Not Doomed Yet: A 7,000-Year-Old Memory of Sea-Level Rise

A weekly summary of global-warming news, for people who want to pay more attention to it

A solar field in southern France (Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters)

Not Doomed Yet is The Atlantic’s new weekly newsletter about global warming. It lives here in the science section; you can also get it in your inbox.

Hey there. Many of you joined since last week. I’m not sure if you need a synopsis, but, just in case, here’s one:

I worry about climate change. I think it’s the most pressing political issue of our time, yet it is not, in its contours as a story, particularly political. In the U.S. presidential campaign, nearly everything newsworthy is something someone said or did or broadcast. Everything newsworthy, in other words, is a story. With climate, long-running trends continue until they’re interrupted. I want to pay attention to those trends beyond reading individual reports. I want to fit the strange world—where atmospheric CO₂ is at its highest levels in perhaps 25 million years—into the one I live in, where the local deli makes passable coffee, where I wonder every morning whether I’m actually taking the fastest commute, and where the tree outside my window bears the early golden hints of autumn. As I wrote last week, this is an experiment in that desire. Because even though I bounce from home to work to home, the macro-trends do not really change. They are:

Ongoing Trends

The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. The Mauna Loa Observatory measured 397.23 CO₂ molecules per million in the atmosphere this week. A year ago, it measured 394.79 ppm. Ten years ago, it measured 376.43 ppm.

Anything below 350 ppm is considered generally safe. That’s where atmospheric carbon stood about 22 years ago.

Renewable energy costs are plunging faster than anyone anticipated. Not much to report this week. One of the big obstacles to ramping up wind and solar energy is storing all the electricity they create, because "the wind bloweth wherever it pleaseth" and also the sun turns off at night. Basically you need big batteries. This week, Hawai’i announced plans to integrate batteries into its power grid.

In lieu of more news, I want to recommend Politico Magazine’s big story from May on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. This is one of the most hopeful—and I really mean that—accounts of a political campaign I’ve read in a long time. Lots of people talk about an infrastructure-focused politics; this might be what it looks like, at scale and popularized.

The U.S. greenhouse gas regulations start ambling down the long road to implementation. And it’s all the mundanity of governance: Pennsylvania, the nation’s second-largest generator of electricity, began local "listening sessions" about the regulation.

(A side note: I knew that air pollution disproportionately wafts into poor, black, and Hispanic neighborhoods. I did not know it did so this disproportionately: "Seventy-one percent of [Pennsylvania’s] African-American population live in areas that do not meet federal air-quality standards.")

Now a note about the U.S. Republican party. (If those words made you break out in hives, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs.) This week, 11 House Republicans—many of retirement age, and all from coastal states—signed a letter recognizing the overwhelming scientific consensus that humanity is the force changing the climate. It’s being reported as the first admission from contemporary Congressional Republicans that anthropogenic climate change is real.

More interesting to me, but probably just as inconsequential, is the new “moderate” line on climate that emerged during the GOP primary debate last week. Marco Rubio did not deny climate science, when asked; he instead said that American action alone wouldn’t fix it and that the costs of reducing carbon emissions would be too expensive anyway.

Most interesting is that CNN figured out how to ask a climate-change question in a way that forced candidates to disagree with Ronald Reagan.

Before Paris

The UN’s most-anticipated climate negotiations since 2009 begin in 10 weeks.

The stated goal of nearly every country on Earth is to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. Now, even a successful negotiation in Paris this year will not result in getting greenhouse-gas emissions that low. Every party to the talks knows that. Christiana Figueres, the UN diplomat in charge of its climate convention, has made it clear that she does not expect these talks to get us to two degrees of warming—they’re merely a starting point, a shift from “business as usual.”

“I’ve already warned people in the press," she told The New Yorker this summer, “if anyone comes to Paris and has a eureka moment—‘Oh, my God, the I.N.D.C.s do not take us to two degrees!’—I will chop the head off whoever publishes that. Because I’ve been saying this for a year and a half.”

(I.N.D.C.s is UN-speak for “intended nationally determined contributions.” In advance of the talks this year, each nation is submitting plans for how it will limit its emissions. An I.N.D.C. is just one of those plans. That they come from the “bottom up,” that is, that they are proposed by the nations themselves—rather than being formulated by the UN and imposed on countries from the “top down”—is driving some of the anticipation around the Paris talks.)

There has been all this chatter, then, that the Paris negotiations will not get us to two degrees Celsius—but up to now, there’s been no estimate of where they actually will get us. On Tuesday, Figueres offered a “guesstimate”: Three degrees Celsius.

If the nation-submitted plans are not implemented, meanwhile, the planet is on track for four to five degrees Celsius of warming.

This week in the Earth system

  • Arctic sea ice reached its minimum for the year on Friday, September 11. Sea ice that day was the fourth-smallest on record, and it very nearly tied for the third-smallest on record. The smallest ever on record was recorded on September 16, 2012. Ice on the Arctic Ocean has now begun to recover, as the Northern Hemisphere settles into autumn.

  • The three countries with the most trees are Russia, Canada, and Brazil. And contrary to previous UN reports, there’s little evidence that economic wealth meaningfully correlates to “tree wealth,” once you account for region and biome.

  • While we’re talking circumpolar flora, a reminder: The collapse of the USSR reduced carbon emissions twice as much as all of the EU’s energy efficiency regulations combined.

  • The snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas is at its lowest level in 500 years.

  • As the last ice age ended, between 18,000 and 7,000 years ago, continental glaciers began to melt and the water flowed back into the sea. The oceans rose by more than 120 meters (or about 400 feet). Researchers now believe that indigenous people across Australia retain the memory of this change in an interconnected collection of detailed stories. To Western eyes, some of these tales seem straightforwardly factual (we lost a kangaroo hunting ground…) and others as more allegorical (an ancestral being became angry…). But the Australian stories are, as a set, more complete than other fables of the flood. “We don’t find this in other places around the world,” the researcher Nicholas Reid tells The Guardian. “The sea being 120 meters lower and then coming up over the continental shelf, that happened in Africa, America, Asia and everywhere else. But it’s only in Australia that we’re finding this large canon of stories that are all faithfully telling the same thing.” The more-than-7,000-year-old memory survived roughly 300 generations. @georgelazenby (who is not the actor George Lazenby) taunts that that this means Plato’s Phaedrus was right: illiterate communities have longer memories than literate ones.

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