A flurry of political and scientific activity followed the world's leaders to Pittsburgh last week, where the G20 met to discuss, among other things, global warming. Here's a look at some of the most important developments:
Two recent reports have upped the ante for politicians negotiating solutions to the "climate crisis." The United Nations Environment Program released a study stating that the world is on course for a 6.3-degree increase, even if every action proposed by every government worldwide actually took effect. Up until now, of course, politicians have done more talking than acting, and even the actions set in motion have produced modest or disappointing results. The study is the first major update to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's landmark report on climate change. The picture is not pretty, documenting the worst-case projections taking place sooner and with greater intensity than previously predicted.
Britain's Met Office followed up with a report showing that this generation will feel the effects of climate change, not just future generations. While world leaders previously agreed to hold the world's temperature increase to 2 degrees C, the agency warned that we could see double that warming by 2060 if nothing is done to stop global warming. Previously, it was thought that a 2-degree increase in temperature was likely by 2100 if nothing was done. The new report bumps up that projection significantly.
In a move that signals a major shift ... eventually ... the world's economic leaders agreed to phase out subsidies for fossil fuel production in the "medium term." That would be a seismic shift, but does require the cooperation of national legislatures around the world. But it's a start. If all the money pumped into oil, gas and coal went to renewable energy instead, those technologies would become cheaper and more commercially viable far sooner.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new program to measure greenhouse gas emissions from 10,000 companies. For the first time, there will be clear data comparing the impact of each company, which will presumably provide a backdrop to setting emissions reduction targets.
With the U.S. Chamber of Commerce emerging as a hardline opponent of global warming legislation in the U.S. Senate, many prominent companies -- mostly utilities that have invested in alternative and nuclear power plants -- are leaving the organization.
The House has already passed the first-ever national cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Though it's been both praised and criticized, the bill would at least set a precedent and a legal framework for reducing emissions. The Senate is seen as less-hospitable to a deal on global warming, but the weakening of a major opponent can only help.
After unusually warm Arctic summers in 2007 and 2008, and unusually wet conditions in the tropics, the world's methane emissions increased for the first time in a decade. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas -- far more potent than carbon dioxide -- released from sea bed reserves in the Arctic and by the action of microbes in the rainforests of the world, among other sources. It's eyed carefully by scientists who fear that catastrophic doses of methane could be released as global warming fuels climatic changes. Warmer Arctic equals more methane released, equals warmer Arctic ... etc.
Similarly, new data shows how pervasively glaciers and ice sheets are thinning in the Antarctic and Greenland. Both are leading indicators of global warming's real-time effects, and predict future sea-level rise.
Supermodel Gisele Bündchen is teaming up with the United Nations Environment Program to be a Goodwill Ambassador. "In her new role, Ms. Bündchen will help the agency raise awareness and inspire action to protect the environment, taking on some of the biggest threats facing the planet, such as climate change and environmental degradation," according to the U.N. "The environment has always been my passion," she said. (Gisele's family has already been active in reforestation projects in the Amazon, and she's already the star of an animated cartoon, "Gigi and the Green Team.")
The U.N. hasn't exactly been praised for effective leadership on climate change, given that the Kyoto Protocol was at best a mixed success, and at this point negotiations toward a successor, to be negotiated this December in Copenhagen, are being characterized as deadlocked. But the pairing of "passion" "Gisele" and "global warming" can't hurt.
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