Why Greening the Earth Won't Save Us, and Other Climate Briefs

The world is starting to take climate change seriously, which is just as well, because humanity is not going anywhere

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Lightning bolts strike Cocoa, Florida, amid its power lines.
Lightning bolts strike Cocoa, Florida. A new study shows city heat exacerbates turbulence which, with wider moisture gradients at urban-rural boundaries, can direct storms toward a city.Credit: Chris Kridler / Cultura Creative
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The ineffable complexity of our world tends to bite us on the ass. We build our theories based on the parameters we know, assumptions, and a dash of hubris. Then Mother Nature comes along and bollixes up our hypotheses with parameters we weren’t aware of. Now it seems that massively planting greenery to sequester carbon dioxide cannot enable us to continue vomiting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It can’t? No: As the CO2 concentration rises, its growth effect on plants has been diminishing – bigly. (Too soon?) The reduction has reached 50 percent progressively since 1982, write Prof. Josep Peñuelas of the Spanish National Research Council and Prof. Yongguan Zhang of the University of Nanjin with their teams in Science. Why? Because there are other constraints. “There is no mystery about the formula; plants need CO2, water and nutrients in order to grow. However much the CO2 increases, if the nutrients and water do not increase in parallel, the plants will not be able to take advantage of the increase in this gas,” Peñuelas explains. Oh.

Cities can attract storms

Cities generate heat, we knew that, but that heat can accelerate storm development and urban pollution also enhances the storm’s strength, according to a study to be presented on December 15 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Bad? There’s worse: A simulation of a 2015 Kansas City supercell storm found that city heat exacerbates turbulence which, coupled with wider moisture gradients at urban-rural boundaries, directed the storm toward the city. Also, the pollution particles helped create more and larger hailstones, according to the sneak peek from the AGU.

The covid effect on carbon: Good, bad, ugly

Yes, the coronavirus lockdowns reduced CO2 emissions by about 7 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year. That is good. But it achieves nothing for our children, which is bad because the world is itching to travel and consume again without masking up; we’re not even trending toward carbon neutrality; and by the way we have already released enough CO2 to lock in more warming and sea-level rise – even if we stop releasing it today. What can we do? Stop releasing it today is a start. It’s already turning ugly.


Ice loss can trigger abrupt climate change

Tipping points are points of no return and we tend to assume that they creep up on us, and that the effects will be gradual. So: A collaboration of Scandinavian scientists has demonstrated that historic, widespread decreases in sea ice triggered abrupt Greenland warming events between 41,000 to 32,000 years ago, though the point isn’t when it happened, it’s that it did happen. Just this August scientists warned that Greenlandic ice has passed that point of no return: There isn’t enough snowfall to replenish the melting ice. That study estimated that in the current climate – even without any more warming, and more is inevitable, the ice sheet will gain mass in only one out of every 100 years.

Boris and Bibi talk the talk

Yes, prime ministers, we are all in this together and Boris Johnson is right that climate change is indescribably more dangerous than the coronavirus. It’s also a baby step in the right direction to commit Britain to a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68 percent by 2030. Thing is, to achieve that one needs a comprehensive plan encompassing all branches of government, from the treasury to the village idiot, and there isn’t one. A plan, that is. It’s easy to say one will take the lead but as the Observer points out, the U.K. treasury is not yet on board.

On the upside, the BBC reports that the U.K. has largely met its climate pledges so far. Climate-stricken Australia has not. Over in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week pledged that Israel will stop using fossil fuels by 2050, but as we said – it’s easy to talk. Israel has no concrete plans, as Nir Hasson reports. That will require, among myriad other things, that all transportation convert to electricity. We’d like to point out that it’s futile to switch to an electric car if your local power provider generates electricity using fossil fuels.

Boris Johnson and U.K. climate change

Meanwhile, the BBC urges the rich to slash their wasteful ways, noting that the top 1 percent generate double the emissions of the poorest 50 percent. It can be hard to follow Boris Johnson’s advice to embrace “scientific optimism” sometimes.

This composite image made from a series of June 15, 2018 photos shows a self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover in the Gale Crater.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / AP

No you can’t escape to Mars

Long-distance space travel, fodder for sci-fi and Elon Musk fans, isn’t looking likely for a host of reasons – physical and mental damage to the space travelers, peak metal rendering massive projects all the less likely (because metal ore is running out), et cetera.Last week yet a University of Arkansas study by Vincent F. Chevrier et al concluded that water on Mars – brine, actually – “may not be as widespread as previously thought.” Nu. Claiming to be more comprehensive in their consideration of parameters (the scientists explain that they factored in all major phase changes of liquids: freezing, boiling and evaporation, not just one phase) – they think their peers may have overestimated how long brine can survive on the surface in that icy cold, arid Martian reality. Well, it’s academic. You’re not going there.

By the way last year separate researchers subjected salt-loving bacteria to desiccation and then revived them by just wetting the things. Hallelujah. “Ours is the first demonstration of microbes surviving and growing after being dried and then re-wetted with humidity only,” stated Mark Schneegurt, professor of biological sciences at Wichita State University. That theoretically supports the thesis of life on Mars, which could be as antagonistic to humans as the atmosphere there.

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