Could climate change actually increase winter mortality?

great lakes ice cover
great lakes ice cover

Ice engulfs much of the Great Lakes in this image from February 19 (courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory).

If you already thought that the impacts of climate change were incredibly complicated and, often, downright confusing, I’ve got bad news for you – things just got even more complex.

For years, researchers focusing on climate change concluded that increases in heat-related mortality would, by and large, be accompanied by decreasing cold-related mortality. As winter temperatures warm – which they have at an extremely fast rate – the health risk posed by extreme cold is assumed to decrease in a nearly inverse proportion. In its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), for instance, the IPCC highlighted research that projected cold weather deaths would decrease by 25.3% in the United Kingdom from the 1990s to the 2050s.

But a new study in Nature Climate Change calls this assumption into question (paywall). As the study’s authors note:

An extensive literature attests to the fact that changes in daily temperature influence health outcomes at the local levels and that [excess winter deaths] are influenced by temperature. However, our data suggest that year-to-year variation in EWDs is no longer explained by the year-to-year variation in winter temperature: winter temperatures now contribute little to the yearly variation in excess winter mortality so that milder winters resulting from climate change are unlikely to offer a winter health dividend.

In order to explore the potential effects of climate change on winter mortality rates, the authors analyzed the factors which contributed the number of excess winter deaths (EWDs) in the UK from 1951-2011. They found that, across this entire span, housing quality, heating costs, the number of cold winter days, and influenza accounted for 77% of variation in annual EWDs.

cold weather death correlations

These charts depict the correlation between excess winter deaths and either the number of cold days (left) or influenza activity in the UK. As the charts suggest, the number of cold days drove excess mortality until around 1976, when the flu became the dominant factor.

But, when they further broke the data down into three 20-year timeframes (1951-1971, 1971-1991, and 1991-2011), they concluded that, while housing quality and the number of cold days were the primary drivers of winter mortality from 1951-1971, this effect disappeared after that point. Instead, flu activity became the only significant driver from 1976-2011. Accordingly, as they argue,

[W]e show unequivocally that the correlation between the number of cold winter days per year and EWDs, which was strong until the mid 1970s, no longer exists.

But, the authors don’t stop here. They continue by explaining that climate records actually suggest that “winter temperature volatility has increased in the UK over the past 20 years,” despite global warming. As I discussed in a previous post on heat-related mortality, the ability of people to acclimate to local weather patterns is a key determinant in temperature-related mortality rates.

As winters continue to warm, people will slowly see their comfort baseline shift; accordingly, when extreme cold snaps, like the Polar Vortex that hit the Eastern US in January, occur,

The nefarious effects on EWDs could be substantial, with especially the vulnerable being caught off-guard by abrupt changes in temperature.

Due to this increasing volatility in winter temperatures, population growth, and the continued graying of populations (people aged 65 and over are far more susceptible to influenza), it’s entirely possible that global warming could actually increase cold weather mortality rates.

A similar study from fall 2012 (paywall), also published in Nature Climate Change, lends further credence to this research. The article examined the influence of climate change on mortality rates from extreme temperatures in Stockholm; the authors compared mortality rates from 1900-1929 to those from 1980-2009.

mean winter temperatures stockholm

This chart depicts the distribution of the 26-day moving average for mean winter temperatures in Stockholm. The black bars, which show data from 1980-2009, suggest that baseline winter temperatures have increased over the last century.

The study, which examined changes in mortality rates from both extreme cold and extreme heat, found increases in both phenomena. The number of extreme cold events increased to 251 in 1980-2009 from 220 during 1900-1929. This change led to an additional 75 deaths.

Significantly, this study echoed two key findings from the UK article. First, cold weather extremes appear to have increased in frequency over the last century, likely as a result of global warming. Secondly, little evidence exists to suggest that people have adapted to the changing climate. According to the authors of the Stockholm article,

The stable and constant mortality impact of cold and heat over the past three decades, independent of the number of extreme events, shows the difficulties in adapting to changing temperatures…Future changes in the frequency and intensity of heat waves might be of a magnitude large enough to overwhelm the ability of individuals and communities to adapt. The expected increase in the number of elderly and other potentially vulnerable groups, in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population, could make the impact of temperature extremes on human health even more severe.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated, it can. Two studies published in 2009, one focusing on Sweden and one focusing on Italy (paywall), established an inverse relationship between weather-related mortality rates in the winter months and mortality rates during the following summer.

In other words, because the vulnerability factors for both cold- and heat-related mortality overlap to such a degree, any decrease in winter mortality due to global warming will likely be offset by a corresponding increase in excess mortality during the summer months. As the authors of the Italian study wrote,

Low-mortality winters may inflate the pool of the elderly susceptible population at risk for dying from high temperature the following summer.

So, to all of the climate deniers or “skeptics” who claim that global warming will somehow be beneficial – I’m looking at you, Congresswoman Blackburn – please take note: climate scientists keep discovering new ways that life is going to get drastically worse, unless we act now to slash carbon emissions and prepare for the warming that’s already locked in.

What climate hawks can learn from the ‘Meet the Press’ debacle

meet the press climate change debate
meet the press climate change debate

Source: NBC News

Ah, the Sunday morning political talk show, a throwback to a simpler time when old, well-connected white guys could get together in a safe space to tell everyone what they’re supposed to think. “Meet the Press” has long been the paragon of this model, sitting at the center of the debate over conventional Beltway wisdom and providing an outlet for John McCain to speak on any and all issues, forever. I’m pretty Senator McCain has his mail delivered to the MTP studio when Congress is in recess.

It is in these hallowed studios where the Very Serious People sit around tables together and decide what issues matter. I’m not sure if these wise oracles read tea leaves or sort through chicken entrails to divine which topics are of import, but they have clearly sent the message that climate change does not fall into that category. In 2013, Sunday talk shows covered the topic for a combined 27 minutes; “Meet the Press” did not spend a single second on it.

So imagine my surprise and excitement when each of the Sunday shows, including MTP, announced that they would devote a portion of shows last weekend to climate change and extreme weather. Maybe they would provide a platform for climate scientists to set the record straight about this incredibly important issue.

And then I saw what Meet the Press was planning to do:

meet the press climate debate

Face palm (source:

No. No. No no no no no no no. There is no “climate change debate,” and you should definitely not be hosting one, particularly involving a children’s television host and a climate denying Congresswoman. As Alex Pareene wrote at Salon:

What’s insulting (and insane) is that there is to be a “debate” at all, on one of America’s supposed premier news talk shows. What’s scary is that the side of this debate that is wrong, and that is wrong in a way that will very probably lead to worldwide disaster in a few generations, is taken seriously because it is the side taken by one of America’s two dominant political parties.

Providing equal status to climate deniers constitutes journalistic malpractice. While nonpartisan news outlets and journalists may have a desire to demonstrate their objective bona fides, this decision has real consequences.

In a recent paper, Jesse Shapiro from the University of Chicago examines the relationship between media treatment of climate change and the public’s understanding of the issue. He argues that American journalists often go to great lengths to prove that they are unbiased, which leads them to cover the “debate” around climate change and misinform viewers.

He finds a strong correlation in OECD countries between the percentage of journalists who make it clear that there is strong evidence for the manmade global warming and the likelihood that the general public accepts this consensus view. Accordingly, because American journalists are twice as likely to cling to their objectivity as German journalists, Americans are less informed on climate change than citizens of any other OECD state.

journalist norms and climate change belief

The correlation between journalists covering the “debate” and public acceptance of climate change in the OECD

Predictably, this debate quickly devolved into – for the lack of a better term – a total shit show. I loved “Bill Nye the Science Guy” as a kid, but he was completely out of it. Maybe he was tired, as Philip Bump suggested.

Representative Blackburn, on the other hand, was prepared for the segment. She deployed a number of denier tactics, including the single most effective tool that a person defending the wrong side can utilize – rattling off a series of inaccurate statements.

To David Gregory’s credit, he did push back on the Congresswoman, but the entire structure of this faux debate guaranteed that a number of Rep. Blackburn’s lies sat out there without being refuted. As Jay Rosen argued:

Finally, in his self-awareness David Gregory overlooked one big thing. Creating confusion works just fine as a mode of resistance to the scientific consensus he thought he was advancing. (See this study.) Because his Advance the Debate segment required that denialism make an appearance, so that it could be visibly gotten beyond, and because no one on Meet the Press had any intention to stick with the topic long enough to sort out the confusing things Blackburn injected (like the benefits of more carbon) the actual result was an informational mess.

But I was also impressed by the skill with which Rep. Blackburn was able to wield the latest iteration of climate denier arguments. Nathan Young and Aline Coutinho outlined these tactics (paywalled, unfortunately) in the journal Global Environmental Politics last May. In this great article, Young and Coutinho explore how conservative governments in Australia and Canada have utilized “anti-reflexivity” to obfuscate and sow seeds of doubt among the public on climate change.

marsha blackburn

Rep. Marsha Blackburn did an excellent job of demonstrating the “acceptance-rejection approach” of climate denial (courtesy of NBC News).

Anti-reflexivity is the effort “to protect the industrial capitalist order of simple modernization” from threats, primarily through “the dissemination, manipulation, and suppression of knowledge claims.” In other words, those individuals who cling to the fossil fuel-driven status quo attempt to hijack and dictate the research on and public conversation of climate change.

According to Young and Coutinho, however, simply denying the science is not the best way to control the discourse around climate change. They explain that ignorance is not the opposite of knowledge, but an intrinsic part of how “knowing” is formed. Interestingly, people are comfortable remaining largely ignorant on important issues, provided they believe that the institutions responsible for those issues are doing so in a trustworthy manner. As a result,

[R]hetorical acceptance of climate change opens up room for the construction of the “trust bridge” that allows people to be comfortable with non-knowledge.

Paying lip service to the climate consensus makes it easier for deniers to manipulate the public and further the status quo. The authors outline six different “affirmation techniques” that the Howard and Harper administrations have deployed. Impressively, Rep. Blackburn managed to squeeze five of these into the 13-minute debate. Let’s explore them below.

Compliance claims

Both the Howard and Harper governments have emphasized the steps they have taken to tackle climate change. In essence, they attempted to co-op environmental arguments. Here’s Rep. Blackburn:

And what we need to be looking at is the way to achieve efficiencies. Carbon emissions are at the lowest they’ve been since 1994. The reason for that is efficiencies.

Competing priorities (economy vs. environment)

Climate deniers frequently argue that there exists an inherent conflict between addressing climate change and promoting economic strength. Rep. Blackburn did this over and over and over again. Whether it was her saying that we need to run all environmental regulations through a “cost-benefit analysis” no fewer than five times or dropping this line

Now, you know, when you look at the social cost of carbon, and there is a lot of ambiguity around that, what you also need to be doing is looking at the benefits of carbon and what that has on increased agriculture production. Lot of good study out there about that, lot of good scientists and biologists who have done that study.

She just kept hammering this point home.

Exporting the problem

Climate deniers love arguing that it doesn’t make sense for the US to act, because doing so won’t reduce carbon emissions from developing countries. They look to export the problem to any number of bogeymen, most often China and India. Cue Marsha Blackburn:

Let’s say everything that Bill says is wrong is wrong. Let’s just say that. Then you say what are you going to do about it? What would the policy be? And will that policy have an impact? Now, even Director McCarthy from the EPA in answering questions from Congressman Pompeo before our committee, said reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally.

Controlling the research message

Young and Coutinho emphasize that the Howard and Harper governments have worked aggressively to control what research is done on climate change and how it is communicated. In a similar vein, Rep. Blackburn prefaced her comments by trying to dictate who can and cannot speak on the issue:

And we all know– and I think that Bill would probably agree with this, neither he nor I are a climate scientist. He is an engineer and actor. I am a member of Congress. And what we have to do is look at the information that we get from climate scientists. As you said, there is not agreement around the fact of exactly what is causing this.

She also name dropped two popular contrarian scientists, Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry.

Shifting numerical targets

According to Young and Coutinho, the Harper and Howard governments have set a variety of numerical targets for climate change in order to establish credibility on the topic publicly. But these numbers often clash, change behind the scenes, or prove to be extremely hollow. Again, Rep. Blackburn used a similar tactic by attempting to mislead with numbers:

And when you look at the fact that we have gone from 320 parts per million 0.032, to 0.040 four hundred parts per million, what you do is realize it’s very slight.

Interestingly, it was actually Bill Nye who employed the sixth tactic, appealing to nationalism:

We want to do more with less, and for me, as a guy who grew up in the U.S., I want the U.S. to lead the world in this rather than wait– while you made reference to the United Kingdom, what China is doing with energy production…

Ultimately, this debacle of a debate can hopefully teach climate hawks two important lessons. First, don’t go on television and debate climate change with a denier. The deck is inherently stacked against you, and it will only serve to further misinform the public. Secondly, deniers have begun to subtly shift their tactics, and we need to be ready to counter.

Using these tactics, what Young and Coutinho have dubbed the “acceptance-rejection approach” may prove to be an effective way to forestall action if we’re unprepared. As the researchers conclude:

This, we suggest, is the particular genius of the anti-reflexive stance…If, as this research suggests, many people are willing to be ignorant of certain aspects of the climate change issue as a means of self-protection, then the acceptance-rejection approach provides enough rhetorical comfort to soothe those who are concerned about climate change but unwilling to get deeply involved in the issue.

Just as deniers continue to work to craft new arguments and shift the debate in their favor, so too must climate hawks be vigilant. We’re running out of time to stave off a catastrophe, and we can’t waste it arguing semantics.

How big is the carbon footprint of the Keystone XL pipeline?

co2 emissions per country with keystone
august 2011 keystone xl protest

Members of my grad school cohort and I at the August 2011 Keystone XL protest.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is set to pass through two countries, but it’s environmental impact would surpass that of many, many more.

In its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), the State Department estimated that Keystone will produce somewhere from 1.3 to 27.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) annually. Given that I strongly question the document’s underlying assumption that the pipeline will have little, if any, impact on the overall rate of Canadian tar sands extraction, let’s assume that the actual number will be on the high side of this range. Accordingly, let’s consider two scenarios, one in which Keystone generates 14.35MMTCO2e annually (median value) and one in which it generates 27.4 MMTCO2e annually (maximum value).

The Sierra Club has already produced some useful graphics comparing Keystone’s carbon footprint to other greenhouse gas (GHG) generators. For instance, they calculate that releasing 27.4 MMTCO2e is equivalent to putting another 37.7 million cars on the road or building 51 new coal-fired power plants.

keystone xl 51 coal power plants

Courtesy of the Sierra Club

But let’s put Keystone XL into a more global perspective, shall we? Using 2009 data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (the last year for which a full, global dataset was available), I compared the median and maximum annual carbon emissions from the pipeline to the rest of the world.*

In the chart below, I have highlighted the bars for the two Keystone XL values in red. As you can see, both the median and maximum CO2 emissions values for Keystone XL far exceed those from the majority of countries on Earth. Using its median and maximum values, Keystone XL would generate more annual CO2 emissions than 112 and 123 countries, respectively.

co2 emissions per country with keystone

Data are from the World Development Indicators. The median and maximum values for Keystone XL are highlighted in red. I removed the values for the top 10 emitting countries from the chart, as they severely skewed the scale.

Using 2009 population data from the same source, I calculate that Keystone XL – a project which the State Department says will create 35 permanent jobs – would account for more annual carbon emissions than those from 86.3 million people (median value) or 136.1 million people (maximum value) combined, respectively. If we were to treat Keystone as its own country – let’s call it Keystonia – with a population of 35, it would account for 782.86 tons of CO2 per capita (using the maximum value), more than 18.5 times higher than current world leader Qatar.

Keystone XL may only account for 0.518% of the US’s total CO2 emissions (using 2012 numbers), but denying that it would exacerbate the climate crisis is a fool’s errand. Approving this pipeline would be an environmental injustice of epic proportions.


*The dataset included both countries and territories, bringing the population size to 216. I removed all countries/territories for which data were missing, bringing the sample size to 200.

The one issue that may determine if Keystone XL gets approved

keystone xl route
Map of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, alongside the existing Keystone pipeline (courtesy of the Washington Post).
keystone xl route

This map shows the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, alongside the existing Keystone pipeline (courtesy of The Washington Post).

The State Department released its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) regarding the Keystone XL pipeline this afternoon. I won’t write a full overview of the report – there are already several good ones available – but I’ll just make a few quick observations.

If you read the report, you’ll notice that the State Department’s entire assessment of the pipeline’s impact centers on whether or not the project is a literal “keystone” of the continued expansion of tar sands production (sorry for the terrible pun). According to the SEIS, the project holds almost no bearing on the overall tar sands industry, despite the fact that it could transfer 830,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) from Alberta to the Gulf Coast for refinement. The report bases this conclusion upon the fact that, in lieu of the pipeline, the industry will find alternatives for transport, particularly railways. As the chart below suggests, the amount of tar sands bitumen being transported by rail has spiked in the last few years.

tar sands by rail

The volume of tar sands bitumen shipped by rail from Western Canada since 2011 (courtesy of the State Department).

Accordingly, State concluded that

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

This assertion is highly debatable, and there is a multitude of evidence that challenges it. Industry representatives have consistently spoken about the importance of the pipeline, and a 2013 Reuters investigation stated that relying on rail for transport would halve the amount of oil extracted from the tar sands. Additionally, a report from the Pembina Institute demonstrated that pipelines like Keystone will be central in shaping the future development of tar sands.

Some of my fellow Keystone opponents have pointed out that the SEIS indicates the project will be responsible for releasing carbon emissions, which would exacerbate climate change. In his statement after the report’s release, Bill McKibben said “this report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.”

The report is definitely stronger on this front than the draft SEIS. Rather than claiming Keystone would have “no significant environmental impact,” as the draft report did, the final SEIS notes

The total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.

While this is a positive development, the crux of the report still ends up being the market analysis which underlines the projected environmental impacts. Because the report assumes that the pipeline won’t affect overall tar sands production, the SEIS actually concludes that Keystone would be better for the climate and the environment, generally, than all alternatives considered, including the no build option.

keystone climate analysis

Comparison of the annual and lifecycle GHG emissions from Keystone XL and the alternative projects examined in the SEIS (courtesy of the State Department).

I certainly hope that President Obama sticks to the pledge he made this summer, when he stated that he would only approve the pipeline if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” But I remain concerned that the report may provide him enough clearance to approve the pipeline, given the underlying market analysis.

If I didn’t have a dog in this fight – which I clearly do – I might find it appealing to see a decision of such import resting on something as wonkish and esoteric as a study of energy market dynamics. Hell, I basically went to grad school because I want to work in that world. But there’s too much on the line here.

We just need to trust that the President understands the scope of his decision. We’ve drawn our line in the sand, and there’s no erasing it.

Extreme heat increases migration from rural areas

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

The link between extreme weather and migration remains ambiguous, despite the hype surrounding so-called climate refugees, but new research appears to bolster the connection.

A new study published this week in Nature Climate Change (paywall) explores the effects of different disasters on human migration patterns in rural Pakistan. In light of the severe floods that have affected Pakistan in recent years, particularly the historic 2010 floods that affected 20 million people, the authors focused on the impact that extreme rainfall and temperatures have on patterns of migration in the country. The study examines the relationship over a 21-year period (1991-2012), relying on data from three longitudinal surveys.

The authors analyze several key weather variables, including rainfall during the monsoon season, average temperatures during the Rabi (winter wheat) season, flood intensity, and a 12-month moisture index measurement.

The various measures of rainfall have no significant effect on the mobility of men or women, either within or outside of the villages surveyed. In fact, the results suggest that periods of high rainfall actually decrease out-migration within the villages, perhaps due to the fact that farm and non-farm incomes increase significantly during these periods.

These results correspond with previous studies examining the relationship between rainfall and migration. Afifi and Warner examined the influence of 13 different forms of environmental degradation on patterns of international migration. They found that only one of the 13 – flooding – failed to increase international migration flows. In addition, Raleigh, Jordan, and Salehyan (PDF) concluded in 2008 that Bangladeshis affected by flooding migrated just two miles from their homes, on average, and that the vast majority of those displaced returned home shortly after the flood waters receded.

In contrast to flooding, this study did find a robust relationship between extreme heat and out migration flows. The authors note that males in rural Pakistan are 11 times more likely to leave their villages when exposed to extremely high temperatures. These results hold for both land-owners and non-land owners, as well as asset-rich and asset-poor Pakistanis. This outcome likely stems from the fact that extreme heat decreases both farm and non-farm incomes by 36% and 16%, respectively.

The authors also find that both men and women appear far more likely to migrate during periods of both extreme high temperatures and low rainfall. This result indicates that out migration flows are likely to spike during extreme droughts.

While droughts often appear to develop due largely to below-average rainfall, they actually originate through a much more subtle interaction of precipitation and temperature. Less rainfall tends to lower soil moisture levels, which, in turn, increases heat transfer from the soil to the air and elevates surface albedo. These effects drive up temperature further, often creating a positive feedback cycle by which lower rainfall and higher temperatures work together to drive prolonged droughts.

The results of the study have important implications for governments, donor organizations, and NGOs operating in a greenhouse world. As global temperatures continue to rise, we already know that the likelihood of extreme heatwaves will spike dramatically. This outcome will likely increase rural out-migration in the developing world. Moreover, the authors suggest that their work will require donors and aid agencies to reconsider how they respond to and plan for disasters in the future.

Existing flood relief programs may potentially crowd out private coping mechanisms such as migration, particularly for the poor and risk-averse living in flood-prone areas. Our results also show the important role of heat stress — a climate shock which has attracted relatively less relief — in lowering farm and non-farm income and spurring migration. Sustainable development will require policies that enhance adaptation to weather-related risks for farmers and for enterprises tied to the rural economy. Shifting relief towards investments in heat-resistant varieties, producing and disseminating better weather forecasting data and weather insurance, and policies that encourage welfare-enhancing migratory responses might improve individual abilities to adapt to an array of weather-related risks.

January is the vanguard of climate change in the US

map mean temperature anomalies january 2014
map mean temperature anomalies january 2014

Mean temperature anomalies for the continental US from January 1-26 (courtesy of the National Weather Service).

It’s been freaking cold in the Eastern half of the US, and it’s only gotten colder in the past 12 hours or so.

Another section of the dreaded Polar Vortex has broken off and is hovering over the Midwest. This morning, temperatures hovered around -9°F in Cleveland, just shy of the record low for the date. Further inland, however, temperatures plummeted to -14°F or lower.

There’s no question that this January has been abnormally cold and snowy for the region. Through yesterday, the average temperature this month was 22.6°F, which is 5.4°F below the long-term average of 28.1°F. The only way for the monthly temperature to reach that mark would be if the next 5 days were, on average, 63°F. Given that it’s currently 5°F and tomorrow’s high will be 12°F, that isn’t going to happen.

Yet, by most regards, this January has been far from record-breaking in Northeast Ohio. To date, it is only the 16th coldest January since 1964, and the temperature anomaly is not statistically significant (for fellow nerds, the z score is -0.723). Furthermore, just 5 years ago in 2009, the average monthly temperature for January was 19.4°F, the third coldest on record.

But, as we know, one cold month or even winter does not a trend make; the world is warming steadily. And, in the US, January has warmed at a faster rate than any other month. It has been the vanguard of warming.

From 1970-2013, January warmed by a rate of 1.14°C per decade, nearly twice as fast as any other month. [Interestingly, this trend does not hold worldwide. October, which has the lowest rate of warming in the continental US, has warmed at the greatest rate (0.33°C per decade) globally. This result is likely due to the fact that global temperatures include data from both sides of the equator.]

monthly average temperature anomalies

Monthly average temperature anomalies for the United States for 1970-2013 (Data from NOAA National Climatic Data Center).

Cleveland has followed a similar trend. Over the last 50 years, January has demonstrated the greatest rate of warming, with average monthly temperatures increasing by 1.371°F per decade. This number is nearly two-thirds larger than second-place February, which has warmed at a rate 0.826°F.

cleveland monthly temperature anomalies

Monthly average temperature anomalies for Cleveland from 1970-2013 (data from Northeast Ohio Media Group).

Moreover, the number of days on which temperatures dip below 10°F has fallen steadily during this period, decreasing by 2.31 days per decade. This winter has clearly bucked that trend, as there have already been 12 days below 10°F since the beginning of December. That’s the most since we had 15 such days in 2009, and we aren’t even into February yet.

number of frigid nights in cleveland

The number of frigid nights in Cleveland per year, 1970-2013 (courtesy of Climate Central).

Interestingly, for as far below average as temperatures have been in the Midwest, they’ve been even higher than average throughout the West. While mean temperatures have been 4-5°F below average throughout much of the country, nearly all of California, Montana, and Nevada have seen temperatures upwards of 8-9°F higher than normal. This disparity doesn’t even account for Alaska’s abnormally warm winter weather. Fairbanks, for instance, has been three times warmer than normal this January.

Climate change deniers have consistently tried to use the cold snap blanketing most of the eastern US as evidence that, as noted climatologist Donald Trump put it, global warming is “bulls#*t.” Cold weather in January doesn’t disprove climate change. In fact, January has been the proverbial canary in the coal mine for global warming, and that trend hasn’t changed in the last 28 days.

2013 made 1988 look downright frigid by comparison

James Hansen 1988 testimony
James Hansen 1988 testimony

Dr. James Hansen testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 1988 (courtesy of The Washington Post).

In his landmark testimony (PDF) before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 28, 1988, Dr. James Hansen, then director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies said,

The present temperature is the highest in the period of record…The four warmest years, as the Senator mentioned, have all been in the 1980s. And 1988 so far is so much warmer than 1987, that barring a remarkable and improbable cooling, 1988 will be the warmest year on record.

Hansen’s testimony proved to be accurate. 1988 ended up as the warmest year on record at that time, dating back to 1880, according to data from NOAA. The average global temperature in 1988 was 0.34ºC above the 20th century average, just edging out the 0.33ºC temperature anomaly from 1987.

global annual temperatures 1880-1988

Annual temperature anomaly records, worldwide, from 1880-1988 (courtesy of NOAA).

Flash forward to today. Yesterday, NOAA reported that, globally, 2013 tied 2003 as the fourth warmest year on record. Despite abnormally cool temperatures in the continental US during November and December, those months proved to be the warmest and third warmest on record worldwide, respectively. Overall, 2013 was 0.62ºC above the 20th century average. Accordingly, the temperature anomaly for 2013 was 82% larger than that for 1988.

Seth Borenstein, the great AP reporter on weather/climate issues, made a remarkable observation on Twitter yesterday after NOAA released its data.

The great warming of 1988, which sparked Hansen’s testimony and put climate change on the map as a political issue, is now so ordinary that it no longer ranks among the 20 warmest years on record. The rate of warming may have slowed slightly since 1988, but the total warming trend continues to plow ahead. It took all of 25 years to push 1988 out of the top 20.

annual global temperatures 1988-2013

Annual global temperature anomalies from 1988-2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Looking at the overall trend, you can really get a sense of how quickly warming has increased since the 1940s. Due to a string of cooler than normal years from the 1880s-1930s, the average temperature anomaly from 1880 (when record keeping began) and 1988 was actually -0.08ºC. Since 1988, that warming anomaly has skyrocketed to an average of 0.49ºC.

Twenty five years ago, 1988 stood out for its searing, abnormal heat. Unless we take action, 25 years from now we may end up looking back nostalgically at that year and praying for temperatures that cool.

Climate culprits: 7 countries account for more than half of global warming

national global warming share

Probably the single largest hurdle to negotiating a new global climate change treaty to replace the defunct Kyoto Protocol is the question of culpability for global warming. Determining who caused the crisis and, accordingly, who should shoulder the burden for reducing emissions has been a fly in the ointment since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992.

During the negotiations over Kyoto, developing states argued, quite effectively, that developed countries must lead the way in emissions reductions, because they took advantage of cheap fossil fuels to drive their economic growth. This debate led to the division of countries into two major groups in the final treaty. Annex 1 countries (OECD members plus “economies in transition,” which were largely former Soviet bloc states) committed to reducing their emissions to varying degrees, while non-Annex 1 countries (developing states) were exempted from making emission reduction commitments.

This distinction outraged many policymakers in the West and all but ensured that the US would never ratify the agreement. Although President Bill Clinton actually signed Kyoto in 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 to endorse the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which stated that the body would never ratify a treat “unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance.”

Twenty odd years later, the debate continues to linger today. The question of who are the climate change culprits is front and center as the parties to the UNFCCC work to develop a successor treaty by the end of the 2015 Paris Conference. While developed states note that China is now the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, developing states point out that Western countries and Japan dominate cumulative emissions totals since 1850.

A new study in Environmental Research Letters (open access!) will help to shed some additional light on the discussion, though I imagine it will do little to change the tenor. In the article, the authors aggregate the total greenhouse gas emissions for each country from 1906-2005; using these data, they then attribute to each country its associated proportion of total observed global warming during this period (roughly 0.7°C).

The study is unique because it accounts not only for CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, but also from land use changes, non-CO2 GHG emissions, and aerosol emissions, which tend to have a cooling effect.

Unsurprisingly, the authors point their fingers at the usual suspects. The top seven emitters – the US, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany, and the UK – account for 63% of the observed warming. The US claims the largest share, by far, accounting for 0.1517°C or 21.6% of total warming. Second-place China (which passed the US as the annual emissions leader in 2007), is responsible for 0.063°C, less than half of the US’s share. Overall, the top 20 emitting countries are responsible for 82% of warming.

national global warming share

National contributions to observed global warming from 1906-2005, including emissions from all sources.

While this outcome would appear to bolster the US’s argument, the authors dive further into the data and make the picture murkier. If you just account for fossil fuel use emissions, the list changes significantly. Land use changes, particularly deforestation and agriculture, make up 65% of Brazil’s emissions, while they are responsible for an astounding 86.7% of eighth-place Indonesia’s total contribution.

Moreover, the picture changes dramatically when the authors calculate emissions per capita. As the map below shows, developed states end up bring responsible for a far larger share of total warming than developing states. China and India, for intance, go from second and fourth place on the total warming list to 19th and 20th, respectively, in per capita emissions. The top eight states for per capita warming are all Annex 1 countries, as are eight of the top 10.

warming per country per capita

The share of observed global warming for each country on a per capita basis.

The authors devote a considerable amount of attention to the issue of per capita emissions and climate inequality. They note that, in order for us to keep total warming below 2°C in a world with 9 billion people, we would need to maintain per capita warming below 0.22°C. Multiple developed states already significantly exceed this number, emphasizing the importance of reducing their “luxury” emissions to make room for emissions from the developing world. The UK and US produce 0.54°C and 0.51°C of warming per billion people, respectively, which is more than twice the maximum rate the planet can sustain.

The data also do not account for outsourcing of emissions from the developed world to the developing world. The latest draft of the IPCC’s Working Group II report states that, while developing countries have increased their annual emissions to 14 gigatonnes per year, approximately 2 gigatonnes of those emissions stem from producing goods that are exported to the West. Accordingly, the cumulative and per capita share of emissions would change dramatically if we accounted for these trends.

As the authors note,

Balancing the current inequities in per-capita contributions to climate warming across countries may be a fundamental requirement if we are to make the changes necessary to decrease emissions and stabilize global temperatures.

This study will not end the discussion on who must reduce emissions and by how much – far from it. But it does provide further data to inform the debate, and it makes it clear that, despite recent changes in emissions trends, the developed world bears most of the responsibility for our existing climate crisis.

Suburbs are terrible for the climate

carbon footprint map northeast ohio
carbon footprint map northeast ohio

Map of household carbon footprint intensity by zip code in Northeast Ohio (courtesy of the Cool Climate Network).

That’s the message of a new study from researchers at UC Berkeley. The research, which analyzes spatial differences in household carbon footprints (HCF) was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (paywall).

Unsurprisingly, the study finds that suburban areas have, on average, HCFs that are up to twice as large as the national average, which the authors place at 48.5 tons of CO2 per household. In dense urban centers, these numbers can be half the national average. On the whole, principal cities account for just 30% of total carbon emissions, while suburban areas account for 50% of emissions, despite having less than half of the total population. The significantly higher level of HCF in suburban areas, which reach above 85 tons of CO2 in certain areas, has the effect of offsetting many of the efficiency gains made by living in dense urban cores.

As Christopher Jones, a co-author of the study, notes:

“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” said Christopher Jones, a doctoral student working with Kammen in the Energy and Resources Group. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”

I decided to take a look at the variation of HCFs within Northeast Ohio. As expected, Cleveland and Akron both fit the model of a “carbon footprint hurricane,” as described by Jones. As the study notes, carbon emissions already start from a higher baseline in the Midwest due to the region’s heavy reliance upon coal for electricity generation (fortunately, in 2012, coal generation fell to 67% [PDF] of Ohio’s electricity generation from 85% in 2008).

HCF numbers stretch from lows of 21.1 tons and 26.5 tons in downtown Akron and Cleveland, respectively (numbers which are 57% and 45% below the national average), to highs of 75.4 tons in Hudson (155% of the average) and an astonishing 85.6 tons in uber-wealthy Gates Mills (176% of the average).

household carbon footprint for 44113

Household carbon footprint numbers for my home zip code, 44113

The two factors that ultimately supercharge HCF levels in Northeast Ohio’s suburbs are two of the central features of our sprawl-based development model – transportation and housing. In my neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West side (44113), housing – which includes emissions from electricity use – accounts for approximately 13 tons of carbon annually, while transportation generates just 7 tons.

Compare those numbers to 44139, the zip code for Solon, which saw its population increase by 9.56% from 2000 to 2010. In Solon, the average household generates 21 tons of CO2 from transportation and roughly 23 tons from housing.  Not to mention that the average HCF in the suburb is 95% higher than households in 44113.

household carbon footprint for 44139

Household carbon footprint numbers for Solon

As I’ve discussed before, sprawl has been at the heart of development throughout Northeast Ohio since at least the advent of the Interstate Highway System. Despite seeing its population grow by just 0.32% from 1948 to 2002, the amount of land developed in Cuyahoga County increased to 95% from just 26% during this period.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

As the population continued to spread out, vehicle miles traveled climbed, while public transportation utilization decreased apace. Annual ridership on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority plummeted from a high of 129,691,743 riders in 1980 to 44,680,000 in 2010 – a decrease of two-thirds in just 30 years. As a result, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (PDF) in Northeast Ohio.

These data clearly suggest that a suburban lifestyle is one of the leading drivers of carbon emissions in the US. Consistent with the fact that climate change is a massive environmental justice issue, the individuals in Northeast Ohio who generate the majority of carbon pollution are the least likely to endure the effects of climate change. Instead, as I’ve noted before, it is the poor, the elderly and infirmed, and persons of color living in urban areas – where carbon emissions are lowest – who will bear the greatest burden.

Unfortunately, Jones and Kammen also conclude that increasing population density is not the solution to this challenge. They find that increasing population density 10-fold only reduces HCF by one-quarter. Accordingly, they conclude that there is “no evidence for net [greenhouse gas] benefits of population density in urban cores or suburbs when considering effects on entire metropolitan areas.”

Instead, the authors argue that we need to increase energy efficiency in suburban areas by retrofitting homes, increasing penetration of electric vehicles, and expanding renewable energy generation. This suggests that urbanization is not a silver bullet to climate change, which is an important lesson to keep in mind as we move towards a world in which roughly 70% of people live in urban areas by 2050. We cannot afford to see US-style suburbanization expand into the developing world, or we may eliminate any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, part 3: Climate change in your backyard

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you exactly three times that climate change is going to be a bigger deal for Cleveland than people seem to realize.

Well, thanks to the indispensable US Geological Survey, I now have even more data to back me up. With the help of NASA, the USGS has taken the data on temperature and precipitation from the various climate models used by the IPCC and broken it down to the county level. Thanks to this awesome new tool with a terrible name (NEX-DCP30), you can now find out what the mean temperature projections for April are in Charles Mix County in South Dakota from 2025-2049, if that’s your sort of thing.

NEX-DCP30 provides breakdowns for each county in the continental United States for three time periods (2025-2049, 2050-2074, and 2074-2099), compared to the averages from 1980-2004. You can even toggle between RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway; e.g. projected emissions scenario) 4.5, a mid-range scenario, or RCP 8.5, which is a worst-case scenario. Christmas came early for climate nerds like me.

Naturally I decided to check in on the projections for the state of Ohio and for Cuyahoga County. Here’s what I found.

Using the mid-range warming scenario (RCP 4.5), Ohio’s mean temperature will increase by 2.5°C (4.5°F) during the period 2050-2074. This puts it right in the middle of the pack – it’s average temperature change is tied for 16th of the contiguous 48 states, making it higher than 23 states, tied with 8, and lower than 15.

temperature increases mid-range emissions

Average temperature increases for the lower 48 states in 2050-2074, under RCP 4.5 (courtesy of USGS).

In the same scenario, Cuyahoga County warms at by 2.6°C (4.7°F), slightly more than the state as a whole. As you can see below, the state appears split along a diagonal line, that starts in Columbiana County and ends by cutting Hamilton in half. Those counties above the line warm at a higher rate than those below it. Overall, in the RCP 4.5 model, Ohio and Cuyahoga County warm at roughly the same rate as the country as a whole.

temperature increases ohio mid-range scenario

Average temperature increases for the 88 counties in Ohio in 2050-2074, under RCP 4.5 (courtesy of USGS).

These rates change under the RCP 8.5 model. Under this scenario, Ohio warms by an alarming 3.6°C (6.5°F) by 2050-2074, a rate of change above the national average. As the map below suggests, those states that are farthest North and/or are located in the interior of the country will experience the most warming. Ohio experiences warming greater than 26 states, the same as 4 states, and less than 18 states. While Alaska will likely see the greatest warming of all 50 states, Minnesota’s 4.0°C is the most among the lower 48.

temperature increases ohio worst case scenario in 2050-2074

Average temperature increases for Ohio’s counties in 2050-2074, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS).

Once again, under this scenario, Cuyahoga County outpaces the state as a whole. The county will see temperatures increase by 3.7°C (6.7°F). This number exceeds most of the state, though the greatest warming will take place in Northwest Ohio and in the counties along the Indiana border.

temperature increases worst case scenario 2050-2074

Average temperature increases for the lower 48 states in 2050-2074, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS).

Alarmingly, if you fast forward to the end of the century (2074-2099) using RCP 8.5, the picture becomes even bleaker. Ohio warms by a terrifying 5.3°C (9.5°F), while Cuyahoga County once again comes in higher at 5.4°C (9.72°F). The average July temperature in Ohio and Cuyahoga County would increase by 6.4°C, reaching 96.08°F and 93.74°F, respectively. Mid- to upper-90s would become the rule, not the exception.

change in monthly temperatures in worst case scenario

Mean monthly temperatures for the State of Ohio (left) and Cuyahoga County (right) in 2075-2099, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS)

Cleveland annual mean temperature currently stands at roughly 10°C (50°F), while the annual average maximum temperature of 15°C (59°F). Under a high-emissions scenario, Cleveland’s climate could became much closer to that of Oklahoma City than what we are used to experiencing now.

The current rate of climatic change – which The Geological Society now says is unprecedented in the history of the planet (PDF) – is far beyond what we are able to absorb. For a region that is not acclimatized to extreme heat and is highly vulnerable to heat-related mortality, climate change poses an immense public health risk to Northeast Ohio.

So, once again, I caution you that, while things may not become as bad in Cleveland as they may elsewhere, they’re still going to be crappy. To paraphrase The Lorax, unless we all start caring a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.