Notes from a Warming World
Which is more valuable: a country or an economy? Such was the existential question posed by a recent UN vote. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), a consortium of low-lying islands, proposed a technical report on the cost of achieving more aggressive emissions reductions than have been targeted by the Copenhagen Accord. In that agreement, the target is to keep warming to “just” 2 degrees Celsius. According to most scientists, the world can’t warm more than 1.5 degrees without catastrophic consequences. Though backed by Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union, the ASOIS proposal was blocked by Saudi Arabia and – surprise, surprise – Kuwait and Qatar. That was enough to kill it, thanks to the UN’s consensus principles, which require unanimity on such proposals. The oil-rich countries argued that their economies would be hurt as fossil-fuel consumers switch to cleaner energy. To which the island states essentially responded, “Um, our economies will be hurt when our countries disappear.”
In Peru, environmentalists are taking matters into their own hands. The white of glaciers and ice caps – not just their frozen states – helps to cool the planet via what’s known as the “albedo effect.” Simply put, a white surface reflects the sun’s rays through the atmosphere and into space, and in so doing cools the area around it. Scientists have been playing with the potential of harnessing this process via white roofs, and now inventor Eduardo Gold is painting mountaintops white. It’s a nice idea, but the scientific community remains unconvinced. “It might be possible to slow down a little the melting, to gain a drop of a few tenths of a degree Celsius worldwide, or maybe one or two degrees Celsius, on a local scale,” says Thomas Condom, a glaciologist at the French Institute for Research and Development of Lima. Peru’s Environment Minister Antonio Brack is less diplomatic. The fact that Gold’s project won funding from the World Bank has infuriated Brack, who calls the project “nonsense.”
One of the reasons climatologists are interested in trying to replicate the albedo effect is to provide immediate cooling in a given area, particularly during abnormal heat waves, which are claiming more lives every year. Legendary climatologist Arthur Rosenfeld recently told the website SolveClimate that painting roofs white in cities could help reduce the urban heat-island effect. “Some would say it’s worth doing for that alone,” he said. Most Russians would agree with that statement. This summer a heat wave that brought record temperatures for a month claimed more than 1,000 lives there. That’s reminiscent of the European heat waves that took 30,000 lives a few years ago. In Russia’s case, however, it’s not just the heat that claimed victims, but the cooling strategy: jumping into ice-cold swimming holes and lakes, typically after downing ice-cold vodka. “The main reasons for people drowning is swimming in places that are not equipped, and the use of alcohol,” an emergency ministry spokman told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Climatologists disagree on all sorts of things, but they’ve been united in their defense of the work that stands as the foundation of their field: the reports compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). When e-mails between IPCC scientists were stolen last year and revealed discrepancies in the panel’s reports, climate critics jumped at the chance to accuse the scientists of attempting to hide science that disproved the impacts or human causes of climate change. And it wasn’t just the Fox News pundits. Every national newspaper ran a major story on what came to be known as ClimateGate. That coverage seriously impacted the mainstream perception of global warming. The numerous reports released in the months since, which exonerate the scientists, however, have received only brief mentions. That’s a big problem, according to Curtis Brainard of The Columbia Journalism Review. “It has been a bewildering year where climate science is concerned, and readers need to understand that while there is plenty of room to improve the research and communications process, its fundamental tenets remain as solid as ever.”