First Six Months of 2017 Marked By Wildfires and ‘Extremely Remarkable’ Warmth
Leading climate scientist Michael Mann sees a clear link between climate change and the devastating wildfires of 2017
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. This is part two of our interview with esteemed climate scientist, Michael Mann. Professor Mann talked with us in part one about a recent article in New York Magazine, which offered a very dire assessment of humanity’s future as a result of climate change. In this part, I’d like to discuss with Professor Mann some of the current weather phenomena that we’re seeing extreme weather phenomenon.
Professor Mann is a distinguished research professor and a director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He’s the author of the book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, and 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. Welcome again, Michael.
MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, good to be with you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So this week, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the first half of 2017 was the second hottest on record and that last month, June, was the third hottest June on record. An NOAA scientist, Ahira Sanchez-Lugo, remarked that these high temperature are “extremely remarkable because temperatures had been expected to drop after the end of the strong El Niño in 2016, which contributed to record temperatures in that year.”
Do you agree with Ms. Sanchez-Lugo that temperatures thus far this year are extremely remarkable, and if so, why?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, I would say that it’s somewhat remarkable. They’re more or less on the trend line. It’s not like these temperatures are coming in so far above our model projections that we can’t make sense of them. They’re more or less on the trend line or a little bit above the trend line, and that’s after a decade where some of the numbers were coming in a little bit below the trend line. When they were coming in below the trend line, you had the all too predictable chorus of climate change deniers insisting that climate change had stopped. That warming had stopped. That there was a pause in warming, and that was all nonsense. Temperatures tend to fluctuate from year to year due to various influences, including natural influences.
Now, we are seeing some of those influences sort of push us in the other direction. We had a several year-long El Niño event, which boosted global temperatures quite a bit. 2016, the warmest year on record, benefited from that warm. It is a little surprising that 2017 hasn’t fallen off as much as we might have expected, given that the El Niño event, which is a global temperature boosting event, has subsided, and we’ve instead at least gone into a little bit of a La Nina, which is the opposite sort of cooling side of that phenomenon.
One of the things that is going on here is that much of the warmth in recent years hasn’t just been related to El Niño. It’s been related to a very warm Arctic. The Arctic has been remarkably warm, and that’s consistent with what the models predict. We expect this so called Arctic amplification of warming, in part because of the melting of ice, which allows more of the sunlight to be absorbed, further warming the Arctic.
A lot of the warmth that we’ve seen in recent years has at least in part been due to this very warm Arctic. Even as the El Niño event has subsided, that Arctic warmth persists. Some of the temperature compilations estimate temperatures in a way that doesn’t fully take into account the contribution from the Arctic. It has to do with the fact that we haven’t had measurements there that go back the whole century, for more than a century. So, some groups simply leave out that region because we don’t have long-term measurements. Other groups find ways to interpolate in that missing data, which is important because we do know it’s the fastest warming region of the Earth right now.
It’s a little surprising, but we’re not outside of the uncertainty range of the models. What these latest observations tell us is that we are on track, that we continue to see warming at the rate that the models have predicted, and it will continue on if we don’t do something about our continued burning of fossil fuels. Once again, the truth is bad enough. We don’t have to exaggerate it. It’s cause enough for urgency and acting.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’d like talk a little bit about what is realistically possible at this stage. I attended the COP 21 in Paris December 2015 for The Real News. Spoke to the climate scientists there. One of them was, for example, Kevin Anderson. We talked about, amongst other things, the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, and I think it’s fair to say that Professor Anderson, and others have said this more recently. Dr. Eric Rignot made a presentation recently, which he indicated, I’m paraphrasing, that really staying beneath 1.5 degrees Celsius at this point is not realistic. More recently, Michael Oppenheimer said that even staying within the two degree Celsius threshold is going to be an extreme challenge. I think he estimated the likelihood of that happening at 10%. Do you share their skepticism about our ability to remain beneath 1.5 or even two degrees Celsius given where we currently stand and what the current trends are?
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, I’m always weary of weighing in on the likelihood or unlikelihood of actions that are a matter of willpower because we have defied those sorts of predictions in the past. Whether it’s World War II or the Apollo Project, history is replete with examples where people said, “No, there’s just no way can do that,” and history proved otherwise.
We often surprise ourselves in what we’re able to accomplish when we really hunker down and we decide we’re going to do something. I think that it’s very much possible with renewable energy, and I do think there’s a tendency by some to underestimate the rate at which we could move away from a fossil fuel based energy economy to a renewable energy economy. I’m always weary of weighing in on what’s possible or not possible when it’s a matter of human willpower. What is more relevant, in my view, are the physical constraints. If we garnered the will to dramatically move away from fossil fuels, if we fully incentivize renewable energy, if we were to meet the Paris obligations and then improve on them further in a few years, we can get on a course. The math tells us this. The math and physics tells us that we could still put ourselves on a course where we keep warming below two degrees Celsius. That’s three and a half Fahrenheit, what many scientists would describe as the level of dangerous interference with the climate.
I do agree with Kevin Anderson and others that 1.5 degrees C, that may be slipping off the table. That sort of was stated as an aspirational goal. Two degrees Celsius stabilization being stated in Paris is the thing we really need to keep warming below, that two degrees C. There was aspirational goal of … We’d really like to keep it, in fact, below 1.5 degrees C. If you’re a low-lying island nation, if you live along the coast, if you’ve been dealing with unprecedented floods and droughts and heat waves, there are people who are already feeling dangerous impacts of climate change. Arguably, we should prevent as much warming as we possibly can, and that’s part of why the 1.5 C has become an aspirational goal, especially among island nations that are already threatened with inundation. That’s going to be really tough unless we employee controversial technology called carbon sequestration to literally suck the CO2 back out of the atmosphere. It’s really expensive. It’s hard to do, but we might have to turn to those technologies if we really decide that we need to limit warming even below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Just cutting our emissions, transitioning to renewable energy alone won’t be enough to do that. We’ll actually have to engage in active efforts to take some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere. It’s expensive, but you know what would be more expensive? Catastrophic climate change.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. One thing I’d like to talk to you lastly before we conclude our interview is something that we’re seeing this summer, it’s quite striking in certain parts of the world including here in Canada where I am. In British Columbia, we’ve seen devastating wildfires spinning out of control in many parts of the province. We’ve seen similarly devastating wildfires in California. Portugal, where a number of people died recently. To what extent can we say with confidence that there’s a link between climate change and this phenomenon in particular that we’re seeing? These extremely intense and proliferating wildfires in various parts of the world.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, there’s a very clear link. In some of these cases like the 2015 California wildfires, we’ve actually published some work that demonstrates that one of the features of climate change related to how it changes the properties of our jet stream and the way weather patterns move or don’t move around, that that phenomenon may have been implicated with the 2015 California wildfires. There are cases where we can point to very specific mechanisms that we think are being exacerbated by climate change and say there was probably a linkage there.
More generally, when we step back and we look at North America and we see that there’s been a tripling in the extent of wildfire over the past half century, that’s not a small change. That’s not a subtle signal. That’s a big signal. We can see the impact of climate change here. In a sense, it’s because these wildfires, forgive the pun, represent sort of a perfect storm. You have various factors coming together. Extreme summer heat and drought, diminished snow pack, which means less spring run-off, and warm winters which allow pests like pine beetles to infest our forests and weaken them. You bring all those factors together, and you’ve got a recipe for massive wildfires, and that’s what we’re seeing. The science is very clear that it predicts this. The observations are very clear that we’re seeing this. There is a connection.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: It’s been a pleasure talking to you today, Professor Mann. This has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to climate scientist, Michael Mann, and look forward to our next conversation with you.
MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, me too. Enjoyed this.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.