies – this is why long-term government support via Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System is so valued.
  5. This week, The Guardian newspaper has campaigned for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest its fossil fuel investments – which the newspaper claims are worth US$1.4 billion. The foundation can and should address the climate crisis, particularly given the threat it poses to food security, public health, human rights, and the development agenda. Practical responses The Gates Foundation has made a significant contribution to practical responses to poverty, and Bill Gates has been a long-standing advocate of “creative capitalism” to address global development issues. To their credit, Bill and Melinda Gates have shown great personal engagement with larger questions about human development, and their foundation has been a significant actor in the fields of agriculture, global health, education, and population. Bill Gates during a 2013 speech on climate change. Photo: Matthew Rimmer. Yet it has also been reluctant to address the climate question directly, stating: "The foundation believes that climate change is a major issue facing all of us, particularly poor people in developing countries, and we applaud the work that others are doing to help find solutions in this area," and: "While we do not fund efforts specifically aimed at reducing carbon emissions, many of our global health and development grants directly address problems that climate change creates or exacerbates." Sign on climate change at the Gates Foundation. Photo: Matthew Rimmer. For instance, the foundation highlights its agricultural development initiative, which it says will “help small farmers who live on less than $1 per day adapt to increased drought and flooding through the development of drought and flood resistant crops, improved irrigation efficiency, and other means”. While this certainly involves indirectly responding to climate change, it doesn’t put the issue of preventing climate change at the heart of the issue. In his annual letter, Bill Gates noted: "It is fair to ask whether the progress we’re predicting will be stifled by climate change… The most dramatic problems caused by climate change are more than 15 years away, but the long-term threat is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively — right now — to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide." This is a somewhat curious statement, given the real and present danger already posed to food security, biodiversity, public health, and human security. The energy question Bill Gates has another keen interest: energy security. He has discussed what he sees as the need for an “energy miracle” to remedy the climate: "To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough." He seems to have been interested in nuclear power, carbon capture, and geo-engineering - rather than renewable energy. For her part, Melinda Gates has been highly critical of climate deniers, emphasising the need for politicians to heed climate science. The Naomi Klein factor See video: This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein In a 2013 article in the Nation, the writer Naomi Klein expressed concerns about the huge fossil fuel holdings of some charities, including the Gates Foundation, and argued that this was inconsistent with public health goals: "A top priority of the Gates Foundation has been supporting malaria research, a disease intimately linked to climate… Does it really make sense to fight malaria while fueling one of the reasons it may be spreading more ferociously in some areas?" In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything, she went on to criticise the efforts of green billionaires to save us from climate change. Of Bill Gates and his foundation, she wrote: "Though he professes great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2 billion invested in just two oil giants, BP and ExxonMobil, as of December 2013, and those are only the beginning of his fossil fuel holdings." Gates has been directly questioned on this issue, both in an interview with a Dutch journalist and during a 2013 appearance on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program. See video: Bill Gates on ABC’s Q&A Klein has also criticised Bill Gates' technocratic approach to the climate crisis, considering him to be overly dismissive of renewable energy: "When Gates had his climate change epiphany, he too immediately raced to the prospect of a silver-bullet techno-fix in the future - without pausing to consider viable - if economically challenging - responses in the here and now." Will The Guardian’s campaign succeed? The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has pledged to put climate change at the “front and centre” of the newspaper’s coverage, lending support to the global divestment movement and urging philanthropic trusts like the Gates Foundation and Britain’s Wellcome Trust to follow the example of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. See video: Keep It In The Ground The Guardian said it recognised that the Gates Foundation has made “a huge contribution to human progress and equality by supporting scientific research and development projects”, but warned that “investments in fossil fuels are putting this progress at great risk, by undermining your long term ambitions.” The campaign urges the Gates Foundation “to commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years and to immediately freeze any new investments in those companies”. Rusbridger wrote that this would be “a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels”. Hopefully, the campaign will be successful. Bill and Melinda Gates have certainly shown a willingness in the past to revise their approach, in light of new evidence, and both have been disturbed by the politics of climate denial. The Gates Foundation can make a stronger contribution to the battle against climate change, especially given how the climate issue cuts across its food security, public health, and human rights aims. This is one way it can do so.
  6. What are countries really bringing to the negotiating table when the world meets to thrash out a greenhouse deal in Paris this year? The stakes are high – the hoped-for deal at the 2015 summit will be the first since the landmark Kyoto Protocol in 1992, and could commit countries to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020. Throughout the year, countries will submit draft contributions known as INDCs or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These may be baselines and targets (such as 40% below 1990 levels by 2030), but may also take other forms. Contributions will be submitted through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change here. To read an explainer of INDCs and how they fit into a global climate deal, click here. The Conversation will be tracking these contributions as they are submitted through the interactive map below. Click on countries to view contributions and other climate stats. Notes: This map was compiled with the assistance of Pep Canadell, Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project. Emissions (all greenhouse gases): total greenhouse gas emissions within a country, expressed in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). This excludes emissions from land use, land use change, and forestry. Source: EDGAR Emissions per capita (all greenhouse gases): total greenhouse emissions within a country for each person, expressed in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). Source: EDGAR Emissions growth (CO2 only): growth in total carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuel 2010-2011. Source: Global Carbon Project Emissions transfer (CO2 only): fossil fuel emissions minus consumption emissions (carbon dioxide emissions generated elsewhere in the production of goods and services consumed within a country). A negative value shows that a country “outsources” some of its carbon dioxide emissions to other countries, and a positive value means the country is exporting more carbon in goods and services than it imports. Source: Global Carbon Project
  7. Under the Dome, the self-funded documentary by former television news anchor Chai Jing about China’s battles with smog, has been an internet phenomenon. Within three days of its release on Febuary 28, it had racked up more than 150 million views and garnered 280 million posts on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Then the Chinese government removed it from the web, stung by the criticism the film prompted, leaving those who had hailed it as a landmark moment in Chinese environmentalism wondering if the documentary’s influence would end up being curtailed. Seemingly inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Chai Jing presents some shocking facts to her audience in a TED Talk-style format. She documents the health implications of smog, such as its possible relationship with lung cancer, and attributes China’s smog pollution to factors including the consumption of low-grade coal and oil, the expansion of energy-intensive industries like steel, and the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations. Former celebrity TV anchor Chai Jing, as seen in the photo, quit her job after her baby daughter was born with a lung tumor, and after a year of rigorous investigation, launched a 1 hour 40 minute documentary about China’s smog. A wake-up call? Under the Dome invites comparison with Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé of the effects of pesticides, and some commentators have predicted that the documentary will galvanise China in much the same way that Carson’s book changed America. There are indeed striking similarities between the two. Both focus on environmental issues of huge concern to their respective societies; both were made by women with national reputations for their previous work; and both spurred unprecedented national discussions. Even China’s newly appointed environment minister Chen Jining said he was reminded of Silent Spring when watching Under the Dome – although that was before the government abruptly changed its mind about the documentary. For all their similarities, there are still many hurdles facing the documentary that Carson’s book did not experience. The social context China is undergoing significant social change, with a growing middle class who are more concerned with quality of life than basic needs, and who are willing to raise their voice over issues that affect their health. This is a similar context to the postwar America in which Silent Spring was published. Yet today’s world is also more globalised than in 1962, a fact that could have two opposite effects on China’s environmental movement. On one hand, the potential solutions to global issues such as climate change, and local issues such as air pollution, may feed into each other. As my colleague and I have argued, concern over China’s energy security has become a key driver of its renewable energy industry. But on the other hand, globalisation has made people more mobile, both within and between countries. Migration has become an option for some Chinese to escape the smog, which might reduce their motivation to engage in the local environmental movement. Differing political climates In many ways, the reception given to Under the Dome is broadly similar to that received by Silent Spring. Both were challenged by economic interests, such as the chemical industry in the case of pesticides, and fossil fuel firms in the case of smog. Both were also criticised for a perceived lack of “balance” or author expertise, and were even accused of being political conspiracies. Both were also praised by the scientific community. Silent Spring’s legacy was honoured by the American Chemical Society in 2012, while a Chinese professor blogged about Under the Dome: … [compared with Chai Jing] we experts in the field of environmental protection and scientists on the smog research should feel ashamed for our incompetence to communicate with the public and our lack of courage to expose the problem. But perhaps the most important difference is in how the two respective governments reacted, especially given that both the book and the documentary broadly chimed with what authorities were trying to do at the time. Silent Spring was published when the then US president John F. Kennedy was implementing his New Frontier program, and Under the Dome has arrived while the Chinese leadership is commmitting to an “energy revolution”. Several key ideas advocated in Under the Dome to fight smog are aligned with the government’s agenda, such as reducing the share of fossil fuels in the country’s energy supply, and increasing the share of renewable energy sources. This may partly explain why the documentary was first released on the website of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and why the resulting media and online criticisms of the government’s handling of the smog issue were initially tolerated despite such comments usually being closely monitored and censored by the state. However, after a week of explosive discussion in the public sphere, the documentary was taken down from all Chinese websites. While the smog issue was a topic of frequent discussion during the annual session of the National People’s Congress, held in this same week, Chai Jing and her documentary were rarely mentioned by any representatives or government officials. Contrast that with the policy response triggered by Silent Spring, including the appointment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, hearings on the issue in the Senate, and the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The Chinese government seems to fear that grassroots movements may undermine its legitimacy in ruling the country. It has implemented a range of policies to transform China’s energy system, but the effectiveness of those policies are yet to be seen. The legacy of Silent Spring is beyond question. Whether Under the Dome gets the chance to have a similarly lasting impact is far from clear.
  8. There is no direct evidence that wind turbines affect physical or mental health, according to a review of the evidence by the National Health and Medicine Research Council (NHMRC). The review found no direct link between health effects and wind turbines, including pathological anxiety, depression, changes in blood pressure, heart disease, and ringing in the ears. However, due to the generally poor quality of the current evidence, the council recommended further high quality research, particularly within 1,500 m of wind turbines. More than 4,000 pieces of evidence were considered, but only 13 were deemed suitable for the review. The review found evidence supporting a link between wind farm noise and indirect health effects such as annoyance, and sleep disturbance. However it found no evidence for a link between possible health effects and low-frequency noise or infrasound. While the review said it was unlikely wind turbines would cause health impacts beyond 500 m, noise from turbines could be considered “disturbing” at distances of up to 1,500 m. Bruce Armstrong, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney and chair of the review’s expert committee, said none of the studies were of good quality, mostly because of poor participation rates, which could have biased the results. Armstrong identified three areas for further research: improving measurement of wind turbine noise; well-constructed studies that do not rely solely on self-reported health effects; and consideration of social and environmental circumstances. Will Grant, a researcher at the Australian National University, said there should be more research into wind turbine syndrome as a “communicated” disease. “There’s a lot of suggestion from the academic community that it’s a psychological or psychogenic illness. The interesting thing is that there hasn’t been a full research study that has investigated if it’s a psychological cause, what are the things that cause that, what are the things that contribute to that, and could we actually mitigate that.” Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, said the review was the most comprehensive yet. However he expressed concern that ongoing investigation could be a foundation for stopping wind farms. “Wind farm opponents in the parliament will soon have a ready made excuse to argue for moratoriums on further wind farm development,” he said. Grant said the review was important because it took claims of ill-health seriously. He highlighted a recent study commissioned by Pacific Hydro into the health effects of low-frequency wind turbine noise, which he criticised in an article on The Conversation. “Where they were on the right track was in attempting to do research with those who have very different ideas. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to do research in which people on all sides of the debate have control over the methodology.”