For four years under President Donald J. Trump, the United States all but stopped trying to combat climate change at the federal level. Mr. Trump is no longer in office, but his presidency left the country far behind in a race that was already difficult to win.
A new report from researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities shows that the United States’ environmental performance has tumbled in relation to other countries — a reflection of the fact that, while the United States squandered nearly half a decade, many of its peers moved deliberately.
But, underscoring the profound obstacles to cutting greenhouse gas emissions rapidly enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change, even that movement was insufficient. The report’s sobering bottom line is that, while almost every country has pledged by 2050 to reach net-zero emissions (the point where their activities no longer add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere), almost none are on track to do it.
The report, called the Environmental Performance Index, or E.P.I., found that, based on their trajectories from 2010 through 2019, only Denmark and Britain were on a sustainable path to eliminate emissions by midcentury.
Namibia and Botswana appeared to be on track with caveats: They had stronger records than their peers in sub-Saharan Africa, but their emissions were minimal to begin with, and the researchers did not characterize their progress as sustainable because it was not clear that current policies would suffice as their economies develop.
The 176 other nations in the report were poised to fall short of net-zero goals, some by large margins. China, India, the United States and Russia were on track to account for more than half of global emissions in 2050. But even countries like Germany that have enacted more comprehensive climate policies are not doing enough.
“We think this report’s going to be a wake-up call to a wide range of countries, a number of whom might have imagined themselves to be doing what they needed to do and not many of whom really are,” said Daniel C. Esty, the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which produces the E.P.I. every two years.
A United Nations report this year found that there is still time, but not much, for countries to change course and meet their targets. The case of the United States shows how gravely a few years of inaction can fling a country off course, steepening the slope of emissions reductions required to get back on.
The 2022 edition of the index, provided to The New York Times before its release on Wednesday, scored 180 countries on 40 indicators related to climate, environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The individual metrics were wide-ranging, including tree-cover loss, wastewater treatment, fine-particulate-matter pollution and lead exposure.
The United States ranked 43rd overall, with a score of 51.1 out of 100, compared with 24th place and a score of 69.3 in the 2020 edition. Its decline is largely attributable to the bottom falling out of its climate policy: On climate metrics, it plummeted to 101st place from 15th and trailed every wealthy Western democracy except Canada, which was 142nd.
The climate analysis is based on data through 2019, and the previous report was based on data through 2017, meaning the change stems from Trump-era policies and does not reflect President Biden’s reinstatement or expansion of regulations.
American emissions did fall substantially over the full 10-year period examined, which also included most of the Obama administration and its efforts to regulate emissions, and the nation continues to outperform other major polluters.
But the pace of reduction has been insufficient given the United States’ extremely high starting point. The U.S. is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China. If current trajectories held, it would be the third largest in 2050, behind China and India, the lowest-ranked country in the overall index.
At the other end of the spectrum is Denmark, ranked No. 1 on climate and overall, whose Parliament has made a binding commitment to reduce emissions 70 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The country gets about two-thirds of its electricity from clean sources, and its largest city, Copenhagen, aims to reach carbon neutrality in the next three years.
Denmark has hugely expanded wind energy, set a date to end oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, taxed carbon dioxide emissions and negotiated agreements with leaders in transportation, agriculture and other sectors. Its economy has grown as emissions have fallen.
“This is such a comprehensive transformation of our entire society that there’s not one tool that you can use, one policy you can use overall, and then that will just solve the problem,” said Dan Jorgensen, the Danish climate minister. Denmark showed “it is possible to make this transformation in a way that doesn’t hurt your societies,” he said.
Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) cover ~12% of the global land surface. They are formed by an intimate association between soil particles, photoautotrophic and heterotrophic organisms, and they effectively stabilize the soil surface of drylands. Quantitative information on the impact of biocrusts on the global cycling and climate effects of aeolian dust, however, is not available. Here, we combine the currently limited experimental data with a global climate model to investigate the effects of biocrusts on regional and global dust cycling under current and future conditions. We estimate that biocrusts reduce the global atmospheric dust emissions by ~60%, preventing the release of ~0.7 Pg dust per year. Until 2070, biocrust coverage is expected to be severely reduced by climate change and land-use intensification. The biocrust loss will cause an increased dust burden, leading to a reduction of the global radiation budget of around 0.12 to 0.22 W m−2, corresponding to about 50% of the total direct forcing of anthropogenic aerosols. This biocrust control on dust cycling and its climate impacts have important implications for human health, biogeochemical cycling and the functioning of the ecosystems, and thus should be considered in the modelling, mitigation and management of global change.
Patterns and process in RNA viruses
Viruses are suspected to be lynchpins in ecosystem function, but so far we can only guess at their significance. DNA viruses are increasingly being recognized as significant components of biogeochemical cycling in the oceans. Dominguez-Huerta et al. explored global patterns of marine RNA virus occurrence by extracting virus sequences from Tara Ocean samples. Host prediction analysis identified predominantly protist and fungal hosts plus a few invertebrates. Like double-stranded DNA viruses and their hosts, RNA viruses showed marked depth limitation but little latitudinal change. Auxiliary metabolic genes in the RNA virome indicated that several eukaryote plankton processes are affected by viruses. A group of 11 RNA viruses that significantly influence ocean carbon flux were identified. —CA
DNA viruses are increasingly recognized as influencing marine microbes and microbe-mediated biogeochemical cycling. However, little is known about global marine RNA virus diversity, ecology, and ecosystem roles. In this study, we uncover patterns and predictors of marine RNA virus community- and “species”-level diversity and contextualize their ecological impacts from pole to pole. Our analyses revealed four ecological zones, latitudinal and depth diversity patterns, and environmental correlates for RNA viruses. Our findings only partially parallel those of cosampled plankton and show unexpectedly high polar ecological interactions. The influence of RNA viruses on ecosystems appears to be large, as predicted hosts are ecologically important. Moreover, the occurrence of auxiliary metabolic genes indicates that RNA viruses cause reprogramming of diverse host metabolisms, including photosynthesis and carbon cycling, and that RNA virus abundances predict ocean carbon export.
A few days ago The Times published a report on the drying up of the Great Salt Lake, a story I’m ashamed to admit had flown under my personal radar. We’re not talking about a hypothetical event in the distant future: The lake has already lost two-thirds of its surface area, and ecological disasters — salinity rising to the point where wildlife dies off, occasional poisonous dust storms sweeping through a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people — seem imminent.
As an aside, I was a bit surprised that the article didn’t mention the obvious parallels with the Aral Sea, a huge lake that the Soviet Union had managed to turn into a toxic desert.
In any case, what’s happening to the Great Salt Lake is pretty bad. But what I found really scary about the report is what the lack of an effective response to the lake’s crisis says about our ability to respond to the larger, indeed existential threat of climate change.
If you aren’t terrified by the threat posed by rising levels of greenhouse gases, you aren’t paying attention — which, sadly, many people aren’t. And those who are or should be aware of that threat but stand in the way of action for the sake of short-term profits or political expediency are, in a real sense, betraying humanity.
That said, the world’s failure to take action on climate, while inexcusable, is also understandable. For as many observers have noted, global warming is a problem that almost looks custom-designed to make political action difficult. In fact, the politics of climate change are hard for at least four reasons.
First, when scientists began raising the alarm in the 1980s, climate change looked like a distant threat — a problem for future generations. Some people still see it that way; last month a senior executive at the bank HSBC gave a talk in which he declared, “Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years?”
Give your grad all of The Times.
News, plus Cooking, Games and Wirecutter.
This view is all wrong — we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, largely in the form of a rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, like the megadrought in the American West that is contributing to the death of the Great Salt Lake. But that’s a statistical argument, which brings me to the second problem with climate change: It’s not yet visible to the naked eye, at least the naked eye that doesn’t want to see.
Weather, after all, fluctuates. Heat waves and droughts happened before the planet began warming; cold spells still happen even with the planet warmer on average than in the past. It doesn’t take fancy analysis to show that there is a persistent upward trend in temperatures, but many people aren’t convinced by statistical analysis of any kind, fancy or not, only by raw experience.
Then there’s the third problem: Until recently, it looked as if any major attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have significant economic costs. Serious estimates of these costs were always much lower than claimed by anti-environmentalists, and spectacular technological progress in renewable energy has made a transition to a low-emission economy look far easier than anyone could have imagined 15 years ago. Still, fears about economic losses helped block climate action.
Finally, climate change is a global problem, requiring global action — and offering a reason not to move. Anyone urging U.S. action has encountered the counterargument, “It doesn’t matter what we do, because China will just keep polluting.” There are answers to that argument — if we ever do get serious about emissions, carbon tariffs will have to be part of the mix. But it’s certainly an argument that affects the discussion.
As I said, all of these issues are explanations for inaction on climate, not excuses. But here’s the thing: None of these explanations for environmental inaction apply to the death of the Great Salt Lake. Yet the relevant policymakers still seem unwilling or unable to act.
Remember, we’re not talking about bad things that might happen in the distant future: Much of the lake is already gone, and the big wildlife die-off might begin as early as this summer. And it doesn’t take a statistical model to notice that the lake is shrinking.
In terms of the economics, tourism is a huge industry in Utah. How will that industry fare if the famous lake becomes a poisoned desert? And how can a state on the edge of ecological crisis still be diverting water desperately needed to replenish the lake to maintain lush green lawns that serve no essential economic purpose?
Finally, we aren’t talking about a global problem. True, global climate change has contributed to reduced snowpack, which is one reason the Great Salt Lake has shrunk. But a large part of the problem is local water consumption; if that consumption could be curbed, Utah needn’t worry that its efforts would be negated by the Chinese or whatever.
So this should be easy: A threatened region should be accepting modest sacrifices, some barely more than inconveniences, to avert a disaster just around the corner. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.
And if we can’t save the Great Salt Lake, what chance do we have of saving the planet?
Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed on Monday that global warming was healthy for people.
While speaking on the conservative Right Side Broadcasting Network (RSBN), alongside host Brian Glenn, Greene argued in favor of global warming.
The video clip has also gone viral on Twitter and has been viewed over 140,000 times and was shared by commentator Ron Filipkowski.
Marge Greene presents her scientific argument why global warming is a good thing: “This earth warming and carbon is actually healthy for us.” pic.twitter.com/fw5DMMeSJN
— Ron Filipkowski 🇺🇦 (@RonFilipkowski) June 13, 2022
"We have already warmed 1-degree Celsius and do you know what has happened since then?" Greene said to Glenn while on the show.
"We have had more food grown since then, which feeds people," she continued. "We are producing fossil fuels, that keeps people's houses warm in the winter. That saves people's lives, people die in the cold. This Earth warming and carbon is actually healthy for us. It helps us to feed people, it helps keep people alive, the Earth is more green than it was years and years ago and that is because of the Earth warming."
Despite Greene's claims, scientists across the world have argued about the dangerous impacts rising temperatures or climate change can have on food supplies across the planet.
A report by the United Nations (UN) focussing on the link between food supply and climate change highlighted that food security is rapidly becoming an issue across the world.
"In the next 30 years, food supply and food security will be severely threatened if little or no action is taken to address climate change and the food systems's vulnerability to climate change," the report read. "According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the extent of climate change impacts on individual regions will vary over time. And different societal and environmental systems will have varied abilities to mitigate or adapt to change."
"Negative effects of climate change include the continued rise of global temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, an increased frequency of droughts and heatwaves, sea-level rise, melting of sea ice and a higher risk of more intense natural disasters." the report continued.
In addition to this, three United States scientific agencies confirmed this year that 2021 was the sixth hottest year in recorded history and noted this was very concerning.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Berkeley Earth and NASA all came to a similar conclusion in statements released in January.
NASA determined 2021 was tied with 2018 as the sixth hottest year, while the other two organizations said 2021 was hotter than 2018.
According to a statement, scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that global temperatures in 2021 were higher than the agency's baseline temperature by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA uses the period between 1951 and 1980 as its baseline.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement that eight out of the top 10 hottest years on record were in the last decade, calling it "an indisputable fact that underscores the need for bold action to safeguard the future of our country—and all of humanity."
"Science leaves no room for doubt: Climate change is the existential threat of our time," Nelson said. "NASA's scientific research about how Earth is changing and getting warmer will guide communities throughout the world, helping humanity confront climate and mitigate its devastating effects."
Berkeley Earth and the NOAA's data corroborates NASA's statement.
Newsweek has reached out to Marjorie Taylor Greene for comment.
Fossil fuel companies and the banks that finance them “have humanity by the throat”, the UN secretary general has said, in a “blistering” attack on the industry and its backers, who are pulling in record profits amid energy prices sent soaring by the Ukraine war.
António Guterres compared fossil fuel companies to the tobacco companies that continued to push their addictive products while concealing or attacking health advice that showed clear links between smoking and cancer, the first time he has drawn such a parallel.
He said: “We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has invested heavily in pseudoscience and public relations – with a false narrative to minimise their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies.
“They exploited precisely the same scandalous tactics as big tobacco decades before. Like tobacco interests, fossil fuel interests and their financial accomplices must not escape responsibility.”
Speaking to the Major Economies Forum, a climate conference organised by the White House, Guterres also castigated governments that are failing to rein in fossil fuels, and in many cases seeking increased production of gas, oil and even coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.
He said: “Nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion. Even in the short-term, fossil fuels don’t make political or economic sense.”
The US president, Joe Biden, is travelling to Saudi Arabia to push for more oil production, some EU countries are seeking to source gas from Africa and developing countries around the world, and the UK is licensing new gas fields in the North Sea.
Governments are concerned about soaring energy prices and rising food bills. Energy experts have advised more renewable energy and improvements to energy efficiency as better alternatives, but much of their advice has been ignored.
The Guardian understands Guterres has been incensed by the recent behaviour of fossil fuel companies, which have been reaping a bonanza from energy prices sent soaring by the Ukraine war. Much of these bumper profits are likely to be invested in fresh exploration and expansion of fossil fuel resources.
The Guardian recently uncovered nearly 200 new projects – “carbon bombs” – that if completed would put paid to the world’s chances of limiting global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Guterres is understood to be furious that, six months after the Cop26 climate summit, and after three dire reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the “starkest warning yet” from climate scientists – countries and businesses are ignoring the science and squandering opportunities to put the world on a greener path, when renewable energy is cheaper and safer than fossil fuels.
The International Energy Agency warned last year that all new exploration and development of oil, gas and coal must cease this year to hold to the 1.5C threshold.
A senior UN official told the Guardian: “Even given the secretary general’s impressive track record of speaking truth to power, this is a blistering intervention, to the leaders of the world’s largest economies. The fossil fuel industry is taking a page out of big tobacco’s playbook, and that is utterly unacceptable to the secretary general. He’s determined to call out the fossil fuel industry and its financiers, and he won’t be constrained by any diplomatic niceties.”
The official added: “For the secretary general, this is the fight of our lives, and he won’t take a backwards step.”
The latest round of UN talks on the climate crisis, intended to pave the way for the next major summit, Cop27 this November in Egypt, ended without much progress in Bonn on Thursday evening. The outgoing UN climate chief, Patricia Espinosa, warned there was “still a lot to do” before Cop27, where countries are supposed to make good on promises made at Cop26 to strengthen their emissions-cutting plans in line with the 1.5C limit.
Published today in the journal Earth's Future, researchers from UCL, the University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used a 3D model to explore the impact of rocket launches and re-entry in 2019, and the impact of projected space tourism scenarios based on the recent billionaire space race.
The team found that black carbon (soot) particles emitted by rockets are almost 500 times more efficient at holding heat in the atmosphere than all other sources of soot combined (surface and aircraft)—resulting in an enhanced climate effect.
Furthermore, while the study revealed that the current loss of total ozone due to rockets is small, current growth trends around space tourism indicate potential for future depletion of the upper stratospheric ozone layer in the Arctic in spring. This is because pollutants from solid-fuel rockets and re-entry heating of returning spacecraft and debris are particularly harmful to stratospheric ozone.
Study co-author Dr. Eloise Marais (UCL Geography) said: "Rocket launches are routinely compared to greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions from the aircraft industry, which we demonstrate in our work is erroneous.
"Soot particles from rocket launches have a much larger climate effect than aircraft and other Earth-bound sources, so there doesn't need to be as many rocket launches as international flights to have a similar impact. What we really need now is a discussion amongst experts on the best strategy for regulating this rapidly growing industry."
To calculate the findings, the researchers collected information on the chemicals from all 103 rocket launches in 2019 from across the world, as well as data on reusable rocket and space junk re-entry. They also used the recent demonstrations by space tourism entrepreneurs Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX and proposed yearly offerings of at least daily launches by Virgin Galactic to construct a scenario of a future formidable space tourism industry.
These data were then incorporated into a 3D atmospheric chemistry model to explore the impact on climate and the ozone layer.
The team show that warming due to soot is 3.9 mW m-2 from a decade of contemporary rockets, dominated by emissions from kerosene-fuelled rockets. However, this more than doubles (7.9 mW m-2) after just three years of additional emissions from space tourism launches, due to the use of kerosene by SpaceX and hybrid synthetic rubber fuels by Virgin Galactic.
The researchers say this is of particular concern, as when the soot particles are directly injected into the upper atmosphere, they have a much greater effect on climate than other soot sources—with the particles 500 times more efficient at retaining heat.
The team found that, under a scenario of daily or weekly space tourism rocket launches, the impact on the stratospheric ozone layer threatens to undermine the recovery experienced after the successful implementation of the Montreal Protocol.
Adopted in 1987, the Montreal Protocol global ban on substances that deplete the ozone layer is considered one of the most successful international environmental policy interventions.
Study co-author Dr. Robert Ryan said: "The only part of the atmosphere showing strong ozone recovery post-Montreal Protocol is the upper stratosphere, and that is exactly where the impact of rocket emissions will hit hardest. We weren't expecting to see ozone changes of this magnitude, threatening the progress of ozone recovery.
"There is still a lot we need to find out about the influence of rocket launch and re-entry emissions on the atmosphere—in particular, the future size of the industry and the types and by-products of new fuels like liquid methane and bio-derived fuels.
"This study allows us to enter the new era of space tourism with our eyes wide open to the potential impacts. The conversation about regulating the environmental impact of the space launch industry needs to start now so we can minimize harm to the stratospheric ozone layer and climate."