But have American emissions actually fallen? In a lengthy feature at The Nation this month, the climate journalist and activist Bill McKibben argues that greenhouse-gas emissions (not just carbon emissions) have possibly increased during the Obama administration, thanks to lost methane from fracking operations. He cites a new a paper (readable in full online) that shows satellite-observed methane releases from the United States have spiked 30 percent since 2002. McKibben’s dire reading of this study tells him that America hasn’t actually decoupled at all; it’s just shifted from emitting carbon to leaking methane. But a more moderate expert whom he consults says the worst-case reading of the study is that “as much as three-fifths of the greenhouse-gas reductions that the United States has claimed” are non-existent, especially in the short term.
Bottom line: There’s evidence that carbon emissions can be reduced without disastrous economic consequences, but without a concerted policy shift to renewable energy, the change won’t even come close to what’s needed.
Finally, this week, in her traditional slot in this newsletter: It’s Elizabeth Kolbert! This week she visits scientists trying to re-engineer two creatures to withstand the climate’s ravages : a chestnut tree resistant to plague, and a coral hardy to bleaching. (Especially relevant given this year’s mass bleaching event.)
Kolbert thinks through how to deploy such projects, implying that assisted evolution’s obstacles are less GMO alarmism than common sense; but this story really belongs in this newsletter because her two main characters tell her, variously:
• “I’m a realist. I cannot continue to hope that our planet is not going to change radically. It already is changed.”
• “Really, what I am is a futurist. [...] Our project is acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural.”
The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. For the week beginning on April 3, 2016, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured 406.57 carbon-dioxide molecules per million in the atmosphere (ppm).
Last year at this time, the Observatory observed 402.93 ppm in the air. Ten years ago, it measured 384.62 ppm.
These are the most recent final reports on atmospheric carbon, but preliminary reports continue to the present. They indicate that atmospheric CO2 spiked this weekend. On Sunday, April 10, 2016, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured 409.29 ppm of carbon in the air, far and away the highest measurement ever taken at the observatory. Typically, atmospheric carbon will not peak for about another three weeks.
Renewable energy costs are falling quickly, as oil remains historically cheap.
1,500 coal plants are currently planned or under construction worldwide. Brad Plumer of Vox writes that stopping the plants—which will happen, in part, by making renewable energy ever cheaper—will be the great environmental story of the next 15 years: “If even one-third of these plants get built and operate for their full lifetime, we’ll likely bust through the 2 degrees Celsius global warming threshold.”