Climate Change News That Stuck With Us in 2016
By The New York Times
As the year ends, The New York Times asked reporters who have focused on climate change, global warming and the environment to choose the news they reported on that was the most memorable. These are their selections, ranging from sea level rise to the phenomenon of “rolling coal” to local actions to confront a warming planet.
From One Hottest Year Into the Next
Clockwise from top left: flooding in Alexandria, Va., in June; a house raised on temporary supports in Norfolk, Va.; flooding in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in May; drought conditions at Lake Purdy in Alabama in October.CREDIT CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: GABRIELLA DEMCZUK FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES; ELIOT DUDIK FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES; ERANGA JAYAWARDENA, VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS; BRYNN ANDERSON, VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
The year in climate news began with a theme that is growing familiar: word that 2015 had been the warmest year on record, just beating out 2014.
The immediate cause in both cases was a powerful climate pattern, known as El Niño, in which the tropical Pacific Ocean poured an enormous amount of heat into the global atmosphere, disrupting weather patterns on every continent. But scientists said the back-to-back heat records would not have occurred without an underlying trend of global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.
That physical reality does not seem to be making much of an impression in the United States Congress, where a large number of lawmakers continue to claim that the warming trend is somehow not real, or is even the product of a global scientific hoax. But in the real world, the effects are starting to be felt as never before. As land ice melts the world over and heat absorption causes ocean water to expand, the sea level is rising. Coastal communities from Norfolk, Va., to Miami are being forced to reckon with the consequences.
A small detail: Tidal flooding is becoming so common that towns are posting “No Wake” signs on the streets, where vehicles driving a little too fast through a foot or two of seawater can send damaging waves crashing against nearby property.
The extreme burst of global temperature records waned late in the year as the cooler La Niña weather pattern replaced El Niño in the tropical Pacific. But even so, the World Meteorological Organization predicted in November that 2016 would most likely beat 2015 to become the record-warmest year, the first time such a global temperature record will have been set three years in a row. — Justin Gillis
Countering Denial by Being Nice
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. CREDIT LEXEY SWALL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
How do you talk about climate change during a presidential administration that denies it’s happening?
President-elect Donald J. Trump has called climate change a hoax, and he has declared he will try to reverse the Obama administration’s environmental efforts on matters ranging from the 2015 Paris climate agreement to the landmark Clean Power Plan, intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But while administrations change, one thing appears to be stable: Most Americans already know that climate change is real and that human activity since the Industrial Age is the major cause. Polls by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that more than half of those surveyed said that global warming is real, and only one in five disagree. But these same surveys show that Americans tend to rank the issue rather low in their priorities of urgent need for action.
The question for those trying to fight climate change, then, is how best to build on the degree of agreement that already exists and to encourage action by governments, businesses and individuals. For a very long time, these issues have been hashed out in fiery arguments between those who deny the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate science and those who try to explain the science and the reasons for strong measures. I dealt with that important question in an article about Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who uses a gentle approach to reach the large number of Americans who are in the potentially persuadable middle. There is room for every kind of discourse, from raucous to gentle, when it comes to telling Americans about warming. But I came away from that piece with a thought that initially seemed banal, but ended up feeling profound: niceness works. — John Schwartz
Local Responses to a Changing Global Climate
A house with solar panels in Ashton Hayes, England. CREDIT ELIZABETH DALZIEL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Most people who think that climate change is really happening also acknowledge that humans have caused it. But getting people to actually do something about it may be the next phase in the battle to prevent catastrophic warming.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve spoken with people in different communities around the world who are trying to do what they can to make a difference, even if they can’t see the effects.
In a small village in the English countryside, residents have been working for 10 years to make their community carbon neutral — they’ve insulated their homes, hung laundry out to dry and installed solar panels. Part of their success has been in their approach: This should be fun, and it should involve all of us, because all of us stand to benefit from staving off the worst effects of climate change.
They have tried to connect the global problem of climate change to normal life, because it’s not always about the melting polar ice caps or apocalyptic drought. Yes, climate change is about those things, but it is also about the ways that life in the 21st century makes most people, especially those in the developed world, part of the problem.
How are your own habits connected to larger environmental problems? How much power are you still using even when you’ve switched off your devices? How many plastic bottles of water do you drink every week, and how does that affect the environment and other people around you?
In the wake of the Paris agreement, most countries are involved in the fight against climate change. And while governments and power companies may make the most difference, what the rest of us — all seven billion of us — are doing matters, too. — Tatiana Schlossberg
Engines of Environmental Backlash
An Illini State Pullers event at the McHenry County Fair in August in Woodstock, Ill. CREDIT DAVID KASNIC FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
If there is one phenomenon that epitomizes the contempt for regulations — particularly those designed to protect the environment — among some Americans, it might be “rolling coal.”
It’s a fad among some diesel truck owners who soup up their engines and remove their emissions controls to belch black smoke at pedestrians, cyclists and even unsuspecting Prius drivers.
And depending on whom you ask, the fad is a juvenile prank, a health hazard, a stand against rampant environmentalism or a brazen show of American freedom. I’ve seen rolling coal called the “open carry” of the anti-environmentalism movement.
“Why don’t you go live in Sweden and get the heck out of our country. I will continue to roll coal anytime I feel like and fog your stupid eco-cars,” one angry Illinois voter wrote to a local state representative who has proposed a $5,000 fine on anyone who removes or alters emissions equipment.
At its core, rolling coal seems to me to be a symptom of a backlash against the notion that we should seek to minimize the human footprint on earth, for the sake of the environment.
It is not the only such act. Since 2007, activists have drawn attention to the environment with a call to switch off appliances worldwide during an annual Earth Hour. But since 2009, the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute — home base of Myron Ebell, who Trump tapped for the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency — has countered with Human Achievement Hour, a call to spend that same hour keeping things on in defense of humankind’s “basic human right to use energy.”
Still, rolling coal goes too far even for some at the institute. Coal rollers who use their trucks for harassment, as opposed to celebration, “aren’t being rebellious,” said Michelle Minton, who is a fellow there. “They are just being jerks.” — Hiroko Tabuchi
A Costly Effort to Make Coal Cleaner
The Kemper County coal power plant in Mississippi. CREDIT JOSH HANER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
In the deeply poor, rural county of Kemper, Mississippi, there is a project to build a first-of-its-kind power plant using technology that has been heralded as the answer to many of our climate change woes.
A poster child for the promise of so-called clean coal, the troubled plant has occupied a central role in the Obama administration’s plans to counter climate change. The technology the plant is supposed to showcase is also at the center of President-elect Trump’s vision for many of our energy and environmental challenges.
Producing roughly 45 percent of the emissions that cause climate change, coal is a dirty fuel source. Yet the world still relies on it for power. The Kemper project was supposed to provide a model for a new version of carbon-capture technology that could be replicated around the world.
But the Kemper power plant is more than two years past deadline and more than $4 billion over budget. The plant’s owner faces credit downgrades, multiple lawsuits and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The investigation of this project unveiled an almost Shakespearean tale. In one arc we followed the prevailing public perception of the project as it shifted from hope to skepticism. In another arc we saw an engineer’s personal journey from project pitchman to plant whistle-blower. Along the way, we watched a steady upward creep in the project’s cost, shifting explanations the company and regulators gave for delays, and a growing intensity in the warnings from workers on site.
It all added up to more questions than answers: Did the plant’s owner intentionally mislead the public, investors and regulators about the cost and timetable of the project? Why have 23 of the poorest counties in the country been saddled with costs connected to the most expensive power plant in American history? Can clean coal be replicated and built affordably and quickly enough to make it worth the investment? These questions remain. — Ian Urbina
California’s Drought Is Not Over
Erin Stacy was among the scientists measuring the snowpack in Yosemite in California in April. CREDIT JIM WILSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Parts of California were relatively wet last winter, leading to a much larger snowpack in the Sierra Nevada than the year before, along with rising optimism that the state might eventually see an end to severe drought conditions that have lingered for four years.
But when I visited Yosemite National Park in April for an article about the snowpack, high spring temperatures were already melting it quickly. And there were other worrisome signs of the effects of climate change — more rain and less snow at higher elevations.
Since then, California has seen some improvement. Only 21 percent of the state is in “exceptional” drought, down from 45 percent a year ago, as reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor, and there are even areas in the northwestern part of the state that are drought free.
But California is still in the grip of a prolonged drought, and the outlook — for the state and more broadly for the Southwest — is not promising. Forecasters say that in the short term, drier conditions may return this winter because of the weather phenomenon called La Niña. But it is the long-term situation that should be sobering for anyone who lives, or is thinking of living, in the region. Scientists say climate change has increased the risk of megadroughts, long dry periods that could make the current drought seem mild by comparison. — Henry Fountain
Climate Change and NASA’s Mission on Earth
Participants during NASA’s Icescape mission in the Arctic Ocean in 2011. CREDIT NASA/REUTERS
It is not easy to find out what’s happening in the Arctic Ocean. If you have a few months to spare, you can board an icebreaker and chug across a small section of the sea, taking measurements. Alternatively, you can pore through the images of the North Pole that have been captured by satellites over the past few decades.
Those images tell a startling story. While month-to-month measurements can be jumpy, the overall trend has been clearly heading down. Last month, satellites measured the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice for November since satellites started keeping records in 1979.
Global warming is a driving force behind this change. As we pump more carbon into the atmosphere, scientists warn that the Arctic will lose even more ice. In a matter of decades, scientists estimated this year, the Arctic Ocean may become ice-free in the summer.
The disappearance of Arctic ice is already having a huge impact on the ocean’s ecosystem. In November, a team of scientists published a new analysis of satellite data, finding that the ocean has been increasing its production of algae by some 47 percent since 1997. Scientists suspect that the size and timing of this bloom is altering the entire Arctic food web, and they’re now gathering data to find out what exactly is happening.
This study was carried out as part of NASA’s Earth Science program, using data largely supplied by NASA’s satellites. Shortly after the it was published, reports came out that President-elect Trump’s advisers are pushing to shut down NASA’s study of our own planet.
If we let our Earth-monitoring satellites wink out, the planet will not stop changing. The only thing that will change is our own ability to understand the Earth. — Carl Zimmer