While in many ways this was the year of “I’m not a scientist” — a refrain used by politicians to eschew responsibility for an issue they’ve decided doesn’t behoove them or their donors — actual scientists were working hard, and mostly behind the scenes, to address an issue they see as preeminent to the future well-being of humankind.
Ninety-seven percent of scientists already agree that global warming is driven by human activity and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While politicians work to obscure this consensus, scientists are working to better understand the implications of climate change and how to best deal with them through adaptation, mitigation, and innovation.
If the year in climate science had to be summed up, the key takeaway would be that action now to reduce emissions and prevent catastrophic warming is still affordable, cheap even, while delayed action is costly in myriad ways.
Make No Mistake, Scientists Are Worried And Even Alarmed
Scientists are known for their rigor, objectivity, and caution, so when they agree on something like human-caused climate change with more than 95 percent certainty it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The “What We Know” report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science this year laid out the ways that some of the worst-case scenarios predicted by these scientists are highly alarming even to them. They worry about a world mere decades away that can no longer provide for its nine billion citizens, causing an end to “modern civilization as we have come to know it.”
“Scientists are kind of like doctors,” Climate Progress’ Joe Romm wrote. “When they are very worried, you should be too!”
The 5th IPCC Assessment Report Set The Scene For The Rest Of The Decade
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been publishing reports on the state of climate change since 1990. This year marked the release of the organization’s Fifth Assessment Report, in which a review of more than 30,000 studies on climate science, impacts, and solutions over the past half-decade found that we need to reduce carbon pollution significantly or risk “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
More than 100 governments signed off on the recent report, which was compiled by the world’s leading climate scientists. Still cautious in its diagnosis — as it is based on a consensus approach — the report was markedly more alarmed than the last one in 2007. For example, the notion of the irreversibility of climate impacts received little attention in the last summary report, but in this iteration there are extended discussions of what it means and why it matters.
The National Climate Assessment Broke It Down By Region
The U.S. produced its own landmark climate report this year: the National Climate Assessment. The congressionally-mandated report, put together by 300 leading climate scientists and experts, found that the impacts of climate change are happening now across the country.
In the Southwest, the already-arid climate will get hotter and drier, such as has been experienced with the devastating California drought this year. In the Midwest, the combination of more droughts, heavier rains, and increased temperatures could hurt crop yields.
In the Southeast, sea level rise and more frequent and intense extreme weather events threaten coastal populations and could cause serious economic harm. The Northwest is becoming more prone to wildfires and ocean acidification could harm marine life and the industries that rely on it. The Northeast will continue to get wetter and experience more devastating storms like SuperStorm Sandy.
The report calls for both mitigation and adaptation measures in order to minimize the damages caused by climate change.
The New Climate Economy Report Showed Us How To Get Somewhere Better
The New Climate Economy report focused on how economic gains and climate efforts could work together over the next couple decades. Put together by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the authors state this it is a misconception that “there is a trade-off in the short- to medium term between economic growth and climate action,” and innovation and investment can help lead the successful transition to a low-carbon economy.
The year-long study undertaken by leading economists found that if the $90 trillion expected to be invested in global infrastructure in the next 15 years is done in a low-carbon manner, it could “cost about the same as conventional infrastructure, but would deliver significantly greater economic, social, and environmental benefits in the long-run.”
For instance, the researchers found that the world could save $5 trillion by 2030 in reduced fuel costs by shifting to a cleaner energy system, which would more than offset the costs of doing so.
The Living Planet Report Made An Appeal For Biodiversity
The 2014 Living Planet Report had quite the headline: the Earth has lost half of its vertebrate species since 1970, a humbling statistic that includes mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. A joint research effort by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, the report found that there’s been an 83 percent species decline in tropical regions of Latin America over that time. The biggest drop came for the inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems, where numbers have fallen 76 percent over the last 40 years.
The researchers analyzed 10,000 different animal populations encompassing 3,000 different species, which was then used to create the Living Planet Index. While habitat loss and degradation and hunting and fishing exploitation were the primary causes of decline, climate change was the next most common — and one that is only likely to get worse.
The World Energy Outlook Report Gave Some Stark Perspective
The 2014 World Energy Outlook, produced by the International Energy Agency, offered some stark perspective on the carbon budget. It found that without drastic action to reduce greenhouse gases, by 2040 global emissions will surpass the level deemed safe to remain below the 2°C range in average temperature increase. However, the report offered some hopeful notes to go with the dour refrain. For one, coal demand will level off in the near future thanks to new environmental policies. It also found that renewable energy will account for one third of all power generation by 2040, with wind dominating followed by hydropower and solar.
It also found that fossil fuel subsidies — which amounted to about $550 billion in 2013 — are not actually helpful those in need of energy access as arguments often suggest, stating that in reality they “fail to help those that need it most and discourage investment in efficiency and renewables.”
Inventors Of The LED Won The Nobel Prize For Energy-Saving Technology
LED lights are now commonplace in an array of electronics that most of us stare at for hours on end. The pervasiveness becomes even more impressive when considering that they were only invented some 25 years ago, and they have an even brighter future in increasing energy efficiency and access in the coming decades.
The international community recognized the paradigm-shifting invention this year by awarding the Nobel Prize in physics to the three Japanese scientists who invented it. They awarded the prize not only for the significance of the invention, but also for its great promise in the future, stating that the technology could help bring power to the 1.5 billion people around the world who lack it by taking advantage of the low power requirements that can be provided by access to “cheap, local solar power.”
These carbon benefits also apply to developed countries like the U.S., as it is estimated that if every household replaced just one regular light with an LED, it would prevent the emissions of around 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gases, an amount equivalent to taking about 550,000 cars off the road.
Scientists Asked Florida Governor Rick Scott To Take Climate Action
Florida governor Rick Scott had successfully dodged calls to address climate change up until his campaign for re-election this year. Unfortunately for Scott, Florida is in the bull’s eye of climate impacts, as sea level rise and intense storms threaten the low-lying state.
While Scott has doled out the “I’m not a scientist” line to deflect responsibility for action, he couldn’t avoid meeting with climate scientists this fall as the debate heated up going into election season. Scott met with five of the state’s climate scientists before they joined forces with 37 others to write him a letter urging the governor to work with them on a plan to address the challenges of climate change in their state.
Several Studies Conclude Natural Gas Is Not All Good
The natural gas boom, driven by the proliferation of fracking, gets a lot of credit for increasing domestic energy security and providing a cheaper, and cleaner, alternative to coal. As this new technology has ramped up rapidly to sate the industry’s demand for fuel, scientists have been working to keep up with the climate and environmental impacts associated with the surge.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As new wells pop up across the world, researchers are struggling to keep up with all of the potential sources of rogue emissions and their impact on climate models. Studies have been showing that these added emissions may cancel out any climate benefits, while at the same time postponing the deployment of low-carbon, renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
There’s also the issue of chemicals used during the process of extracting the gas getting into local air and water. Tracking this type of contamination is challenging, as companies are protected from revealing their exact injection mixtures and state and federal regulations are still in the early stages. One group of scientists this year found a way to determine if water contamination comes from fracking — another step on the way to better understanding the impacts of this booming industry.