Climate Change News April 30, 2012

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
April 30, 2012


Voters Favor Regulating Carbon Dioxide

Three out of four U.S. voters favor regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas pollutant and 65 percent of Americans support an international treaty requiring the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide 90 percent by the year 2050, according to a survey of Americans released by Yale and George Mason University.   Forty-seven percent of respondents favor eliminating subsidies for oil, gas, coal, nuclear or renewable energy.  Sixty-one percent support policies that would hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for, "all the hidden costs we pay for citizens who get sick from polluted air and water, military costs to maintain our access to foreign oil and the environmental costs of spills and accidents.”  Sixty eight percent say the United States should make either a large-scale or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming, even if this has large or moderate economic costs. Seventy percent also believe corporations and industries should be doing more to prevent climate change, and 67 percent believe Americans themselves should be doing more.  The survey of 1,008 U.S. voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

For additional information see: Reuters, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

Diesel Cars Gain Popularity in the United States

Diesel cars are making a comeback in the United States, where the use of ultra-low sulfur gasoline, particulate filters and nitrous oxide catalytic converters in compliance with EPA emission standards have made diesel as clean as gasoline. More popular in Europe, diesel car engines are more efficient than gasoline, resulting in better fuel economy, lower fuel costs, and reduced carbon emissions. "When you look at the carbon dioxide emissions per kilometer driven, diesel has about 10 to 15 percent higher fuel efficiency than a gasoline engine,” said Katsumasa Tanaka, a researcher at Swiss university ETH Zürich.  Diesel cars have potential to become even cleaner by using hybrid powertrains and biofuels, and by reducing tailpipe emissions of pollutants such as black carbon which is excellent at trapping atmospheric heat and is often deposited in Arctic regions, where it contributes to regional warming.

For additional information see: Scientific American

Climate Change to Increase Corn Price Volatility

Climate change beat out oil prices, trade policies and government biofuel mandates as the factor most likely to influence corn price volatility over the next 30 years, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on April 22. Stanford climate scientist and report co-author Noah Diffenbaugh said, “Severe heat is the big hammer.  Even one or two degrees of global warming is likely to substantially increase heatwaves that lead to low-yield years and more price volatility.” The study suggests that farmers would need to move corn farming north or develop varieties of corn with more heat tolerance to avoid large price spikes.

For additional information see: The New York Times, PhysOrg, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Sea Level Rise Puts Power Plants at Risk

An April 19 study by science and media non-profit Climate Central identified 287 energy facilities in the lower 48 states, including four nuclear power plants, built less than four feet above local high tide line putting them at elevated risk of flooding from extreme deluges. Climate change has raised sea levels by eight inches since the late 19th century and increases the probability of extreme floods that rise at least four feet above local high tide marks and which normally should occur only once every 100 years. The Climate Central report stated that across all sites, “median odds for floods reaching at least four feet above local high tide lines are 55 percent by 2030.” Facilities at risk are spread across 22 states, but more than one-half are located in Louisiana. Ben Strauss, a report co-author who testified at the April 19 U.S. Senate hearing on sea level rise, warned that flooding energy facilities can cause blackouts, damage to critical access roads, damage to mechanical systems and facilities, oil spillage, oil supply shortages, or even nuclear disasters.

For additional information see: Climate Central, Mother Jones

Scientists Develop New Carbon Accounting Method

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado have devised a method that determines whether CO2 in the air came from fossil fuel combustion or from natural sources by looking for carbon-14, an isotope that is present in CO2 from plants but not in fossil fuels, according to the report published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The technique could be used with existing carbon accounting methods to monitor how much CO2 countries and regions are producing. "While the accounting-based approach is probably accurate at global scales, the uncertainties rise for smaller-scale regions," said the Earth System Research Laboratory's John Miller, lead author of the study.  While the method cannot determine if emissions came from a single source such as a power plant, it will give scientists an idea of baseline emissions, build understanding of CO2 release and transport, and determine if regions are accurately reporting carbon emissions.

For additional information see: BBC, Energy Central

Arctic Biodiversity Decreased, Carbon Storage Altered by Climate Change

The results of a multinational study of the effects of warming in open water along breaks in Arctic ice were released on Tuesday, April 24, at the Polar Year conference in Montreal.  Researchers reported decreased biodiversity, an increase in contaminants such as methylmercury in the food chain, and that open water at the ice breaks is a “breeding ground” for  underwater eddies that can move nutrients into the Arctic, increasing populations of local fish as well as invasive species.  Scientists also observed that warming and ice melt allow more CO2 to escape from water during longer, warmer summers, while cold open ocean water traps and stores CO2 in deeper water layers during the winter, but have not determined which process is dominant. "The Arctic Ocean is definitely changing on a whole lot of different fronts," said University of Manitoba Professor David Barber.

For additional information see: The Montreal Gazette

Methane Released at Breaks in Arctic Ocean Ice

Data from research craft flown over Arctic ice by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) research identified methane at cracks and in areas with melting in Arctic sea ice.  In their report, published in Nature Geoscience, the researchers stated, "the emissions rate we encountered could present a source of global consequence.” The newly-discovered Arctic Ocean methane may be the newest addition to the list of Arctic positive feedback loops, by contributing to further warming and methane release. Thawing soil releases methane, which adds to global warming, which in turns frees more methane, and so on. This study is the first report of methane from melting sea ice, but the source of the methane remains unknown.  The gas is unlikely to be from sediment in the continental shelf as it was found at locations over the deep ocean.

For additional information see: AFP, The Independent, Science Daily

Study: Warmer Winters Impact Butterfly Populations

Some butterfly species struggle in milder winters, according to work by researchers from the University of Notre Dame and Western University. The researchers found that caterpillars of the Propertius Duskwing butterfly have higher metabolic rates and use more energy during warm winters, which leads to reduced butterfly populations. The caterpillars rely on energy stored over the summer to survive winter and metamorphose into butterflies. Caterpillars raised in warmer and more variable temperatures had less sensitive metabolisms and were better able to cope with milder winters than caterpillars reared in cooler conditions, but both populations required more energy to survive mild winters. "Our study shows significant biological effects of climate change, but it also shows that organisms can partially adjust their physiology to compensate. We now need to discover if other species adjust in similar ways to our example species," said Jessica Hellmann, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

For additional information see: Science Daily

MIT Scientists Develop Catalysts to Oxidize CO2 to Fuels

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology heated a blend of copper and gold nanoparticles to make a catalyst that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) into other molecules, such as methane or methanol, that can be used as fuel. CO2 must be dissolved in a liquid and passed over the catalyst in the presence of an external voltage for the catalyst to work.  Zhichuan Xu, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT said that the catalyst uses less energy than any previously discovered material that transforms CO2, but that additional research is needed to control the specific molecules produced.  Xu envisions eventually using the catalyst to recycle CO2 emissions from smokestacks and other exhaust systems into new fuels, obtaining the additional energy needed from solar or wind power. "It's still very interesting because if you can artificially do this job, you can build up very good fuels and a good balance for humanity,” said Xu.   

For additional information see: E&E News

Warming Climate Spreads Asian Tiger Mosquitoes in Europe

A team of scientists studying European weather records from 1950 to 2009 at the University of Liverpool is warning that climate change has already helped Asian tiger mosquitoes (A. albopictus) to move into parts of Spain, France, Italy and Turkey, and may soon allow them to spread into Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Balkans. Warmer and drier weather is making a few areas, such as southern Spain, less hospitable to the mosquitoes. In a report published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the scientists wrote, "These distribution shifts are related to wetter and warmer conditions favoring the overwintering of A. albopictus in the north, and drier and warmer summers that might limit its southward expansion." Asian tiger mosquitoes are native to tropical and subtropical regions of Southeast Asia and are a vector for many diseases, including yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and West Nile fever.

For additional information see: AFP, The Independent

Warm Ocean Water Linked to Antarctic Ice Melt

Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey using a satellite-mounted laser instrument to measure ice thickness in Antarctic floating ice shelves found that warm ocean currents are melting ice sheets from below, contributing significantly to Antarctic ice loss. Dr. Hamish Pritchard, lead author of the group’s report published in the journal Nature, explained that shifts in wind currents driven by factors such as natural weather variation, the ozone hole and climate change have pushed warmer water  towards and under the ice shelves. “It means that we can lose an awful lot of ice to the sea without ever having summers warm enough to make the snow on top of the glaciers melt — the oceans can do all the work from below,” he said. Understanding the links between climate change and ice loss will help scientists make more accurate predictions of sea level rise.

For additional information see: Science Daily, BBC News, ABC News

Virginia Supreme Court: Insurance Company Need Not Cover Climate Change Lawsuit

On Friday, April 20, the Virginia Supreme Court  unanimously ruled that insurance provider Steadfast is not responsible for covering power company AES’s cost of defense or settlement in a climate change lawsuit under a commercial general liability (CGL) accident insurance policy.  In February 2008, Alaskan Native Village of Kivalina sued AES and about 20 more oil and energy companies for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming, which they argue, has caused late freezing and early melting of sea ice that allows winters storms to damage the shoreline and village. The Court stated, "Where the harmful consequences of an act are alleged to have been not just possible, but the natural or probable consequences of an intentional act, choosing to perform the act deliberately, even if in ignorance of that fact, does not make the resulting injury an 'accident' even when the complaint alleges that such action was negligent." The decision sets a precedent for future cases of insurance claims over climate change lawsuits.

For additional information see: The Washington Times, Environmental Finance, LegalNewsline

Air Pollution Cooling Effect Masked Global Warming in Eastern United States

Aerosol particulate pollution emitted primarily by coal-fired power plants has delayed warming in the eastern United States by reflecting incoming sunlight, according to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Lead author Eric Leibensperger said, "For the sake of protecting human health and reducing acid rain, we've now cut the emissions that lead to particulate pollution — but these cuts have caused the greenhouse warming in this region to ramp up to match the global trend." Temperatures in the US ‘warming hole' fell by as much as one degree Celsius between 1930 and 1990, while average world temperature rose by 0.8 degrees Celsius between 1906 and 2005.   Clean Air Act legislation in 1970 and 1990 resulted in decreased air pollution and a 50 percent decline from peak pollution levels in 1980. In 2010, average cooling in the East was 0.3 degrees Celsius. Co-author Loretta Mickley warned, “Something similar could happen in China, which is just beginning to tighten up its pollution standards. China could see significant climate change due to declining levels of particulate pollutants."

For additional information see: PhysOrg, TG Daily

Other Headlines

Writers: Justin Jones and Zuzana Culakova

Please distribute Climate Change News to your colleagues. Permission for reproduction of this newsletter is granted provided that the Environmental and Energy Study Institute is properly acknowledged as the source. Past issues are available at Free email subscriptions are available here. We welcome your suggestions, comments, and questions.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) is a non-profit organization founded in 1984 by a bipartisan Congressional caucus dedicated to finding innovative environmental and energy solutions. EESI works to protect the climate and ensure a healthy, secure, and sustainable future for America through policymaker education, coalition building, and policy development in the areas of energy efficiency, renewable energy, agriculture, forestry, transportation, buildings, and urban planning.

EESI's work, including this free newsletter, is made possible by financial support from people like you. Please help us continue to make it available by making a secure, online donation today by clicking here or mailing a check to Environmental and Energy Study Institute; 1112 16th St NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036. Please contact Susan Williams at (202) 662-1887 or see to find out more. Thank you for your support!