The Climate Spectrum (#4)

Welcome to the fourth issue of “The Climate Spectrum,” where we continue to navigate the intricate layers of our changing climate. In this edition, we spotlight a significant legal triumph in climate science, unravel the hidden environmental toll of methane emissions from waste, and scrutinize the health of vital ocean currents that underpin our global climate system. Join us as we dissect these pivotal developments and what they mean for the future of our planet and its people.

Victory for science

American climate scientist Michael Mann, known for his ‘hockey stick‘ graph that illustrates the significant global warming since the industrial revolution, has successfully won a defamation lawsuit and compensation after a twelve-year legal battle. In 1998, Mann published a study showing the temperature rise in the northern hemisphere over the past centuries, which quickly became a symbol of human-caused climate change. His work, adopted by the IPCC among others, faced severe criticism, not only from peers regarding methodological approaches but mainly from climate deniers who accused Mann of fraud.

The original northern hemisphere hockey stick graph of Mann, Bradley & Hughes 1999, smoothed curve shown in blue with its uncertainty range in light blue, overlaid with green dots showing the 30-year global average of the PAGES 2k Consortium 2013 reconstruction. The red curve shows measured global mean temperature, according to HadCRUT4 data from 1850 to 2013. Wikipedia

For the sceptics who dispute that global warming is real, or say it’s nothing to worry about, the graph was like a red rag to a bull. They made it the focus of their attacks, hoping that by demolishing the hockey stick graph they would destroy the credibility of climate scientists and the notion of global warming as a phenomenon caused by human activity.

In 2012, Mann was publicly accused by two individuals, including Rand Simberg, an author from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, of data fraud and was unfairly compared to a convicted child abuser. These accusations led to a lawsuit in which Mann claimed to have suffered reputational damage and financial losses in terms of missed grants and collaborations. The Washington DC court eventually ruled in Mann’s favor, with the defendants ordered to pay over a million dollars in damages. This verdict emphasizes that falsely attacking scientists does not fall under the freedom of speech. Mann and his lawyers see this ruling as an important victory for the scientific community and the importance of truthful scientific communication.

Tackling methane: the silent accelerator of climate change

Since 2019, our planet has witnessed over 1,000 significant methane leaks from landfill waste dumps, sounding an alarm for immediate climate action. Known as the silent driver of global heating, methane – the main component of natural gas – is a potent greenhouse gas with an impact that is 80 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Landfills have become methane hotspots due to the anaerobic decomposition of organic waste such as food scraps, wood, paper, and garden waste. However, we can significantly reduce these emissions at their source by minimizing organic waste production, enhancing waste diversion from landfills, and implementing methane capture strategies. Capturing methane not only mitigates its impact but also transforms a problem into an opportunity by converting the captured gas into a viable fuel source.

Intriguingly, while large landfills are notorious for their methane emissions, simple measures like covering waste with soil can substantially decrease their environmental footprint. When soil-dwelling microbes convert methane into CO2, we see a dramatic drop – 97% – in its greenhouse effect.

Alarmingly, methane emissions have been on the rise since 2007, now accounting for a third of the global heating that underpins today’s climate crisis. This trend has left scientists gravely concerned, as unchecked methane levels pose the largest threat to maintaining global temperature rise below the critical threshold of 1.5°C.

To put it in perspective, decomposing waste is responsible for about 20% of human-induced methane emissions. The rest predominantly stems from fossil fuel operations and agricultural activities, with each contributing 40% to the overall methane footprint.

As we confront the climate crisis, addressing methane emissions is not just a matter of science but of survival. Rapidly reducing methane emissions from energy, agriculture, and waste can achieve near-term gains in our efforts in this decade for decisive action and is regarded as the single most effective strategy to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5˚C within reach. At the COP26 the EU & US launched The Global Methane Pledge to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030.

The Precipice of Change: Atlantic Current’s Warning Signs

As we navigate through the complexities of our changing climate, researchers have struck a sobering tone on the health of our planet’s circulatory system, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). It carries warm water north from the Southern Hemisphere, where it releases heat and freezes. The freezing process concentrates salt in the non-frozen portion of the ocean water; this extra-saline water sinks, travels back south and picks up heat again, restarting the conveyor belt. (The Gulf Stream is part of this belt.) (TED-Ed video on how currents work). This release of heat helps keep Europe, and to some extent North America, balmier than it otherwise would be.

This current, pivotal in moderating the climate of the Northern Hemisphere, is showing signs that could prelude a dramatic shift, possibly within a few short years.

A recent study (video) has uncovered what may be a herald of impending change: a decrease in the flow of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean around the latitude of South Africa—a critical indicator that could foreshadow the AMOC’s collapse. This discovery, detailed in the journal Science Advances, suggests that approximately 25 years before the AMOC ceases, the freshwater influx at this latitude reaches its lowest.

This potential collapse is no minor footnote in climatic events; it represents a significant upheaval, with the Northern Hemisphere cooling considerably and the Southern Hemisphere experiencing a lesser degree of warming. Europe, in particular, could see temperatures plummet by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius within just a century—a staggering deviation when compared to the already concerning current rates of climate change.

The AMOC’s delicate balance is maintained by the salinity-driven rise and fall of ocean water, making it extremely sensitive to the introduction of freshwater. As our climate warms, precipitation patterns shift, altering freshwater distribution and thus endangering this great oceanic conveyor belt.

Simulating and predicting the precise tipping point of the AMOC is a formidable task, requiring extensive computational resources and time. Yet, the urgency is clear as the implications of such a collapse are profound, affecting not just regional climates but also global precipitation patterns, with potential to disrupt ecosystems as far-reaching as the Amazon rainforest.

The unequivocal message from scientists like study author René M. van Westen is a clarion call for action against climate change. Our global society must curb emissions to prevent destabilizing this crucial ocean current. As we stand on the brink of a possible climatic precipice, the choices we make today could either steer us back to safety or over the edge into uncharted waters.

Together towards tomorrow

As we close this edition of our newsletter, let us take a moment to reflect on the profound connections between our actions and the planet we call home. The science is unequivocal, and the signals are clear. Our climate is changing, and with it, our future hangs in the balance.

Yet, within this challenge lies an incredible opportunity—an opportunity for innovation, for transformation, and for each one of us to become stewards of the Earth. Whether through simple daily acts like reducing waste and conserving energy, or through larger systemic changes in how we work and live, every effort counts.

We invite you to join us in this vital journey towards sustainability. Share the knowledge you’ve gained, engage in community initiatives, support policies that protect the environment, and let your actions inspire others. Together, we can forge a path to a healthier world for ourselves and the generations to come.

Let’s not wait until tomorrow to make the changes we need today. Act, advocate, and aspire for a climate-resilient future. Our collective efforts can and will make a difference.

Stay informed, stay inspired, and stay engaged.

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