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ART HOBSON: Hopes, temps rise on Earth

New president moves toward better responses by Art Hobson | February 9, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The political atmosphere since Jan. 20 has been like a breath of fresh air. A rational fact-based national administration has replaced four years of brainless, emotional rants.

The change was urgent for the overarching issue of our time, global warming. The Trump administration rejected the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide emissions are changing our climate, leading to catastrophic impacts that are in fact under way. Remarkably but typically our ex-president ranted that climate change is "a Chinese hoax." He rejected President Obama's Clean Power Plan to replace coal with renewables, de-funded NASA's Carbon Monitoring System, stopped plans to reduce oil and gas industry methane leaks, rejected the National Climate Assessment issued by 13 federal agencies and 300 leading climate scientists, boycotted environmental discussions at two G7 summit conferences, and issued new vehicle standards that will raise U.S. carbon emissions by 20 percent.

Above all, Trump rejected the Paris Climate Agreement, the most significant climate treaty to date. Only seven nations have not signed it, and only the USA has withdrawn from it. This was disgraceful and embarrassing.

Now comes President Biden and vigorous positive action. He has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as presidential envoy for climate, and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy as the first White House national climate advisor. One of his first acts, on Inauguration Day, was to re-enlist America under the Paris Agreement.

Noting on Jan. 27 that "we've already waited too long," Biden announced the following: The USA will host an international climate-change summit on Earth Day, April 22; new foreign policy goals will include climate as a core component of all policy decisions; Federal Agencies will eliminate many fossil fuel subsides; overhaul of tax breaks to fossil fuel industries; a National Intelligence Estimate of national security risks posed by global warming; a Climate Leaders Summit on Earth Day; new targets detailing how the U.S. will lower emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement; and reinstatement of President Obama's rules to cut emissions from automobile tailpipes. Furthermore, new jobs in clean-energy sectors will be found for fossil fuel workers who face job cuts.

The League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski declared January 27 "the single biggest day for climate action in more than a decade."

Thank you, President Biden. You've given the world hope.

But there is other darker news. Last year was not a good one for the environment. Temperatures reached 2016's record levels, 2.25 Fahrenheit degrees above pre-industrial (1900) levels. This was despite that 2016 was a strong "El Nino" (warm ocean) year while 2020 was a "La Nina" (cool ocean) year. The past six years were the six warmest on record. The subtropical Atlantic has been especially hot, fueling record hurricanes. Heat, monitored by 4,000 robotic probes, is spreading deeper into the ocean while migrating toward the poles. Warm waters are penetrating the Arctic Ocean, melting sea ice from below. Ocean levels are rising at 5 millimeters per year, and accelerating.

On land, temperatures are 3.6 degrees above preindustrial levels, a clear record. "Siberia was crazy," said one scientist. Phoenix saw its hottest overall average (day and night) summer temperature: 97 degrees. Arizona's Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, saw heat deaths hit a new record each year since 2016, with nearly 300 deaths in 2020.

Most ominously, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels topped 417 parts per million, 50 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. At the current rate of warming, the world will exceed the Paris Agreement's 1.5-degree Celsius limit on the temperature increase by 2035, and its 2.0-degree Celsius limit by 2065. Climate scientists agree that a 1.5-degree rise will be catastrophic, but the world seems well on its way toward exceeding even the 2-degree limit.

In the United States, three measures are needed to eventually eliminate carbon emissions: A large, rapid increase in renewable energy, a fee on fossil fuels, and a large, rapid increase in nuclear power. The proposed Green New Deal, which is presently only a conceptual outline, addresses the first priority but unfortunately proposes to use only renewable resources, which would rule out nuclear power. A "carbon fee and dividend" to charge a stiff per-ton fee for all carbon emissions and remit the proceeds on a per-capita basis back to Americans has been proposed but not yet debated by Congress. And there has been little U.S. movement in the direction of nuclear power, although data from other nations shows the impossibility of seriously addressing global warming without major help from new nuclear power.

Art Hobson is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Arkansas. Email him at [email protected]

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