Global warming is real and it’s melting our future, panel says
VAIL — Nobel Prize-winning scientist Kevin Trenberth left no doubt about his perspective when he opened the Vail Symposium’s panel discussion on climate change with a title slide proclaiming, “Global Warming is alive and well. Not that it’s a good thing.”
His pronouncement was followed by a conversation on the science, policy and local impact of climate change.
Trenberth, originally from New Zealand, is now a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and shared the Nobel Peace Prize when it went to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.
Carbon dioxide is up 40 percent since the dawn of the industrial age. More than half of that has occurred since 1980.
The correlation with temperature looks like this:
• 2016 was the world’s warmest year on record.
• 2015 was the world’s second warmest year on record.
• 2014 was the world’s third warmest year on record.
Despite some outlying years, overall the temperature today is a full degree Celsius higher than the 20th century average and 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, according research Trenberth cited.
Trenberth is now determining what that means for life on Earth.
“Instantaneous effects of carbon dioxide are very small, but the cumulative effect over time can be very big,” Trenberth said. “We see that now in these extreme hydrological cycles.”
The ocean absorbs a great deal of the world’s heat. With a warmer globe, the weather cycles grow more intense, Trenberth said. Where it rains, it rains harder; where it is dry, there are droughts.
The goal is to keep the temperature, already at one degree Celsius above normal, from reaching two degrees Celsius above normal, Trenberth said. When that happens, Trenberth warned, the hydrological changes will go from noticeably dangerous to “undisputedly catastrophic.”
Striving for 17 percent
Peter Ogden is the United Nations Foundation’s vice president for energy, climate and the environment.
Ogden said two notable factors have influenced climate policy: a major political shift in the United States since before 2008, and a change in posture by China as environmental issues have suddenly become politically charged.
“When I joined the Obama administration, and just before, it was a hopeful time for climate issues in politics,” Ogden said. “Both Republicans and Democrats supported comprehensive climate initiatives. Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi sat on a couch, on video, saying ‘We need climate solutions for America.’ There was a stronger scientific consensus than ever before.”
By 2009, world leaders thought they could do better than the legal obligations to reduce emissions put forward in the Kyoto Protocol, and planned to convene in Copenhagen. The recently sworn-in Obama administration had 10 months to figure out how they would contribute to the conversation.
The United States committed to an ambitious 17 percent reduction in emissions by 2020.
China, the world’s largest emitter of CO2, followed with ambitious goals for emissions reductions, Ogden said.
“Choked cities and toxic waterways become an issue politicians were willing to grapple with in China,” Ogden said. “It moved them into a different position. Both the U.S. and China set bold targets for themselves and it paved the way for other countries to move in to that space.”
Then came the Paris Agreement, an extension of this emissions rationing process which was signed by more than 170 countries in 2016.
The trouble with agreements, Ogden said, is that they can be canceled or reneged upon. President Donald Trump promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement and to roll back regulations, Ogden said. The effects in this policy could take some time to be felt.
Eagle County Climate Action Plan
In 2014, Eagle County contracted a company called Clean Energy Economy for the Region, to study Eagle County’s emissions. They found Eagle County as an area with a higher emissions rate per capita than the rest of the state and nation.
The study accounted for Interstate 70 traffic and resort guests, and found the area’s emissions can be broken down as:
• 32 percent come from commercial endeavors and buildings.
• 28 percent residential.
• 27 percent from transportation.
• 10 percent from the landfill.
• 3 percent from the airport.
County officials and 30 community stakeholders created a plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
“The science is clear and we can see things happening in our mountain ecosystem,” said Kim Langmaid of Walking Mountains Science Center and a member of the Vail Town Council. “Winters are getting shorter and warmer. We have lost 23 days of freezing temperatures since the 1980s. The summers are getting hotter. You can see that in the impact of the pine beetle all around us.”
The plan recommends:
• Be more energy efficient at home.
• Eat wisely and locally when possible.
• Ride bikes instead of driving.
• Be mindful of what you are adding to the landfill.
“If we go about our day’s business as usual, emissions will only continue to go up,” Langmaid said. “To meet our reduction goals, we will have to start making these changes soon.”