Human-caused climate change severely exposes the US national parks



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Trees have died in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo., as climate change has intensified bark beetle infestations and drought.
Patrick Gonzalez, CC BY-ND

Patrick Gonzalez, University of California, Berkeley

Human-caused climate change is disrupting ecosystems and people’s lives around the world. It is melting glaciers, increasing wildfires, and shifting vegetation across vast landscapes. These impacts have reached national parks around the world and in the United States. Until now, however, no analysis had examined climate change trends across all 417 U.S. national parks.

The United States established the first national park in the world, Yellowstone National Park, in 1872. U.S. national parks today protect some of the most irreplaceable natural areas and cultural sites in the world. Colleagues and I aimed to uncover the magnitude of human-caused climate change on these special places. We conducted the first spatial analysis of historical and projected temperature and precipitation trends across all U.S. national parks and compared them with national trends.

Our newly published results reveal that climate change has exposed the national parks to conditions hotter and drier than the country as a whole. This occurs because extensive parts of the parks are in extreme environments – the Arctic, high mountains, and the arid southwestern United States.

Many national parks are located in regions with the fastest rates of warming in the United States.
Patrick Gonzalez, CC BY

Rapid warming and drying

National parks conserve the most intact natural places in the country. They harbor endangered plants and animals and unique ecosystems. They also help assure human well-being by protecting watersheds that provide drinking water to people and by storing carbon, which naturally reduces climate change.

Our findings show that temperatures in the national park area increased at double the national rate from 1895 to 2010. At the same time, precipitation decreased across a greater fraction of the national park area than across the United States as a whole.

Our analysis of climate trends starting in 1895 showed that temperatures increased most in Denali National Preserve, Alaska, and rainfall declined most in Honouliuli National Monument, Hawaii. Hotter temperatures from human-caused climate change have intensified droughts caused by low precipitation in California and the southwestern United States.

Many national parks in the southwestern U.S. have experienced intense drought.
Patrick Gonzalez, CC BY

Human-caused climate change has caused historical impacts in places where we found significant past temperature increases. These impacts include melting of glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, tree death from bark beetles in Yellowstone National Park, upslope vegetation shifts in Yosemite National Park, California, and northward vegetation shifts in Noatak National Preserve, Alaska.

To quantify potential future changes, we analyzed all available climate model projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Continued greenhouse gas emissions under the highest emissions scenario could increase U.S. temperatures in the 21st century six times faster than occurred in the 20th century.

This could increase temperatures in national parks up to 9 degrees Celsius by 2100, with the most extreme increases in Alaska, and reduce precipitation by as much as 28 percent, in the national parks of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Heating could outpace the ability of many plant and animal species to move and stay in suitable climate spaces.

In places where models project high temperature increases, research has found high vulnerabilities of ecosystems. These vulnerabilities include severely increased wildfire in Yellowstone National Park, extensive death of Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, California, and possible disappearance of American pika, a small alpine mammal, from Lassen Volcanic National Park, California.

Human-caused climate change has doubled wildfire in the western U.S. Here, the Rim Fire burns west of Yosemite National Park, Calif., in 2013.
USDA/Mike McMillan, CC BY

Our research provides climate data to analyze vulnerabilities of plants, animals and ecosystems. The data can also help park managers develop adaptation measures for fire management, invasive species control and other ways to protect parks in the future.

For example, based on analyses of the vulnerability of ecosystems to increased wildfire under climate change, parks can target prescribed burning and wildland fire in the short term to reduce the unnatural buildup of fuels that can cause catastrophic wildfires in the long term.

A solar panel on the roof of a building in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Calif., reduces greenhouse gas emissions and electricity costs for the park.
Patrick Gonzalez, CC BY-ND

Reducing emissions can help parks

Ultimately, our results indicate that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars, power plants and other human sources can save parks from the most extreme heat. Compared to the highest emissions scenario, reduced emissions would lower the rate of temperature increase in the national parks by one-half to two-thirds by 2100.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions through energy conservation, improved efficiency, renewable energy, public transit and other actions would reduce the magnitude of human-caused climate change, helping save the U.S. national parks for future generations.The Conversation

Patrick Gonzalez, Associate Adjunct Professor, University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why remote Antarctica is so important in a warming world


Chris Fogwill, Keele University; Chris Turney, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Keele University

Ever since the ancient Greeks speculated a continent must exist in the south polar regions to balance those in the north, Antarctica has been popularly described as remote and extreme. Over the past two centuries, these factors have combined to create, in the human psyche, an almost mythical land – an idea reinforced by tales of heroism and adventure from the Edwardian golden age of “heroic exploration” and pioneers such as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Recent research, however, is casting new light on the importance of the southernmost continent, overturning centuries of misunderstanding and highlighting the role of Antarctica in how our planet works and the role it may play in a future, warmer world.

Heroic exploration, 1913.
wiki

What was once thought to be a largely unchanging mass of snow and ice is anything but. Antarctica holds a staggering amount of water. The three ice sheets that cover the continent contain around 70% of our planet’s fresh water, all of which we now know to be vulnerable to warming air and oceans. If all the ice sheets were to melt, Antarctica would raise global sea levels by at least 56m.

Where, when, and how quickly they might melt is a major focus of research. No one is suggesting all the ice sheets will melt over the next century but, given their size, even small losses could have global repercussions. Possible scenarios are deeply concerning: in addition to rising sea levels, meltwater would slow down the world’s ocean circulation, while shifting wind belts may affect the climate in the southern hemisphere.

In 2014, NASA reported that several major Antarctic ice streams, which hold enough water to trigger the equivalent of a one-and-a-half metre sea level rise, are now irreversibly in retreat. With more than 150m people exposed to the threat of sea level rise and sea levels now rising at a faster rate globally than any time in the past 3,000 years, these are sobering statistics for island nations and coastal cities worldwide.

An immediate and acute threat

Recent storm surges following hurricanes have demonstrated that rising sea levels are a future threat for densely populated regions such as Florida and New York. Meanwhile the threat for low-lying islands in areas such as the Pacific is immediate and acute.

Much of the continent’s ice is slowly sliding towards the sea.
R Bindschadler / wiki

Multiple factors mean that the vulnerability to global sea level rise is geographically variable and unequal, while there are also regional differences in the extremity of sea level rise itself. At present, the consensus of the IPPC 2013 report suggests a rise of between 40 and 80cm over the next century, with Antarctica only contributing around 5cm of this. Recent projections, however, suggest that Antarctic contributions may be up to ten times higher.

Studies also suggest that in a world 1.5-2°C warmer than today we will be locked into millennia of irreversible sea level rise, due to the slow response time of the Antarctic ice sheets to atmospheric and ocean warming.

We may already be living in such a world. Recent evidence shows global temperatures are close to 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial times and, after the COP23 meeting in Bonn in November, it is apparent that keeping temperature rise within 2°C is unlikely.

So we now need to reconsider future sea level projections given the potential global impact from Antarctica. Given that 93% of the heat from anthropogenic global warming has gone into the ocean, and these warming ocean waters are now meeting the floating margins of the Antarctic ice sheet, the potential for rapid ice sheet melt in a 2°C world is high.

In polar regions, surface temperatures are projected to rise twice as fast as the global average, due to a phenomenon known as polar amplification. However, there is still hope to avoid this sword of Damocles, as studies suggest that a major reduction in greenhouse gases over the next decade would mean that irreversible sea level rise could be avoided. It is therefore crucial to reduce CO₂ levels now for the benefit of future generations, or adapt to a world in which more of our shorelines are significantly redrawn.

This is both a scientific and societal issue. We have choices: technological innovations are providing new ways to reduce CO₂ emissions, and offer the reality of a low-carbon future. This may help minimise sea level rise from Antarctica and make mitigation a viable possibility.

Given what rising sea levels could mean for human societies across the world, we must maintain our longstanding view of Antarctica as the most remote and isolated continent.The Conversation

Chris Fogwill, Professor of Glaciology and Palaeoclimatology, Keele University; Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Reader in Physical Geography and Sustainability/Director of Education for Sustainability, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What the world needs now to fight climate change: More swamps



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Freshwater cypress swamp, First Landing State Park, Va.
VA State Parks, CC BY

William Moomaw, Tufts University; Gillian Davies, Tufts University, and Max Finlayson, Charles Sturt University

“Drain the swamp” has long meant getting rid of something distasteful. Actually, the world needs more swamps – and bogs, fens, marshes and other types of wetlands.

These are some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. They also are underrated but irreplaceable tools for slowing the pace of climate change and protecting our communities from storms and flooding.

Scientists widely recognize that wetlands are extremely efficient at pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and converting it into living plants and carbon-rich soil. As part of a transdisciplinary team of nine wetland and climate scientists, we published a paper earlier this year that documents the multiple climate benefits provided by all types of wetlands, and their need for protection.

Saltwater wetland, Waquoit Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, Mass.
Ariana Sutton-Grier, CC BY-ND

A vanishing resource

For centuries human societies have viewed wetlands as wastelands to be “reclaimed” for higher uses. China began large-scale alteration of rivers and wetlands in 486 B.C. when it started constructing the Grand Canal, still the longest canal in the world. The Dutch drained wetlands on a large scale beginning about 1,000 years ago, but more recently have restored many of them. As a surveyor and land developer, George Washington led failed efforts to drain the Great Dismal Swamp on the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

Today many modern cities around the world are built on filled wetlands. Large-scale drainage continues, particularly in parts of Asia. Based on available data, total cumulative loss of natural wetlands is estimated to be 54 to 57 percent – an astounding transformation of our natural endowment.

Vast stores of carbon have accumulated in wetlands, in some cases over thousands of years. This has reduced atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane – two key greenhouse gases that are changing Earth’s climate. If ecosystems, particularly forests and wetlands, did not remove atmospheric carbon, concentrations of carbon dioxide from human activities would increase by 28 percent more each year.

Wetland soil core taken from Todd Gulch Fen at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The dark, carbon-rich core is about 3 feet long. Living plants at its top provide thermal insulation, keeping the soil cold enough that decomposition by microbes is very slow.
William Moomaw, Tufts University, CC BY-ND

From carbon sinks to carbon sources

Wetlands continuously remove and store atmospheric carbon. Plants take it out of the atmosphere and convert it into plant tissue, and ultimately into soil when they die and decompose. At the same time, microbes in wetland soils release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as they consume organic matter.

Natural wetlands typically absorb more carbon than they release. But as the climate warms wetland soils, microbial metabolism increases, releasing additional greenhouse gases. In addition, draining or disturbing wetlands can release soil carbon very rapidly.

For these reasons, it is essential to protect natural, undisturbed wetlands. Wetland soil carbon, accumulated over millennia and now being released to the atmosphere at an accelerating pace, cannot be regained within the next few decades, which are a critical window for addressing climate change. In some types of wetlands, it can take decades to millennia to develop soil conditions that support net carbon accumulation. Other types, such as new saltwater wetlands, can rapidly start accumulating carbon.

Arctic permafrost, which is wetland soil that remains frozen for two consecutive years, stores nearly twice as much carbon as the current amount in the atmosphere. Because it is frozen, microbes cannot consume it. But today, permafrost is thawing rapidly, and Arctic regions that removed large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere as recently as 40 years ago are now releasing significant quantities of greenhouse gases. If current trends continue, thawing permafrost will release as much carbon by 2100 as all U.S. sources, including power plants, industry and transportation.

Kuujjuarapik is a region underlain by permafrost in Northern Canada.
Nigel Roulet, McGill University., CC BY-ND

Climate services from wetlands

In addition to capturing greenhouse gases, wetlands make ecosystems and human communities more resilient in the face of climate change. For example, they store flood waters from increasingly intense rainstorms. Freshwater wetlands provide water during droughts and help cool surrounding areas when temperatures are elevated.

Salt marshes and mangrove forests protect coasts from hurricanes and storms. Coastal wetlands can even grow in height as sea level rises, protecting communities further inland.

Saltwater mangrove forest along the coast of the Biosphere Reserve in Sian Ka’an, Mexico.
Ariana Sutton-Grier, CC BY-ND

But wetlands have received little attention from climate scientists and policymakers. Moreover, climate considerations are often not integrated into wetland management. This is a critical omission, as we pointed out in a recent paper with 6 colleagues that places wetlands within the context of the Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity, a statement endorsed by an unprecedented 20,000 scientists.

The most important international treaty for the protection of wetlands is the Ramsar Convention, which does not include provisions to conserve wetlands as a climate change strategy. While some national and subnational governments effectively protect wetlands, few do this within the context of climate change.

Forests rate their own section (Article 5) in the Paris climate agreement that calls for protecting and restoring tropical forests in developing countries. A United Nations process called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degraded Forests, or REDD+ promises funding for developing countries to protect existing forests, avoid deforestation and restore degraded forests. While this covers forested wetlands and mangroves, it was not until 2016 that a voluntary provision for reporting emissions from wetlands was introduced into the U.N. climate accounting system, and only a small number of governments have taken advantage of it.

Models for wetland protection

Although global climate agreements have been slow to protect wetland carbon, promising steps are starting to occur at lower levels.

Ontario, Canada has passed legislation that is among the most protective of undeveloped lands by any government. Some of the province’s most northern peatlands, which contain minerals and potential hydroelectric resources, are underlain by permafrost that could release greenhouse gases if disturbed. The Ontario Far North Act specifically states that more than 50 percent of the land north of 51 degrees latitude is to be protected from development, and the remainder can only be developed if the cultural, ecological (diversity and carbon sequestration) and social values are not degraded.

Also in Canada, a recent study reports large increases in carbon storage from a project that restored tidal flooding to a saltmarsh near Aulac, New Brunswick, on Canada’s Bay of Fundy. The marsh had been drained by a dike for 300 years, causing loss of soil and carbon. But just six years after the dike was breached, rates of carbon accumulation in the restored marsh averaged more than five times the rate reported for a nearby mature marsh.

Ten feet (3 meters) of carbon-rich soil accumulation along Dipper Harbour, Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada, has been radiocarbon dated to have accumulated over 3,000 years.
Gail Chmura, McGill University, CC BY-ND

In our view, instead of draining swamps and weakening protections, governments at all levels should take action immediately to conserve and restore wetlands as a climate strategy. Protecting the climate and avoiding climate-associated damage from storms, flooding and drought is a much higher use for wetlands than altering them for short-term economic gains.

This article has been updated to add a link to the Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity.The Conversation

William Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy, Tufts University; Gillian Davies, Visiting Scholar, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, and Max Finlayson, Director, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Antarctica’s ‘moss forests’ are drying and dying



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Lush moss beds in East Antarctica’s Windmill Islands.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Melinda Waterman, University of Wollongong; Johanna Turnbull, University of Wollongong, and Sharon Robinson, University of Wollongong

The lush moss beds that grow near East Antarctica’s coast are among the only plants that can withstand life on the frozen continent. But our new research shows that these slow-growing plants are changing at a far faster rate than anticipated.

We began monitoring plant ecosystems 18 years ago, near Australia’s Casey Station in the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica.

Casey Station is on East Antarctica’s coast. Click map to zoom.
Australian Antarctic Data Centre

As we report in Nature Climate Change today, within just 13 years we observed significant changes in the composition and health of these moss beds, due to the drying effects of weather changes prompted by damage to the ozone layer.

Living on the edge

Visitors to Antarctica expect to see a stark landscape of white and blue: ice, water, and sky. But in some places summer brings a surprisingly verdant green, as lush mosses emerge from under their winter snow blanket.

Because it contains the best moss beds on continental Antarctica, Casey Station is dubbed the Daintree of the Antarctic. Individual plants have been growing here for at least 100 years; fertilised by ancient penguin poo.




Read more:
Drones help scientists check the health of Antarctic mosses, revealing climate change clues


Antarctic mosses are extremophiles, the only plants that can survive the continent’s frigid winters. They live in a frozen desert where life-sustaining water is mostly locked up as ice, and they grow at a glacial pace – typically just 1 mm a year.

These mosses are home to tardigrades and other organisms, all of which survive harsh conditions by drying out and becoming dormant. When meltwater is available, mosses soak it up like a sponge and spring back to life.

The short summer growing season runs from December to March. Day temperatures finally rise above freezing, providing water from melting snow. Overnight temperatures drop below zero and mosses refreeze. Harsh, drying winds reach speeds of 200 km per hour. This is life on the edge.

Tough turf

When we first began monitoring the moss beds, they were dominated by Schistidium antarctici, a species found only in Antarctica. These areas were typically submerged through most of the summer, favouring the water-loving Schistidium. But as the area dries, two hardy, global species have encroached on Schistidium’s turf.

Like tree rings, mosses preserve a record of past climate in their shoots. From this we found nearly half of the mosses showed evidence of drying.

Healthy green moss has turned red or grey, indicating that plants are under stress and dying. This is due to the area drying because of colder summers and stronger winds. This increased desertification of East Antarctica is caused by both climate change and ozone depletion.

Moss beds, with moss in the foreground showing signs of stress.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Since the 1970s, man-made substances have thinned Earth’s protective sunscreen, the ozone layer, creating a hole that appears directly over Antarctica during the southern spring (September–November). This has dramatically affected the southern hemisphere’s climate. Westerly winds have moved closer to Antarctica and strengthened, shielding much of continental East Antarctica from global warming.

Our study shows that these effects are contributing to drying of East Antarctica, which is in turn altering plant communities and affecting the health of some native plant species. East Antarctica’s mosses can be viewed as sentinels for a rapidly drying coastal climate.

But there is good news. The ozone layer is slowly recovering as pollutants are phased out thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. What is likely to happen to Antarctic coastal climates when ozone levels recover fully by the middle of this century?




Read more:
The ozone hole leaves a lasting impression on southern climate


Unlike other polar regions, East Antarctica has so far experienced little or no warming.

Antarctic ice-free areas are currently less than 1% of the continent but are predicted to expand over the coming century. Our research suggests that this may isolate moss beds from snow banks, which are their water reservoirs. Ironically, increased ice melt may be bad news for some Antarctic mosses.

East Antarctica is drying – first at the hands of ozone depletion, and then by climate change. How its native mosses fare in the future depends on how we control greenhouse gas emissions. But with decisive action and continued monitoring, we can hopefully preserve these fascinating ecosystems for the future.The Conversation

Melinda Waterman, Associate lecturer, University of Wollongong; Johanna Turnbull, Associate Lecturer in Biology, University of Wollongong, and Sharon Robinson, Professor, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why NZ’s emissions trading scheme should have an auction reserve price



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New Zealand’s emission reduction target for 2030 is to bring emissions to 30% below 2005 levels, and to be carbon neutral by 2050.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Suzi Kerr, Victoria University of Wellington

While people’s eyes often glaze over when they hear the words “emissions trading”, we all respond to the price of carbon.

Back in 2010, when the carbon price was around NZ$20 per tonne, forest nurseries in New Zealand boosted production. But when prices plunged thereafter, hundreds of thousands of tree seedlings were destroyed rather than planted, wiping out both upfront investment and new forest growth.

Emission prices have since recovered but no one knows if this will last. With consultation underway on improving the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), the government should seriously consider a “price floor” to rebuild confidence in low-emission investment.




Read more:
A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate


How a price floor works

If we want to make a smart transition to a low-emission economy, we need to change how we value emissions so people make the investments that deliver on our targets. Implementing a reserve price at auction – or a “price floor” – is a powerful tool for managing the risk that emission prices could fall for the wrong reasons and undermine much needed low-emission investments.

In New Zealand’s ETS, participants are required to give tradable emission units (i.e. permits) to the government to cover the emissions for which they are liable. A limit on unit supply relative to demand reduces total emissions and enables the market to set the unit price.

In the future, the government will be auctioning emission units into the market. A reserve price at auction, which is simple to implement, can help avoid very low prices. If private actors are not willing to pay at least the reserve price, the government would stop selling units and the supply to the market would automatically contract.

The government’s current ETS consultation document suggests that no price floor will be needed in the future because a limit on international purchasing will be sufficient to prevent the kind of price collapse we experienced in the past. However, that assessment neglects other drivers of this risk.

When low ETS prices are a pitfall

Ideally, ETS prices would respond to signals of the long-term cost of meeting New Zealand’s decarbonisation goals and achieving global climate stabilisation. With today’s information, we generally expect ETS prices to rise over time. For example, modelling prepared for the New Zealand Productivity Commission suggests emission prices could rise to at least NZ$75 per tonne, possibly over NZ$200 per tonne, over the next three decades.

However, ETS prices could also fall because of sudden technology breakthroughs or economic downturn. Even though some low-emission investors would lose the returns they had hoped for, this could be an efficient outcome because low ETS prices would reflect true decarbonisation costs. Technological and economic uncertainty imposes a genuine risk on low-emission investments that society cannot avoid.

But there is another scenario in which ETS prices fall while decarbonisation costs remained high. This could arise because of political risk. For example, if a major emissions-intensive industrial producer was to exit the market unexpectedly and it was unclear how the government would respond, or if a political crisis was perceived to threaten the future of the ETS, then emission prices could collapse and efficient low-emission investments could be derailed.

Even when remedies are on the way, it can take time to correct perceptions of weak climate policy intentions. The New Zealand government’s slow response to the impact of low-quality international units in the ETS from 2011 to mid-2015 is a vivid example of this.

A simple and effective solution

With a price floor, an ETS auction will respond quickly and predictably to unpredictable events that lower prices. A price floor signals the direction of travel for minimum emission prices and builds confidence for low-emission investors and innovators. It also provides greater assurance to government about the minimum level of auction revenue to expect.

It is important to note that ETS participants can still trade units amongst each other at prices below the price floor. The price floor simply stops the flow of further auctioned units from the government into the market until demand recovers again and prices rise.

We have three good case studies overseas for the value of a price floor.

  1. The European Union ETS did not have a price floor for correcting unexpected oversupply and prices dropped because of the global financial crisis, other energy policies and overly generous free allocation. It now has a complex market stability reserve for this purpose, although that operates with less ease and transparency than a reserve price at auction.

  2. To counteract low EU ETS prices, the UK created its own price floor as a “top up” to the EU ETS. Although this did not add to global mitigation beyond the EU ETS cap, it did drive down coal-fired generation in the UK.

  3. California’s ETS was designed in conjunction with a large suite of emission reduction measures with complex interactions. Its reserve price at auction has ensured that a minimum and rising emission price has been maintained, despite uncertainties about the impact of other measures.

Keeping NZ on track for decarbonisation

In New Zealand, the Productivity Commission supports the concept of an auction reserve price in its final report on a transition to a low-emissions economy.

The only potential downside of a price floor is the political courage needed to set its level. It could be set at the minimum level that any credible global or local modelling suggests is consistent with New Zealand and global goals. The Climate Change Commission could provide independent advice on preferred modelling and an appropriate level. The merits of a price floor warrant cross-party support.

If the market operates in line with expectations, then the price floor has no impact on emission prices. But the price floor usefully guards against price collapse when the market does not go to plan.

The government, ETS participants and investors need to understand that international purchasing is not the only driver of downside price risk in the NZ ETS. A price floor would strengthen the incentives for major long-term investments in low-emission technologies, infrastructure and land uses in the face of uncertainty.

To reach New Zealand’s ambitious emission reduction targets for 2030 (a 30% reduction below 2005 levels) and beyond, bargain-basement emission prices need to stay a thing of the past.

This article was co-authored with Catherine Leining, a policy fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.The Conversation

Suzi Kerr, Adjunct Professor, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Google searches reveal where people are most concerned about climate change


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A handy source of information about questions big and small.
TheDigitalWay/pixabay, CC BY

Carla Archibald, The University of Queensland and Nathalie Butt, The University of Queensland

What do you do if you have a question? You probably Google it.

According to Google Trends, in 2017 Australians were keen to know about tennis, Sophie Monk, fidget spinners and Bitcoin. But besides these arguably trivial queries, our Google searches also revealed our concerns about extreme weather events such as Cyclone Debbie, Hurricane Irma, and the Bali volcano.

Our research, published in the journal Climatic Change, suggests that Google search histories can be used as a “barometer of social awareness” to measure communities’ awareness of climate change, and their ability to adapt to it.

We found that Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu share the highest levels of climate change awareness, according to their Google searches – as might be expected of island nations where climate change is a pressing reality. Australia is close behind, with a high level of public knowledge about climate change, despite the current lack of political action.




Read more:
Pacific islands are not passive victims of climate change, but will need help


Google searches are like a window into the questions and concerns that are playing on society’s collective mind. Search histories have been used to alert epidemiologists to ‘flu outbreaks (albeit with varying success) and to gauge how communities may respond to extreme weather events like hurricanes.

Googling for the climate.
search-engine-land/flickr

Talk of climate change action like “adaptation” often centres on well-known and at-risk places such as the Pacific Islands. As sea level rises, communities are forced to adapt by building sea walls or, in extreme cases, relocate.

Understanding how conscious communities are of the impacts of climate change is crucial to determining how willing they may be to adapt. So finding a way to rapidly gauge public awareness of climate change could help deliver funding and resources to areas that not only need it the most, but are also willing to take the action required.

In our research, we used Google search histories to measure the climate change awareness in different communities, and to show how awareness maps (like the one below) can help better target funding and resources.




Read more:
Google’s vast library reveals the rising tide of climate-related words in literature


OK Google, do I need to worry about the climate?

Google is asked more than 3.6 billion questions every day, some of which are about climate change. We looked at how many climate-related Google searches were made in 150 different countries, and ranked these countries from most to least aware of climate change.

Countries such as Fiji and Canada, which reported high rates of climate change Googling, were considered as having a high awareness of climate change.

World map of climate change awareness based on the relative volume of climate change related searches, and climate change vulnerability. Colours show the relationship between awareness and vulnerability: yellow, ‘high awareness, high risk’; orange, ‘low awareness, high risk’; dark purple, ‘high awareness, low risk’; light purple, ‘low awareness, low risk’.

We then divided countries into categories based on their climate awareness, their wealth, and their risk of climate change impacts (based on factors such as temperature, rainfall, and population density). All of these variables can influence communities’ ability to adapt to climate change.

This is a quick way to gauge how ready communities are to adapt to climate change, especially at a large global scale. For example, two countries in the “high awareness, high risk” category are Australia and the Solomon Islands, yet these two nations differ greatly in their financial resources. Australia has a large economy and should therefore be financing its own climate adaptation, whereas the Solomon Islands would be a candidate for international climate aid funding.

Destruction of Townsville, Australia after Tropical Cyclone Yasi.
Rob and Stephanie Levy/flickr

By looking at countries’ specific situations – not only in terms of their relative wealth but also their degree of public engagement with climate issues – we can not only improve the strategic delivery of climate change adaptation funding, but can also help to determine what type of approach may be best.

Challenges and opportunities

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to assess climate preparedness besides Google searches. What’s more, internet access is limited in many countries, which means Google search histories may be skewed towards the concerns of that country’s more affluent or urbanised citizens.

Climate change awareness has previously been measured using surveys and interviews. This approach provides plenty of detail, but is also painstaking and resource-intensive. Our big-data method may therefore be more helpful in making rapid, large-scale decisions about where and when to deliver climate adaptation funding.

Google search histories also don’t tell us about governments’ policy positions on climate issues. This is a notable concern in Australia, which has a high degree of public climate awareness, at least judging by Google searches, but also a history of political decisions that fail to deliver climate action.




Read more:
Lack of climate policy threatens to trip up Australian diplomacy this summit season


Amid the political impasse in much of the world, big data can help reveal how society feels about environmental issues at a grassroots level. This approach also provides an opportunity to link with other big data projects, such as Google’s new Environmental Insights Explorer and Data Set Search.

The untapped potential of big data to help shape policy in the future could provide hope for communities that are threatened by climate change.The Conversation

Carla Archibald, PhD Candidate, Conservation Science, The University of Queensland and Nathalie Butt, Postdoctoral Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lack of climate policy threatens to trip up Australian diplomacy this summit season



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Australia’s climate stance risks its standing on the world stage.
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Christian Downie, Australian National University

Australia has navigated a somewhat stormy passage through the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru. Scott Morrison’s new-look government faced renewed accusations at the summit about the strength of Australia’s resolve on climate policy.

Australia is neither a small nation nor one of the most powerful, but for many years it has been a trusted nation. Historically, Australia has been seen as a good international citizen, a country that stands by its international commitments and works with others to improve the international system, not undermine it.

But in recent years climate change has threatened this reputation. This is
especially so among our allies and neighbours in the Pacific region, who attended this week’s Nauru summit.




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With Australia’s new foreign minister, Marise Payne, attending instead of
the prime minister – not a good look, albeit understandable in the circumstances –
the government came under yet more international pressure to state plainly its commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

Pacific nations may be divided on many issues, but climate change is rarely one of them.

Before the meeting, Pacific leaders urged Australia to sign a pledge of support for the agreement and to declare climate change “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing” of the region.

Australia ultimately signed the pledge, but also reportedly resisted a push for the summit’s communique to include stronger calls for the world to pursue the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5℃.




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The government now has a chance to catch its breath before international summit season begins in earnest in November with the East Asia Summit in Singapore, followed quickly by APEC in Papua New Guinea and then the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on November 30 and December 1, not to mention the next round of UN climate negotiations in Poland in December.

The G20 is arguably the most important summit, bringing together the leaders of the 20 most powerful nations in the world. It is a forum at which Australia’s
position on the climate issue has already suffered significant diplomatic damage under the Coalition government.

When Australia hosted the G20 Brisbane talks in 2014, the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, worked to keep climate change off the formal agenda. Stiff opposition from several of Australia’s allies forced him to back down.

Other nations will be wary of Australia’s stance at the G20 this time around,
especially following the leadership turmoil in Canberra.

Indeed, with climate policy continuing to divide the Coalition, there is a
significant risk that further missteps on climate change will undermine Australia’s international standing.

A better option

It doesn’t have to be this way. Australia could easily meet its Paris target of cutting emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 with a national climate and energy strategy. But right now Australia is without one, and with Malcolm Turnbull’s passing as prime minister and the demise of the National Energy Guarantee, it looks unlikely to have a strategy in place by the time the G20 rolls around in November.

Australia’s overall greenhouse emissions have been rising for several years now, and many independent projections have Australia overshooting what is in reality a modest target.

But, rather than rectifying the situation, Morrison and his new cabinet have yet to make it completely clear whether Australia will stand by the Paris Agreement at all.

Even if the scenario of a US-style pullout is avoided, Morrison will face mounting pressure from the vocal band of conservatives in his party room not to commit to anything on climate change, be it symbolic or tangible.




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What the government chooses to do next could have reputational repercussions for years to come.

Australia may not have the might of other nations, but what it has had at times is a reputation as a constructive international partner. This needs to be restored if Australian diplomats are to successfully navigate a disruptive international landscape.

Climate policy is clearly a threat to our domestic politics and to the job security of Australian prime ministers. With further missteps it could upend our diplomacy as well. Summit season will go a long way towards determining how much of a threat it really is.The Conversation

Christian Downie, Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.