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Climate change in 2016: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Posted on 2 January 2017 by John Abraham

This past year had so many stories involving human-caused climate change – it will be forever in our memories. Here is a summary of some of the high points, from my perspective. When I say “high points” I don’t necessarily mean good. Some of these high points are bad and some are downright ugly. Let’s do the good first.

The Good

The best news of all, in my opinion, is the continued cost reductions and huge installations of clean energy both in the US and around the word. Wind, solar, and other renewables have been on an incredible run of decreasing costs and creative financing, which has made them economically competitive with dirty fossil fuels. Improvements and expansion of grid-based power storage has also advanced. These storage abilities are needed to allow intermittent power sources (like wind and solar) to play an even larger role in delivering power to the grid. In the end, clean power will win out based on simple dollars and cents – regardless of the fact they will also help save the world.

On an international scale, the US, China, and other countries ratified the Paris climate agreement, which gives us a reasonable chance at avoiding the worst effects of climate change. In the lead up to that ratification, the US took major actions domestically to reduce its own emissions through steps like the Clean Power Plan

Emissions have been reduced in some countries like the US for a variety of reasons. First, very cheap natural gas is displacing dirtier coal-based power. Secondly, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are expanding, and people are using energy more wisely. All of this happened with a major reduction in energy costs in the US. This shows you can have clean energy that is also cheap.

In court, it was a good year. A rag-tag group of pro-bono climate scientists beat a bunch of high-paid contrarians in court. We showed that their science was nonsense and the smart judge gave a very harsh judgement to the funded deniers.

And last in this part of the list, I think this is the year we can say the climate deniers and the contrarians who downplay global warming threats finally lost the science war. In the past, there were a dwindling few scientists each year that attempted to find evidence that the world was not warming, or wasn’t warming much. 

Each year, the number of scientists in this group got smaller and smaller. This year, they were virtually nonexistent. The contrarians have almost given up looking for contrarian evidence – it just isn’t there. They have ceded the scientific field because their research was found to be wrong. Now, these contrarian scientists only appear in blogs, op-eds in newspapers, sometimes in pay-for-play journals – but rarely in competitively reviewed scientific venues. After being wrong for decades, they have seemingly just given up.

The Bad

Despite the progress above, global warming continued. In fact, 2016 marked the third year in a row that record global temperatures were set. We are well over halfway to the 2-degree mark that puts us into a real climate danger zone and we have not even come close to doubling CO2 yet (although we will).

The temperature levels reached this year don’t prove the world is warming; in fact, we never look at a single year as evidence. Rather, proof was found in the oceans. Several major studies were published this year that clearly show the world’s oceans are warming and that computer simulations have been spot-on in their predictions. Simply put, the Earth is warming and the models got it right.

But that said, reaching almost 1.5 degrees Celsius with only about a 45% increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means that the contrarians, like Roy SpencerJohn ChristyRichard LindzenWilliam Happer, and Judith Curry, are shown conclusively to be wrong. The rate of warming we are seeing, in both the air and ocean temperatures, is inconsistent with the fanciful and optimistic beliefs of this group.

But not only does the Earth not care about the contrarians; the weather doesn’t either. And it has been a crazy year with many climate-change induced weather events that should give us all cause for concern. We know that a warming climate will have many weather effects. For instance, in a warming world, there is increased evaporation which tends to dry out areas and make droughts worse. But, in some parts of the world, the warming air has more water vapor (higher humidity) so that heavy rainfalls occur and more flooding happens. The general rule of thumb is that areas which are currently dry will become more dry. Areas that are currently wet become wetter. And rains will occur in heavier downpours. And that is just what we are seeing.

In the United States, we have had a continuation of the terrible drought in California. We’ve had a new heat-wave drought in the southeastern part of the US and that led to terrible wildfires.

There have been terrible floods in other locations, including Maryland, West Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Iowa, among others. Outside the US, there has been an incredible heat wave in the Arctic which has led to the lowest ever wintertime ice ever recorded there. The Arctic is looking very precarious for the important summertime low ice extent. We have a good chance at breaking the record (again). 

Terrible flooding the UK, Myanmar, Argentina, Indonesia, Spain, and Egypt, and others. There have been simultaneous flooding and heat waves in Australia, crazy hot weather in India and the Middle East.

And typhoons and hurricanes are getting stronger because of climate change. As we warm the planet and its oceans, there is more energy available to fuel these hurricanes. According to expert Jeff Masters, 2016 saw the strongest storms ever observed in two regions. We also witnessed seven Category 5 storms, which is a huge number. Among typhoons that hit land, two of the top five occurred this year. These listed weather events, which are increasing, have been predicted to be an outcome of global warming. The scientists making these predictions got it right. 

The Ugly

One of the two events in this category should come as no surprise – the election of Donald Trump. While I continue to hold out hope that Trump will take climate change seriously, he is surrounding himself with people who are not scientists – rather, they are advocates for the fossil fuel industry. Many have histories of not only denying the science but working to undermine the science and the scientists who study climate change. There is very little evidence that Trump or his administration will take climate change seriously. 

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. When John says: "reaching almost 1.5 degrees Celsius with only about a 45% increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere" I'm wondering if he meant to say "1.0 degrees".

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  2. David Kirtley @1, the trend increase from 1880 to present is about 1 C, but in 1880 the CO2 concentration was 290 ppmv, for a 38% increase in CO2 concentration.  For a 45% increase in concentration, you need to start with 280 ppmv, or the preindustrial value.  That is, circa 1750.  The temperature increase from 1750 to the present is not very well known, but is likely to be greater than the 1 C increase since 1880, with a 1.5 C increase being a reasonable estimate.

    I do not know that that the reasoning behind John Abraham's claim.  He could also be using the specific difference in annual temperatures between 1880 and 2016, but at least part of that increase is due to short term factors (especially ENSO) so that is unlikely.

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  3. An additonal possible 'bad' is that despite an evening out or even slight decrease in the world's carbon output into the atmosphere, the CO2 level in the atmosphere made a bigger jump than ever before.  This may just be an effect of El Nino but the coming year will give some clarity if this is so. If it is a trend and continues, we are in a spot of bother.

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  4. Maybe John Abraham was simply thinking of 1.5 degrees fahrenheit given he is American? The world has warmed that much since 1880 to approx. 2010 according to NASA. In no way does it detract from the many obvious truths in the article.

    It's sad that the mainstream media dont report much on the falling cost of renewable energy. I just hear about it on a few websites like this. But then the fossil fuel lobby is very powerful, so draw your own conclusions.

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  5. Nigelj,

    According to GISS monthly data December 2015- November 2016 was 1.02C above baseline (1950-1979).  1880-1890 was about -.17C.  Add a little for 1750-1880 and you are very close to 1.5C for the year.   If you take the peak monthly anomaly (Feburary 1.33C) and add the .17 to 1880 and you get 1.50C for that month even without the adjustment to 1750.  1.5C over baseline was observed during at least February and March 2016.  Average Oct '15-Apr '16 is 1.15C + .17 to 1880 + .2 to 1750 = 1.51C.  Cowtan and Way February 2016 1.134C + .399 (average of 1850, high error) = 1.53C

    I think the claim that 1.5C has been observed is sustainable.  It probably has not been observed for a whole year average yet, but it certainly has been observed for two consecutive months.  

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  6. Michael Sweet, 1.5 degrees Celsius could well be true if you take it wider from 1750 right to this year. I personally have no argument with that.

    However regardless of exact numbers and start and end points, studies like Marcott going back over 10,000 years show just how unprecedented recent temperatures are. I remain optimistic that if the public are made aware numerous studies keep duplicating the original hockey stick the facts will eventually sink in.

    Debates are eventually won on the facts. Even Trump is going to find that out the hard way because right now all his policies (climate change, foreign policy, and economic etc) are  all based on fallacies of various kinds, and are therefore very foolish policies. They are foolish for other reasons as well.

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  7. What is everyones opinion on James Lovelocks reversal on Climate Change?

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  8. "What is everyones opinion on James Lovelocks reversal on Climate Change?"

    No one cares about opinions in this venue.  In a science-based venue such as this, all that matters is domain-level command of the science and being able to support your position with citations to the relevant credible literature.

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  9. Fair enough; if a bit harsh.

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  10. That's how science works.  It may seem ruthless to those not acquainted with it, but science advances, remorselessly, as better evidence brings improved understandings to light.

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  11. I do not know James Lovelocks ideas on the reversal of Climate Change? However, this is more than pure science.  Scientest examine the physical world to determine the truth.  However, as new truth's are revealed, it is important for creative people learn how to adapt to live within the truths that are revealed.  This is a very important role for non scientist.  What is clear to me and needs to be considered in our culture is that when we emit more carbon than can be sequestered atmospheric concentrations go up.  If you discern that is the problem, the only solution is to limit human carbon emissions to what can be sequestered.  All emissions below the net zero line are within the carbon cycle and do not add to carbon concentration.  Net Zero is an important reference that needs to be understood.  The only way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is to develop a net sequestration economy where human emissions are less than what cana be sequestered.  Imagining how we can achieve a net sequestration economy moves us toward a vision of how to build a place for the human community that protects the life resilience we are blessed to live among.   

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