Notes from a Warming World

Temperature Gauge

graphic of a earth-globe with a thermometer rising from it

Thermal Contraction

Usually heat causes things to expand. But it now appears that rising heat is having a shrinking effect on our living world.

Climbing temperatures and shifts in rainfall patterns are reducing the body size of many animal and plant species, says a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. From microorganisms to top predators, nearly 45 percent of species for which data was reviewed grew smaller over multiple generations due to climate change, report researchers at the National University of Singapore.

photo of a frog
Global warming is speeding up the metabolism of cold-blooded
animals, causing them to shrink.

Some of the shrinkage came as a surprise. “Plants were expected to get larger with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide,” but many wound up stunted due to changes in temperature, humidity, and nutrient availability, the researchers said. For cold-blooded animals – including insects, reptiles and amphibians – the impact is direct: A one degree Celsius temperature increase translates into roughly a 10 percent increase in metabolism. That, in turn, results in downsizing.

These changes are having a direct effect on our food supply. For instance, the study notes that while over-fishing has been blamed for decreased body size in both wild and commercially harvested aquatic species, threatening the key source of protein of a billion people around the world, it now seems that warming waters play a role as well, especially in rivers and lakes. We may have to content ourselves with small fry.

Litigation Nation

The island nation of Palau wants to know if countries can be sued if their emissions harm other states. A chain of more than 200 mostly low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean, Palau is among the group of nations most at risk from rising sea levels but least responsible for the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Small wonder it is looking to take big, carbon-spewing nations to task.

The answer to Palau’s query could help shape international law on the impact of climate change, but given our world bodies’ long-winded ways of policy-making, it might be a while coming.

The country has to first persuade the 193-member United Nations General Assembly – which has the authority to request a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – to approve its query. Only then will the ICJ weigh in on the matter with a nonbinding legal opinion.

Palau’s President Johnson Toribiong informed the General Assembly in September that his country and the Marshall Islands will soon call on it to “urgently seek” an opinion from ICJ. But as of November, he had yet to put in a formal request.

An opinion from ICJ wouldn’t have a direct effect on any nation, but legal experts say it could help set the parameters for future climate negotiations and influence litigation both between nations and in domestic courts around the world. “A decision such as requested would greatly help the bargaining position of the small island states,” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Air War

The US Congress has passed a bill making it illegal for American airlines to participate in the European Union’s cap and trade system, which charges airlines for producing emissions beyond their allotted limit.

The EU plans to include all airlines flying to and from its 27 member countries in its emissions-reduction program starting January 2012. The restrictions are designed to encourage airlines to switch to cleaner fuels or economize on fuel consumption. The move is opposed by airlines based in the US, China, Russia, Japan, Brazil and elsewhere, which say the EU cannot impose its rules on flights that originate outside its territory. The US is the first to go so far as to pass a law – the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011 – against following the EU’s law. And it was passed with “overwhelming” bipartisan support. So much for the friendly skies.

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