Climate Catastrophe Is Here: 2016 Hottest Year on Record
Dr. Michael Mann emphasizes says we are already seeing global impacts; within one to two decades we are on track for an iceless Arctic
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
The world’s warming and extreme weather events entered truly uncharted territory in 2016, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
In its annual State of the Global Climate Report released Wednesday, the WMO confirmed that 2016 was indeed the hottest year on record since record–keeping began in the late 19th century, with average surface temperatures about 2 degrees Fahrenheit above pre–industrial times. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have come in the 21st century.
Joining us to discuss this, all the way from State College, Pennsylvania, we’re joined by Dr. Michael E. Mann. Michael is the Distinguished Professor and the Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He’s also the author of the book titled, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”. His latest book, co–authored with Tom Toles, is titled, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy”.
Michael, I would fully concur with the title of your book. Welcome back to The Real News.
MICHAEL E. MANN: Thanks. It’s great to be with you.
KIM BROWN: So in its annual State of the Global Climate Report, the WMO has said that the new low for Arctic sea ice in the projects — and it projects that the changes in the Arctic and the melting sea ice — will continue to push extreme temperatures through the year 2017, even without 2016’s strong El Niño influence. Are we approaching an Arctic that may be ice free come this summer? And why is this of great concern?
MICHAEL E. MANN: Yeah, well, probably not this summer. But we are on a trajectory where we will probably see an ice–free Arctic Ocean within a decade or two. The climate models that we used to project the future have indicated that we probably wouldn’t see ice–free conditions until the end of this century, and yet we are now on a trajectory where it’s fairly clear: we will see them in a matter of one to two decades. So this is just one example, among many, of climate change impacts that are unfolding faster than we had predicted them to.
KIM BROWN: Mmm. Data released last Friday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — also known as NOAA — it confirmed that January and February were the second hottest on record worldwide. Why is an early false spring in the U.S. combined with the cold period in March also of great concern?
MICHAEL E. MANN: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, the false spring, the February temperatures over most of the U.S. that felt like April temperatures, flowers were coming up here in central Pennsylvania; animals, hibernating animals were coming out of hibernation; even the apple trees were beginning to blossom in February; that’s unprecedented. I certainly haven’t seen anything like that in my lifetime.
And we know — in fact there was a study that came out about a week ago — it was done fairly rapidly to assess how likely is it that we would have seen so warm February temperatures in the U.S. in the absence of human caused climate change. And it turns out it’s extremely unlikely that it would have happened. We can come very close to saying that those unprecedented warm February temperatures were due to climate change, were due to human caused climate change.
KIM BROWN: Can we also expect more wildfires, and a longer wildfire season, in addition to an earlier and stronger tornado season throughout the Midwest?
MICHAEL E. MANN: Now, tornadoes are notoriously difficult to predict when it comes to climate change, precisely how climate change will impact tornado activity; there’s been a debate within the scientific community for a number of years as to the precise impact that climate change will have. Although, I would say that that debate is moving in the direction of agreement, that climate change likely is going to lead to more intense tornado events, and perhaps more frequent tornado outbreaks, as well, although, again, that’s still debated.
But when we start talking about things like the unprecedented droughts and wildfires that we’ve seen in the western U.S., not only can we expect that to happen, it’s happening. We are seeing the impacts of climate change play out.
Over the last year or two, whether it’s the unprecedented flooding events — we’ve had nearly a dozen thousand-year rainfall events around the country – these are rainfall events, flooding events that shouldn’t happen more often than once in a thousand years; and we’ve seen about a dozen of them in the last year or so, in South Carolina, in West Virginia, in Arizona…
KIM BROWN: Louisiana, North Carolina.
MICHAEL E. MANN: Louisiana, absolutely. The unprecedented drought in California — which now may be in a temporary respite because of the fairly heavy rainfall they’ve had this winter, there may be sort of a temporary lull in that drought — but we know that that was the worst drought, the longest drought on record. And when I say, “on record”, the paleoclimate specialists tell us that that drought was probably the worst drought in at least 1,200 years. And the wildfires that we’ve seen out west — a tripling of wildfire in the western U.S. over the last 30 or 40 years — we are seeing the impacts of climate change play out now in real time.
KIM BROWN: Well, Michael, is it possible that some of these extreme weather events could offset the outcome of other extreme weather events? For example, as you mentioned in California, they had a tremendous amount of precipitation in the form of rain and snow in the northern part of the state, so does that take down the risk of wildfire season being bad, if the ground is adequately saturated?
MICHAEL E. MANN: Yeah, well, it takes a fairly long time to recharge aquifers, so when we look at drought, we usually look at multi-year periods, because those are the time scales on which we see substantial changes, for example, in the recharging of ground water.
So, while they have received a fair amount of rainfall and snowfall this winter, that hasn’t been enough to recharge those aquifers that have been drained by seven years of drought. And there is the distinct possibility — if you look at what the projections indicate — there is the distinct possibility that we have more widespread and more pronounced droughts, punctuated once in a while, intermittently, by seasons in which there is unusually heavy rainfall and snowfall. That can be a problem as well. We saw that with the dam, the California dam that broke due to the excessive rainfall.
So, we may see both extremes: longer, more pronounced droughts, and when it does rain, even if that happens less frequently, even if wet seasons happen less frequently, when we do get them, we get even more rainfall, we get flooding rainfall, and that’s not a good thing. So extremes at both ends don’t really cancel out. Both of them subject us to hazard.
KIM BROWN: So talk about how global warming stokes more flooding and rising sea levels.
MICHAEL E. MANN: Those are two different things, and climate change definitely impacts both of them. More rainfall — simply because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture — it’s one of the most basic relationships in all meteorological science, that as you warm the surface and you warm the atmosphere, it can hold more moisture. And so when conditions are conducive to rainfall, you get more rainfall. You can squeeze more water out of the atmosphere because it’s richer with moisture.
But those conditions, conditions that are conducive to rainfall or snowfall happening, can actually become more rare, so in many parts of the country we expect to see longer, more pronounced summer drought, but potentially heavier flooding events and heavier snowfall events in places like Washington, D.C.
KIM BROWN: And lastly, Michael, I mean, can we still reverse this trend in your opinion? Are all of these extreme events, including the melting of the Arctic ice, including all of the extreme weather events that we’re seeing, is there a way for it to be reversed, even if it appears radical to society and how we’ve become accustomed to our lifestyle? I mean, what would need to happen for the earth to get back on the right track?
MICHAEL E. MANN: It’s a great question. And we know that certain things likely are reversible.
First of all, we know that we can still take the actions necessary to avert catastrophic climate change; we often point to the number of 2 degrees Celsius or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit warming as where we really expect to see the worst impacts of climate change, and as you noted, with 2016 we’re more than halfway there. We’re more than halfway to that catastrophic level of warming.
And if we continue with business as usual, burning of fossil fuels, we’ll hit that catastrophic level of warming in a matter of a couple of decades.
But there is still time to bring down our emissions, to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, in time to avert a catastrophic climate change, but that window is closing. We only have a matter of years if we are going to bring those emissions to a peak and begin bringing them down as rapidly as they have to come down to prevent that level of warming.
Now, if we were to do that, does everything return to normal?
Well, the predictions indicate that the sea ice probably comes back. Sea ice can come and go fairly easily. If you cool down the Arctic, you form sea ice. If you keep it cold for several years, you can form thick sea ice.
What doesn’t come back immediately are the ice sheets. Once you set in motion the destruction of the major continental ice sheets — the Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice sheet — once you set that in motion, it’s very difficult to stop that.
So, one of the things we worry about is that we may already have –- and if not, fairly soon –- may cross a tipping point where we’ve warmed the planet enough to set in motion the destruction of those ice sheets in a way that we can’t stop. Even if we were to bring the global temperatures back down, that would still continue to happen, and we would get 10, 12, 14 feet of sea level rise.
That’s one of the things we worry about, crossing some of those tipping points, and we could do that in a matter of years. We don’t even know how close we are to those tipping points. It could happen very quickly if we don’t get this problem under control.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. We have been speaking with Dr. Michael E. Mann. He is the Distinguished Professor and also the Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. Michael, as always, we appreciate you joining us. Thank you.
MICHAEL E. MANN: Always a pleasure. Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.