Leading climatologist Benjamin Horton talks about recent reports from NASA and NOAA showing increasingly higher global temperatures, and explains why the dangerous human-caused trend could spell disaster
Dimitri Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. It’s official: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, land temperatures this last July were the hottest on record Including ocean temperatures, the NOAA ranked July as the second hottest month ever recorded, trailing July 2016 by less than one tenth of 1°. Last week, an independent analysis from NASA found July 2017 to be tied with July and August of 2016 as the hottest month on record. These temperatures came after 2016 was determined to be the hottest year on record. With us to discuss this disturbing trend in global temperatures is Dr. Benjamin Horton. Dr. Horton is a professor in the Asian School of the Environment at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Professor Horton’s research concerns sea level change, and he aims to understand and integrate external and internal mechanisms that have determined sea level changes in the past, and which will shape such changes in the future. He joins us today from Singapore. Welcome to The Real News, Doctor Horton. Benjamin Horton: Good afternoon. Dimitri Lascaris: So first, please tell us if there is a significant discrepancy between the NASA and NOAA findings, with respect to temperatures in July 2017, and if so, what is the significance of that discrepancy? Benjamin Horton: Well, I think the most important conclusion of that is that two independent measurements of global atmosphere and ocean temperatures come out with the same conclusion: that the July temperatures in 2017 were anomalous. They were well above the long-term average of the twentieth century. So slight discrepancies between them being the warmest, or tied second warmest are irrelevant, really. I think the important thing for your listeners is that we’ve got two independent measurements, and they use similar data sets, but they use different statistical analysis. And they come out of the same conclusion, that July 2017 was approximately around 1.5°F greater than the twentieth century average, with the warmest July occurring in 2016. And it’s part of a trend. Nine of the ten warmest July’s occurred in the 20 first century. The only exception is a very, very warm year in 1998. And then you can start to think even more, and these numbers are astounding, in July 2017 marked the 41st consecutive July temperature that was larger than the global average, and the 391st month with global temperatures above the twentieth century average. So we’re just building a body of data that’s irrefutable that our climate is changing. Dimitri Lascaris: And these results for the most recent July occurred in a non-El Niño year. Could you talk to us about the significance of that? Why should it concern us that we’re seeing these temperatures in July in a non-El Niño year? Benjamin Horton: Well, this all concerns natural variability, so on top of the trend of increasing temperatures to do with greenhouse gas emissions, we have a natural variability in our Earth. And one of the controlling factors for global temperatures is called the El Niño Southern Oscillation, ENSO. And this concerns the Pacific Ocean. We are a blue planet, and the Pacific Ocean is the largest. And during El Niño years, the Pacific Ocean warms up and that amplifies the global warming effect, to do with anthropogenic emissions. In the opposite or neutral years, which we are in today, you have a dampening effect. So the importance of these temperatures occurring at record levels is where occurring at a time when it’s just driven by anthropogenic effects, where natural variability is not enhancing the readings. Dimitri Lascaris: Now according to the NOAA’s state of the climate report, several other record-breaking events occurred in 2016, among them greenhouse gases hit their highest recorded concentration in nearly 1 million years. In addition, 12% of the Earth endured severe drought, Alpine glaciers retreated for the 37th year in a row, and global sea levels hit a record high. I just want to focus on the concentration of greenhouse gases and current trends in greenhouse gas emissions. Given where we now stand, and given current trends in greenhouse gas emissions, is it realistic to expect, is there any significant hope of us ensuring that the global temperature increase remains within the aspirational goal of 1.5°C set forth in the Paris Climate Accord, or is that something, which realistically, is not achievable at this stage, in your opinion? Benjamin Horton: Well I think there are two points to emphasize here: First of all, regarding those carbon dioxide emissions, we’ve shown through scientific research going through the Paleo record that our global temperatures are very heavily linked to changes in CO2. When CO2 [inaudible 00:05:09] global temperatures go up, and we have a very detailed record of going back approximately around six or 700,000 years from icicles. And we find that during warm periods in our climate, we have carbon dioxide emissions at around 280 ppm by volume. Our current levels are 400 ppm by volume. And that indicates a huge increase that is a result of us burning fossil fuels. The next question is: Can we control them? We have, as a scientific community, we always have hope regarding climate change, because we have a choice. We are still able to have a choice about high emission scenarios and low emissions scenarios going into the future. The low emission scenarios were agreed by all countries on the planet as part of the Paris Accord, and that was to keep the temperatures, the global mean temperatures below 1.5°C, above the preindustrial values. And that was very important, the scientific community concluded, because that was a level that, if we thought temperatures got above that, we’d get catastrophic changes to the Earth. And when we talk about catastrophic changes, we talk about the loss of the great barrier reef, the largest ecosystem on our planet; the collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, causing multimeter rises in sea level. So that value is not arbitrary. It was based upon scientific data that we must keep below that. And we still have that choice. So despite this current administration wishing to remove ourselves away from the Paris Agreement, what you can hope is that the rest of that the community starts to come together to start to fill in the gap that the U.S. may leave behind. Dimitri Lascaris: Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in the U.S.. You’re obviously referring to the Trump administration, which appears to have continued to suffer from a large dose of skepticism, with respect to climate science, despite all of the results that you’ve just discussed. In the United States, according to Forbes magazine, gasoline demand just hit an all-time high, with the greatest weekly U.S. gasoline consumption ever recorded in late July. How important are things such as developments within the United States, in terms of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and tn particular, gasoline consumption? How important is that to our ability to remain within the target set forth in the Paris Climate Accord? B. Horton: Well obviously increasing gasoline consumption by the U.S. would lead to increasing carbon dioxide levels. Gasoline consumption from personal cause contributes about one fifth of all U.S. emissions. So for every gallon of gas, through the extraction process for the petroleum industry, the all the way through to burning at the tailpipe, you’re emitting around 24 pounds of carbon. And then if we look at the whole transport sector alone, so if we combine together cars, and trucks, and rail, and the airplane industry, it’s about a third of the carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S., and it’s indeed the largest contributing factor. So if the U.S. is going to combat climate change, it must reduce its emissions from gasoline. But the interesting thing about that, when we think about solutions about climate change, regarding gasoline, we have those solutions. I mean, we can have more fuel-efficient cars. The previous administration, with the car manufacturers, came up with regulations to increase the efficiency of cars, something that this current administration wants to remove, which somehow, as a consumer I find rather nonsensical. Why wouldn’t I want a car that was more efficient, and therefore I could get more bang for my bucks? We’ve also switch to biofuels; biofuels reduce carbon dioxide emissions from our transport sector by about 80%. And then finally, we also have our hybrid or electric cars. We’ve seen the success of Tesla, and then all our major manufacturers now have electric cars. So regarding this, although there is this apparent trend, it can be quite easily solved. And if we go to some of our developing world counterparts, there are drastic changes. In the UK, they’re going to ban all gasoline and diesel emissions within the next 15 or so years, within our urban areas of the United Kingdom. And there are other such moves within the European Union. Dimitri Lascaris: Lastly, I want to just touch on your particular expertise: sea level changes. Given current temperature trends, what level of sea level rise, and assuming that we continue with a business as usual scenario, what level of sea level rise can we anticipate by 2100? And just broadly speaking, what will the major economic impacts of that sea level rise be in the United States, in your view? Benjamin Horton: Well sea level rise is a very useful barometer of climate change, because it takes into … So for the oceans to rise, it takes into account changes in ocean temperature, which cause our oceans to expound. And takes into account air temperature, which converts the water and ice in our ice caps, glaciers, and ice sheets to transfer into our ocean basin, so it’s a very important barometer. And the sea level rise rates that we’re experiencing now are faster than anything we’ve seen for the past two and a half thousand years. So we are, very clearly, in an anomalous period. We also know that it’s attributable to human activities. Around 50% of the rise that we see, for example, along the U.S. Atlantic Coast is due to human activities, increasing atmospheric temperatures, raising the surface of our oceans. Now sea level rise, even the smallest amounts has devastating effects. It could contaminate our drinking waters, it can inundate agricultural land, it can affect our ecosystems, and it can make storm surges much more powerful As we move through into the 21st century and beyond, one thing we are certain about is that sea levels will continue to rise, and that they also, the rate of the rise will accelerate. What alarms the climate community, regarding sea level rise, is that if we have a business as usual scenario over climate change, that we’re gonna start to affect our sleeping giants, which the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctica. And they hold within them colossal amounts of water. Greenland holds within it about six meters of water. Is it was all to melt, sea levels would go up 6 meters. Antarctica has 65 meters of water within it, over 200 feet, and the warning signs are that these ice sheets are starting to degrade and collapse. And if you have a business as usual scenario, the latest indications from the climate community is at sea level, by 2100, could rise, just from that ice sheet alone, over one meter. And for the U.S. Atlantic coast, it’s very, very worrying. A rise of over one meter from Antarctica, the U.S. Atlantic coast will become a hotspot for that. And the rates of rise we’re currently experiencing are around four millimeters per year. The rates of rise towards the end of the century, if we don’t do anything about climate change, will be somewhere in the excess of 40 millimeters per year. Now what are the profound impacts of that? Well if you want to highlight one recent event that devastated the mid-Atlantic shoreline, and that’s Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Sandy was an unusual event, it had an unusual track. It was a slow-moving, large storm, but it was on top of a baseline, and that baseline is sea level. So sea level has been rising on the U.S. Atlantic coast, and we, here in our research group, has been looking at how sea level rise affects how often hurricane Sandy occurred in the past, how often that type of event occurs at the present, and how often it would occur in the future. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, an event like hurricane Sandy occurred approximately one every 500 years. So an event that was very rare; it was six or seven lifetimes before an event of that magnitude. Because sea level has risen, and it’s risen about 30 centimeters since the Industrial Revolution, in and around New York City, that event occurs approximately every 25 years. If we don’t do anything about climate change, by 2040, 2050, so within our lifetime, Hurricane Sandy may occur every five years – twice a decade. Hurricane Sandy caused $70 billion of damage to the U.S. Atlantic coast. It affected people’s lives, people lost their lives, lost their homes, and that gives you the seriousness of climate change. [inaudible 00:14:23] have hope. So of you don’t do anything about climate change, sea levels in and around New York City will rise around 1.3 meters by 2100. If you do something about climate change, maybe those rises will be 60 or so centimeters. When they’re at those rate to rise, we can adapt, and therefore we can continue to live, work, recreate along the coastlines. If you don’t do anything about climate change, you’re going to have societal change. We’re not going to be able to protect our coastlines. People are going to have to migrate, and that, clearly, is the urgency about climate change. Yes, as a community we have hope, but we need our elected officials to act upon the scientific facts. Dimitri Lascaris: Well, clearly the costs of inaction are staggering, and hopefully other levels of government in the United States will fill the void under an administration that seems determined to do everything possible to exacerbate the climate crisis. This has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Dr. Benjamin Horton about current temperature trends. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dr. Horton. Benjamin Horton: Thank you very much, Dimitri. Dimitri Lascaris: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.