Future Earth project reveals five top risks seen by world’s top scientists. The front-line threats outlined by Nobel-prize-winning scientist Diana Liverman from the University of Arizona. Then Dr. John Wiens on a shocking study: “One-Third of Plant and Animal Species Could be Gone in 50 Years”. How many of nature’s creations will survive by 2070? It is up to us. Alex reports on the warmest winter on record and threats to world food.
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THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY CARRIES ON…
I know we are approaching a tipping point where news and social media will be devouring COVID-19 news and practically nothing else. It is harder to get climate emergency information out through such strong temporary noise. But look what is happening!
The Northern Hemisphere just experienced it’s warmest winter ever recorded.. The lower 48 States of the U.S. were 3 degrees C higher than the average for the 20th century. That is 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Europe saw it’s hottest January ever, 3.1 degrees C warmer than average. it was an astounding 5 degrees C warmer across most of Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Canada. This is 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average.
Despite predictions of a colder winter by commercial forecasting companies, the Jet Stream was pulled north, keeping the cold near the Pole. This may result in more winter sea ice, but plants are coming up early in America and Europe. Use of winter heating oil and gas in the U.S. is down, adding to the glut of energy and lower prices.
The four warmest Januaries ever recorded all happened over the last four years. Planet Earth is warming even in winter.
Meanwhile it’s been beach weather in Antarctica. Antarctica logs hottest temperature on record with a reading of 18.3C says the Guardian headline, February 7. That is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit on a continent which seldom rose above freezing. The temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula was about the same as in Los Angeles that day.
“Antarctica Melts Under Its Hottest Days on Record” says NASA. But that is just the surface where instant ponds of water are appearing. Down below, warmer ocean waters are eating away at the bottoms of the glaciers. That hidden warming will lead to rising seas faster than expected. This development is stunning scientists who study those glaciers. You can get a full update from climate scientist Paul Beckwith on YouTube. He has three new videos out to explain what is happening at the South Pole.
To get more on Antarctica, check out Paul Beckwith’s YouTube video Part 1 on Antarctic ice melt.
FUTURE EARTH – WITH DR. DIANA LIVERMAN
Corona virus, Donald Trump, Brexit, Australia burning down – who has time for climate change by 2030 or disappearing species? We get trapped in the all-encompassing Now. But we must still plan for a Future Earth. That is what a team of leading world scientists say in a project called “Future Earth’s Global Risks Perceptions Initiative”.
Dr. Diana Liverman is a co-founder of Future Earth. She is an amazing scientist, a lead author in IPCC works – from the Nobel-prize winning 2007 report to the 2018 report on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Liverman is co-author of well over 100 refereed Journal articles and book chapters. Diana is also a consistent voice for the concerns of women, the poor, and marginalized people. She is Regents’ Professor at the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona.
Dr. Diana Liverman, University of Arizona
Our guest started studying about climate change risks well before the rest of us. Diana Liverman’s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California was titled “The use of a simulation model in assessing the impacts of climate on the world food system.” Today that would not be remarkable, but that was in 1984! – 4 years before James Hansen warned Congress and the world about global warming.
We begin with a conundrum Diana raised in her presentation at the Nobel Conference 55 last September. The good news is huge progress in bringing half a billion people out of extreme poverty, reducing hunger, and child mortality. There have been positive gains in recent decades. But that success led to far more greenhouse gas emissions – which bring unstable weather and an uncertain climate. Can we escape from that trap where more development risks global ruin?
You should check out the report “Our Future on Earth”. It is only 53 pages, and easily read by the public. The first chapter is by the UK science journalist and author Gaia Vince. But the second section comes from a unique survey of global scientists – the biggest risks they see. This interview is mainly about that survey: what top global scientists see as our main risks. Find links to “Our Future on Earth 2020”, and the new survey of world scientists, at futureearth.org. Diana is a a co-founder of Future Earth with Johan Rockstrom. The Global Risks Survey is here.
Conducted by Future Earth, the international sustainability research network, the survey identifies five global risks —
1. failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation; 2, extreme weather events; 3. major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; 4, food crises; and 5. water crises — as the most severe in terms of impact.
In the worry ranking by 222 leading scientists from 52 countries, an economic crash caused by a pandemic did not make it into the top five concerns. Maybe we will be blind-sided by other unforeseen risks. But the hundreds of scientists surveyed were not blind to social risks, like erosion of trust, or wealth accumulating at the top. We can all list major challenges to this civilization, if not to human survival itself. But these scientists add another dimension: very different crisis can feed back into other risks.
I also ask Diana about two of her other projects: In 2019, you participated in a paper about “Transforming National Meteorological and Hydrological Services into National Climate Service Centers” and the 2019 “Report from the IPCC task force on gender” which Dr. Liverman co-authored.
It seems like we are in a state of panic about immediate issue, like the Corona virus, or possible economic collapse, and governance issues in several major countries – while being hit by extreme weather – so that science about slower moving but much larger issues like climate change can barely penetrate into the public mind or political action. How can we maintain our resolve despite distractions and more immediate fears?
ONE THIRD OF PLANTS AND ANIMALS GONE IN 50 YEARS? – DR. JOHN WIENS
Here is a headline that breaks through: “Study: One-Third of Plant and Animal Species Could be Gone in 50 Years”. Surely that can’t be true – a mass extinction in one lifetime.
Let us dig into the science behind the headline with an expert author in this study. John J. Wiens is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. Wiens is a reviewer for over 100 scientific journals, and gives presentation all over the world. He is author, co-author or contributor to almost 200 scientific papers and chapters, and previously worked with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. His specialty is amphibians.
The research paper, “Recent responses to climate change reveal the drivers of species extinction and survival” is here. John’s new paper was published in the top tier journal, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a surprise to me, and perhaps to other scientists: it isn’t a gradual year-by-year warming that kills of local species. Extreme heat events are the key.
Reading this paper, it seems there is a breaking point for these living things, somewhere over a warming of 2.8 degrees C, which we expect by 2070 under our current path of emissions. So a lot of things survive up to a point, and then die off. From my reading of the paper, one of the conclusions is that we should not count on things like global mean temperature rise, when it comes to survival of the species. Instead, we have to watch for the local high temperature event.
Find out more at www.wienslab.com
WHY I THINK WE WILL HAVE A FOOD CRISIS DURING THIS DECADE
But let’s talk about food for a minute. I disagree with the scientists who do not see a food crisis as likely in the near term, as explained by our guest Diana Liverman. There have been other recent papers to tell you about which warn crop failures can occur simultaneously in several parts of the world.
COUPLED MEGA-DROUGHTS MORE LIKELY
For example, at the December 2019 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Nathan Steiger from Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, revealed mega-droughts occurred repeatedly in western North America during the medieval period. These dwarfed any droughts observed during the 19th and 20th centuries. At least one of those droughts in California developed at the same time as a massive drought in South America. There appears to be a link between conditions causing big droughts on both continents. Scientist Mingfang Ting, quoting here from a Columbia press release:
“projects that warming temperatures will lead to reduced precipitation plus increased evaporation of soil moisture in the U.S. Midwest corn belt—a climatic double whammy. Much of the precipitation that previously reached this region will instead be exported northward to the currently drier Great Plains, he says. In a related study, Puma projects that warmer temperatures will increase the likelihood of events similar to the 1930s Dust Bowl—an event briefly mirrored in the powerful 2012-13 U.S. drought. He projects that crop losses could greatly exceed 2012-13, and that shocks could cascade through the world food system.”
Remember too my Radio Ecoshock interview in May 2019 with Swiss scientist Martha Vogel . She expects more concurrent heat waves appearing on multiple continents, like the 2010 monster that caused Russia to stop exporting wheat. Her new research suggests we are entering an age where multiple food failures could occur, killing people and crops.
Here is the way Lead author, Dr Kai Kornhuber from Oxford’ and Colombia University’s put it:
“’Co-occurring heatwaves will become more severe in the coming decades if greenhouse gases are not mitigated. In an interconnected world, this can lead to food price spikes and have impacts on food availability even in remote regions not directly affected by heatwaves.
We found a 20-fold increase in the risk of simultaneous heatwaves in major crop producing regions when these global scale wind patterns are in place. Until now this was an under-explored vulnerability in the food system. We have found that during these events there actually is a global structure in the otherwise quite chaotic circulation. The bell can ring in multiple regions at once and the impacts of those specific interconnections were not quantified previously.”
Meanwhile the American Farm Bureau Federation reports farm bankruptcies are up 24% from the previous year. On the good news side: the world reached a new record for cereal production in 2019, and this year’s prospects look good so far, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Global stocks of wheat are quite high, at 271 million metric tons, up from 171 million tons in the drought year of 2012/13. Over 5 million people have already died from hunger in the first two months of 2020. But that is mainly a function of unfair distribution and consumption. We have enough food to feed everyone.
We have to wait and see whether the COVID-19 virus will affect international shipments of agricultural products. So far, there are no reported shortages as the Northern hemisphere approaches a new growing season. Please check out my Corona virus preparation tips in last week’s Radio Ecoshock show. If you missed it, listen or download it free here.
I don’t expect immediate food shortages, unless store clerks and truck drivers are afraid to show up for work due to disease. With the climate-driven major risks to good baskets on 3 continents, scientists are not saying this will happen in 2020. We just know that a rapidly warming Earth makes disturbances to rain and extreme heat waves more and more likely. Personally, I think a global crop failure and food crunch sometime during this decade is likely. Like the Mormons of old, I generally have a year’s worth of food stored away in case the harvest goes wrong.
Each year we buy house insurance. We don’t expect the house to burn or flood, but if it does, we are covered. Over time, we can buy food insurance for about the same amount of money or less. I hope we never have to use it.
FROM THE STUDIO…
Next week I will bring you some genuine good news. It’s a big worry hanging over all of our heads, but new science says we can let one disaster fear go, – for now. Tune in next week for breaking science.
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As we expect pockets of the flu and COVID-19 to pop up, I’ve been making family visits a priority. We call it “The Love and Panic Weekend”. Actually, I know a number of people who feel energized by the increased threat level going around these days – in a changing Earth, even with democracy under attack and a new disease raging. This could be the signal to make your relationships good, love life around you, and get active.
I’m with you.