By Ryan Koronowski and Katie Valentine
December 16, 2013
If you’ve been paying attention to the state of the world’s climate, you may have been shocked to read that 2013 was the best year in human history.
In 2013, enough fossil fuels were burned so that carbon pollution levels hit the milestone of 400 parts per million. Scientists confirmed, again, that this is bad news for most of the residents of Planet Earth, with many plants and animals facing extinction. This carbon pollution trapped enough heat to help fuel heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods. The oceans grew in size as sea levels reached record highs this year — meaning any storm making landfall became even more deadly.
Some may say these are byproducts of progress, forging ahead with continued investment in the dirty fuels that release these long-trapped compounds into the atmosphere. But it’s not just indirect greenhouse effects — major population centers had to shut down for days at a time when choking smog reached levels that went well beyond the hazardous. The fossil fuels that once promised so much progress have turned on us.
Here are nine major reasons climate change — and the carbon pollution that drives it — helped make 2013 one of the worst years in human history.
For the first time in recorded history, thanks to rampant burning of fossil fuels, CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million in May 2013. It’s a symbolic number — there is nothing fundamentally different about 399 ppm than 400 ppm other than that extra millionth of atmosphere. But just as we celebrate a new year, rue a birthday, or quail when gasoline hits $4 a gallon, the reader on an instrument in Hawai’i began with a 4 instead of a 3 for the first time ever. This instrument has helped record the data that forms the Keeling Curve, named after its originator.
“I wish it weren’t true but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Ralph Keeling, a geologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography which operates Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory. “At this pace we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.” Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, started taking regular measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in 1958. Back then, the lowest the CO2 readings ever got was 313 parts per million. The last time they were that low was in 1960. Though CO2 levels vary over the course of a year as plants grow and die with the seasons, the trajectory has been a steady increase through the industrial era. This is driven by fossil fuel use, and leads to catastrophic climate change.
In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fifth assessment report describing in detail what the world’s top scientists understand about climate change. Its conclusions? Scientists are more certain than ever (between 95 and 100 percent) that humans are causing the planet to heat up through greenhouse gas emissions. 1983-2012 was the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The impacts of this planetary change are speeding up. This means that the globe, as a whole, is headed for 7°F worth of warming by 2100 if emissions continue unabated. Americans face a 9°F increase by then. Sea level rise is speeding up, dry areas are getting drier and we areas are getting wetter as the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture in it. The top ten feet of permafrost in the high northern latitudes is steadily melting, which is a problem because it holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does right now. The oceans are taking up greater and greater amounts of carbon dioxide, which portends acidified doom for many shelled aquatic creatures and anything that relies on them. The clarity of the report did not stop some outlets from ignoring, or getting it totally wrong. Some talked about a “slowdown” in warming that didn’t happen.
2013 offered sobering reminders that people aren’t the only ones impacted by climate change. The fourth IPCC assessment report projects that 40 to 70 percent of species could go extinct if earth warms by 3.5 °C, and a study this year found that many species could have to evolve 10,000 times faster to keep up with the expected climate change. Heavy rain in the Canadian Arctic is killing peregrine falcon chicks covered in down, and could contribute to a long-term decline in reproductive success in the population. As winters become warmer and shorter and the weather gets drier, pine beetles have wreaked havoc on forests across North America, from New Jersey to British Columbia. This year also saw more proof that migratory species in particular are threatened by climate change: a report from the National Wildlife Federation outlined the dangers migratory birds face from earlier and “false” springs, and another study found that one of the world’s great migrations — the long trek of millions of Christmas Island Crabs, requires meticulous timing that could be thrown off by changing weather patterns in the future.
With the oceans more acidic now than they’ve been at any time in the last 300 million years, scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean warned this year that the “next mass extinction may have already begun.” Multiple species of marine plankton, which make up the base of the ocean ecosystem, are at some of their lowest levels ever seen as the ocean warms, a decline that’s poised to throw the entire marine food web off balance. The acidification muddles some fish’s brains and makes it hard for shellfish to grow their shells. And rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are causing jellyfish populations to explode in oceans around the world — one Oregon fisherman says his boat has caught 4,000 – 5,000 pounds of jellyfish.
On top of that, Brazil announced this year that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased by 28 percent between August 2012 and July 2013; the oceans are still on the brink of collapse due to overfishing; and spills of various kinds killed thousands of fish and animals this year.
Much of the U.S. may be in a cold snap now, but 2013 was marked by extremes in temperature and precipitation, conditions that fueled deadly wildfires around the world. November 2013 was the hottest November on record. This summer in China, the worst heatwave in 140 years brought temperatures that reached above 105°F. Australia experienced its hottest month on record in January, hottest September on record and multiple major wildfires after an early start to wildfire season. Wildfires have taken a major toll in the U.S. this year too — this year’s fire season didn’t break records in terms of number of fires or acres burned, but due to the tragic Yarnell fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters, it was the deadliest for firefighters in 80 years. In June, Colorado experienced its most destructive wildfire in state history (which made the state’s “Biblical” flooding a few months later that much worse) and California was hit by its third-largest in state history, a fire that burned through 402 square miles. By August, thanks to budget cuts, the U.S. Forest Service was forced to divert $600 million from other areas to continue fighting fires.
For the past 13 years, much of the western U.S. has seen so little rain that scientists think the dry spell could be a “megadrought,” a trend that could continue for the next several years. The drought has wreaked havoc in many states — it helped exacerbate deadly wildfires in Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon. The drought forced New Mexico ranchers to sell much of their cattle, driving livestock levels in many regions of the state to about one-fifth of normal levels. “It’s all changed,” John Clayshulte, a third-generation New Mexico rancher told the LA Times. “This used to be shortgrass prairies. We’ve ruined it and it’s never going to come back.” Though they were bad in 2013, these extreme events are likely to only become worse in the coming years.
When it comes to air pollution, China’s had a bad year. The world’s most populous nation imported more coal in 2013 than any country in history, and even though demand slowed in 2013, that still meant more than the 7.7 billion tonnes consumed in 2012. What happens when a country like China burns that much coal? In January, Beijing experienced its worst air pollution on record. Bloomberg compared the particulate matter in Beijing on that January day to an airport smoking lounge, and found that China’s air had nearly 30 micrograms per cubic meter more particulates than a smoking lounge. Since then, conditions haven’t improved in China. In October, air pollution nearly shut down the entire city of Harbin, forcing schools, roads and the airport to close. In some parts of Harbin, fine particulate matter reached levels of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter — readings 40 times the level of 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter that the World Health Organization considers ideal for human health and more than three times the level of 300 that’s considered hazardous. And in December, extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai inside for at least seven days. These extreme cases of air pollution have made the Chinese government take note, however — it unveiled a plan to fight the pollution in September and doubled its renewable energy capacity this year.
This year, Australia experienced its hottest month on record in January, hottest September on record and multiple major wildfires after an early start to wildfire season. But in September, Australians elected Liberal party leader Tony Abbott as their new prime minister, a man who, once in office, quickly got to work making good on his anti-climate change campaign promises. Abbott axed Australia’s Climate Commission, the group responsible for studying and providing information to Australians on how climate change is affecting the country, just a few weeks after he was elected. Abbott has vowed to eliminate the country’s carbon tax and also wants to cut the country’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Climate Change Authority, a group that provides advice to the government on carbon emissions reductions targets. Japan arrived at the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poland with bad news. Instead of committing to stronger emissions targets, or even just standing pat and announcing it would stay true to its current commitments, it told the world that it would cut its 2020 target from 25 percent to just 3.8 percent below 2005 levels. Japan has been hit with deadly typhoons that become more deadly as the sea level rises, and in August Tokyo recorded its warmest daily low temperature in modern history. And the best that the international negotiations to cut global emissions could muster was “modest progress,” with a hope for a big breakthrough in 2015.
In March of this year, global sea levels hit a record high, according to a report by the World Meteorological Association. One thing that many people don’t realize is that the primary reason sea levels have risen recently is because the ocean is warmer, and warmer water takes up more space than cooler water. So sea levels will rise no matter how much land ice melts (though there was plenty of that too). The IPCC report found that 90 percent of the trapped heat from 1971 to 2010 has gone into the oceans. Since 1901, the seas have risen 19 centimeters, or 7.5 inches, and they have been rising more and more quickly. Recently that rate has been 3.2 millimeters per year. Because of currents and local geographic actors, the rate of increase is different around the world, and the coastlines of the Philippines have suffered over three times the sea level rise as the global average. So when Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the island nation, flooding and storm surges were much worse than they otherwise would have been. At current rates, levels may hit 30 inches higher than they are now by the end of the century. This makes every storm riskier, from the the Gulf to the Mid-Atlantic, as the world saw last year when Super Storm Sandy hit. Rising seas also pose a danger to animals, with one out of six threatened or endangered species in the U.S. are at risk from rising seas.
To stay on just the 2°C (3.6°F) warming path, the world will have to do even better than the 17 percent cut below 2005 levels that the U.S. and other developed countries have aimed toward in international negotiations. A study earlier this year found that developed countries will have to lower emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels at the end of the decade to stay below a 2°C rise. But global oil demand was higher than projected this year. The U.S. is stepping to the plate. Big Oil’s drive to make the U.S. the world’s top oil producer made some big strides in 2013. America now exports more oil than it imports, for the first time since 1995. What does this fossil fuel bonanza mean for regular people? Exploding oil trains. More exploding oil trains. Oil pipeline spills. More oil pipeline spills. Oil pipeline explosions. Oil barge spills. Leaky oil refineries. Earthquakes linked to fracking. Globally, the end result of all of this oil production is ever-rising global carbon dioxide emissions, which hit 36 billion tons in 2013.
Many people point to natural gas as the solution to rising carbon emissions because compared to oil and coal emissions, it releases less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The main ingredient of natural gas is methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. When burned, methane still releases CO2, just less than other fossil fuels do. The first bit of bad news is that this year, the IPCC reported that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than originally thought. This means that compared to a molecule of carbon dioxide, a molecule of methane is about 34 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year time scale — and 86 times more effective over 20 years. The second bit of bad news is that not all the methane gets burned, and much more of it leaks out of the natural gas production process than originally thought. The EPA, and others in the natural gas industry, pegged total leakage from natural gas production at around 1.5 percent. But several new studies this year suggest that leakage rates are actually more like 3 percent, or 6-12 percent, 9 percent, or even 17 percent. If that is true, it becomes harder to argue that natural gas is so much better for the climate than coal is. Again, coal emits more carbon dioxide (and other dangerous pollutants) than gas does, but if enough methane leaks before the gas can even be burned, that advantage dissipates. A 3.2 percent leakage rate is the threshold beyond which, at a certain point, gas is no better than coal for the climate. If these studies are true, then that appears to be the case, and natural gas is not the happy bridge to renewable fuels that many hoped it would be.