Not Seen For 1000 Years: Rise in Global Temperatures Ushering In New Epoch

Penn State professor Dr. Michael Mann says he’s optimistic on the ability of humans to remedy the current environmental quagmire

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KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

It’s official: the Earth has entered the Anthropocene epoch. That’s a new geological era defined by human impact. This according to an expert group of scientists assembled at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa this week. July 26th was the warmest July in 136 years of modern record keeping according to a monthly analysis of global temperatures by the scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. This week in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Gavin Schmidt who’s the director of the institute said “It’s unprecedented. In 1,000 years there’s no period that has the trends seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination of temperatures”. While droughts and wildfires and floods rage all around the world including the US, Hawaii’s big island just dodged a bullet with Hurricane Madeline as it weakened to a tropical storm as it passed through. Although forecasters warned that Hurricane Lester is not far behind.

Hurricane Hermine made landfall in Florida early Friday, bringing with it torrential rains and strong winds, knocking out power to over 200,000 residents and possibly causing the death of at least 1 person. Hermine has been downgraded to a tropical storm and will move its way up the east coast over the weekend. It was the first time in recorded history that 3 tropic storm systems threatened the US simultaneously. If Lester makes landfall on the big island as a hurricane, it would be the first since record keeping began.

Now with us to discuss extreme weather and the link to climate change is Dr. Michael E. Mann. Michael is the distinguished professor and director of the Earth System’s Science Center at Penn State University. He’s also author of the new book titled, Madhouse Effect. Michael thank you so much for joining us.

DR. MICHAEL E. MANN: Thanks. It’s good to be with you.

BROWN: Michael we had you on just recently to discuss the flooding in Louisiana and now we have these hurricanes and tropical storms causing more damage and potentially an unprecedented hurricane in terms of historical records that may hit Hawaii. Can you talk about this in relation to climate change and if this could be seen as part of a pattern?

MANN: Yea so one of the things that we know is climate change is warming up the oceans and all other things being equal, warmer oceans means more evaporation of that very warm water into the atmosphere. More moisture. And it’s the moisture and the lifting of that moisture that is what powers a hurricane. A tropical storm. So as we warm up the Earth, as we warm up the ocean surface, we provide more energy to create and strengthen these storms. Tropical cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons. Different manifestations of the same things, tropical storm.

So whether or not we will see more hurricanes or fewer hurricanes is still up for debate because that depends on a variety of factors. But the things that we’re pretty confident about is that we will see more intense hurricanes and that those hurricanes will yield more of those soaking rains that we’re seeing with Hermine. Warmer atmosphere. More moisture in the air means the potential for more rainfall. So we expect to see heavier flooding associated with these tropical storms. The sort of flooding that we’re seeing right now with Hermine.

So the bottom line is more intense and damaging hurricanes and more damage from flooding associated with even larger amounts of rainfall. It isn’t coincidental that over the last year we have seen the strongest hurricane or typhoon on record in both the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere. We are seeing climate change impacting these storms in terms of their intensity and in terms of the flooding damage that they’re doing.

BROWN: Your associate Gavin Schmidt who is the lead scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he said this week in an interview with the Guardian again, that it’s unprecedented in 1,000 what we’ve been seeing in terms of temperatures. But he also went on to say that maintaining temperatures below the 1.5-degree guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and that’s very unlikely to be a thing. That we are not even making an emissions cuts commiserate with keeping warming below the 2-degree mark. Do you agree with those statements?

MANN: The first part of it is correct. In fact, his statement that the warming that we’re seeing is unprecedented in at least 1,000 years ironically that conclusion is based on the so called hockey stick curve that my coauthors and I published back in the late 1990’s. We demonstrated with that publication that the warming that we’ve seen over the last few decades outside the range of anything we see for at least the past thousand years.

So that conclusion actually dates back a decade and a half now. It provides context for understanding the onslaught of record breaking years we’re seeing. 2014 was the warmest year on record but then it was beat out by 2015. And now 2016 looks poised to beat out 2015. That would be 3 record breaking years in a row. That warmth has this larger context where we haven’t seen anything like that in at least a thousand years.

Now in terms of keeping warming below certain thresholds, the thresholds that’s most widely discussed is the two degree Celsius 3.5-degree Fahrenheit threshold. That is the level of warming where we anticipate the worst impacts of climate change and the greatest potential for irreversible climate change impacts. Some regions, low lying island nations rightly point out with even less warming they are likely to be destroyed. We will see the disappearance of low lying island nations because of the sea level rise associate with even less warming and that’s where the 1.5-degree Celsius target comes in.

Many of the representatives from these low lying island nations and elsewhere have articulated the case for not a 2-degree Celsius warming limit but an even lower 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit. Now that indeed will be a challenge. In order to avoid that amount of warming we do have to rapidly ramp down our carbon emissions in the years ahead.

Where I disagree with my good friend Gavin Schmidt is that it is wrong to conclude that’s impossible. That’s really an assessment of willpower rather than of science. The science tells us that we can still avoid crossing that threshold. It will require a major effort on our part. But if you look at what’s going on right now there are reasons for cautious optimism. We actually saw carbon emissions come to a peak 2 years ago and slightly decline for the first time in decades, last year. That suggest that the efforts that are already afoot to transition away from burning of fossil fuels towards renewable energy, that those efforts among the various nations of the world are paying dividends.

We are already seeing that effort in the numbers that are coming in. Those numbers are telling us we’re starting to turn the corner. We need to turn the corner even faster and there was a historic agreement reached earlier this year in Paris. Actually last year in December 2015 in Paris where nearly 200 nations from around the world including the world’s largest emitters, us, China, and many of the other major emitters all agreed to lower their carbon emissions in the decades ahead by the amount that will actually get us halfway to where we need to be.

So it won’t solve the problem but it actually–if those nations make good on their commitments it will get us halfway from where we would otherwise be business as usual, warming of 4-5 degrees Celsius, 7-9 degrees warming of the planet by the end of the century. It will get us halfway down of where we need to be. Less than 2 degrees Celsius, 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. What that says is that we’re making real progress. We have to try even harder. We have to turn the corner even faster. And that’s what many of us hope we will see in the years ahead. We’ll see even more stringent commitments from the nations of the world as we seek to combat this threat. This existential unprecedented threat.

BROWN: Michael, we hear a lot about reducing carbon emissions. One thing we hear less about but starting to hear more about is that of methane gas emissions. Because as you know the United States, Canada, and other states around the world participate in the energy extraction known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking in order to extract gas and crude oil out of shale. The process is known to release tremendous amounts of methane gas. How does the methane figure into what we’re trying to do in terms of reduced emissions on the carbon side? But are we maybe not even–are we canceling those gains out by engaging with this methane release?

MANN: Yea so that’s a real concern. Natural gas is arguably less carbon intensive source of fuel than coal for example. So there are those who have argued that if we can get of coal at least and replace that in part with the burning of natural gas then that could help us get on that pathway that we need to get on to lower our carbon emissions. One of the problems there is what you note.

Some of that natural gas which is mostly methane actually escapes into the atmosphere during the process of natural gas extraction during fracking, hydraulic fracturing. And methane is actually a very potent greenhouse gas. Even more potent than CO2. So if enough of that methane escapes into the atmosphere it could easily offset any nominal advantage that natural gas might seem to have over coal when you look at the CO2 emissions associated with the two sources. So what it really underscores is the fact that we have to get off fossil fuels. Full stop. Natural gas is a fossil fuel like petroleum oil, just like coal.

If we are to, again, stabilize the climate below those dangerous levels of warming, we really have to get off fossil fuels entirely. That means leaving most of the natural gas, most of the oil, and just about all of the coal in the ground. We can’t continue to extract and burn those fossil fuels if we are going to keep warming below that dangerous threshold.

BROWN: So some climate deniers are still saying that this warming trend is part of a natural pattern. How do we know that it isn’t?

MANN: There are so many different ways that we know that it can’t be natural that we could spend a whole hour talking about it. But the simplest point to make here is that we are seeing warming now, a rate of warming that as we discussed earlier is unprecedented potentially in thousands of years. We know that when we take climate models and we drive them just with the natural factors, guess what? The climate models actually want to cool over the last half century.

Natural factors like volcanos and a decrease in a solar output have actually be pushing the climate in the opposite direction. So not only can’t they explain the warming we’ve seen, they haven’t even been pushing us in that direction. We have offset any small natural cooling that might have arisen from those natural factors and all of the warming that we’ve seen is due to human impact.

BROWN: G20 leaders are meeting in China this week and 3 of the world’s biggest multinational insurers, Aviva, [ASEAN], and [inaud.], they’re calling on them to implement a timeframe to end the subsidies for fossil fuel companies. Do you think we’ve entered an era where the cost is becoming clearer and the risks are outweighing the benefits of a fossil fuel based economy?

MANN: Absolutely. Very well put. The bottom line is that there is this damage that is done to our planet, to our economy, to us to our health, to food, to water, to ecosystems. Everything you could imagine. There is this damage that is being done by the burning of fossil fuels and the climate change it’s causing and the acidification of the oceans that it’s causing. And the problem has been that up till now, there has been no market signal that reflects that damage.

Nobody pays for that pollution. You can pollute our atmosphere for free and do all the damage that comes with it. That has to change. We need to put a price on the emission of carbon so that we do indeed level the playing field so that renewable energy can fairly compete against fossil fuel energy. So not only should we not be providing incentives in the form of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, we need to be providing disincentives. We need to put a price on the burning of carbon. We need to incentivize clean energy so that we can as I said earlier, turn the corner toward a fossil fuel free economy even faster. Fast enough to avoid truly catastrophic changes in our climate.

BROWN: And lastly Michael, I mean what is the timeframe for that? Do you think that enough of the Earth’s countries, especially the biggest polluters, do you think that we could all get on the same page? I mean the Paris Accords notwithstanding. You know it’s one thing to sign something. It’s a whole other thing to put it into practice. I mean are we 20 years away from this? 50? 100? Can we get some sort of outlier here? How far away do you think we are from this?

MANN: I’m actually pretty optimistic about this and I’ll tell you why. The largest emitter of carbon on the planet right now is China. It’s no longer the United States. China and the US reached this bilateral agreement a year ago to lower their carbon emissions and then they bother were signatories to the Paris Accord. Here’s the thing. China is actually decommissioning coal fire power plants now. They are investing far more on wind and solar energy on anybody else in the world.

So here we have the world’s largest emitter having recognized we’ve got to stop this way of doing business. And China now is moving dramatically in the direction of renewable energy to the extent that they’ve flooded the global marketplace with cheap solar panel technology and that’s making it easier for other countries to build their renewable energy economy. So we’re seeing immense progress being made. We’re seeing the world’s largest emitter actually move dramatically away from the burning of fossil fuels.

Now obviously we here in the US have to keep up out end of the deal. The commitment that we have made to China and to the rest of the world in Paris. And what we obviously will need is a president who will continue the policies of the current administration and continue work to address the issue of climate change, rather than to deny that the problem even exists. We face a very stark choice in this next election between the candidate, the democratic candidate who will continue the polices of the current administration and make sure the US helps lead in the effort to migrate away from a fossil fuel economy. Versus the republican candidate Donald Trump who dismisses climate change as a hoax. The stakes couldn’t be greater in the next election.

BROWN: We’ve been joined by Michael E. Mann. He is a doctor. Michael is the distinguished professor and the director of the Earth Systems and Science Center at Penn State University. He’s also author of the new book, the Madhouse Effect. Michael I know that the Madhouse effect has some wonderful illustrations. Can you shout out your illustrator of the book?

MANN: Absolutely Tom Tolls is the Washington Post’s editorial cartoonists. Many of your viewers will be familiar with his square cartoons that appear in the Washington Post and over the place every day. There’s always that little guy down in the corner and you have to read what he’s saying. That little guy is actually Tom drawing himself and he always has some very clever commentary.

Well, Tom has probably done the hardest hitting editorial commentary about climate change in our entire media over the last decade in the form of his hard-hitting cartoons in the Washington Post. And it was an honor to work with him to use that to write a book that tries to approach this problem from a different direction. That uses satire and ridicule and exposing hypocrisy but a lot of humor in talking about the issue of climate change and what we need to do to combat this problem. To prevail in combating this problem.

BROWN: The Madhouse Effect. It is in book stores. You should go pick it up. Dr. Mann we certainly appreciate your time as always. Thank you.

MANN: Thank you it was a pleasure.

BROWN: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.

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