TIME climate change

Antarctic Glacier Loss Is ‘Unstoppable,’ Study Says

New data has scientists at the University of California and NASA convinced we've "passed the point of no return" with a slab of ice that makes up 10% of Antarctica's total land ice volume, enough to raise the global sea level by 15 feet if it melts

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is one of the keys to global sea level rise. Running up against the Amundsen Sea, it contains an estimated 527,808 cu. miles (2.2 million cu. km) of ice, about 10% of Antarctica’s total land ice volume. That’s enough ice to raise global sea level by more than 15 ft. (4.6 m) were it all to melt, collapse and flow into the ocean, which in turn would swamp coastal cities as far inland as Washington, D.C.

And according to new research, that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have found that the group of six glaciers on the ice sheet directly draining into the Amundsen Sea are rapidly melting, as warming ocean water eats away at the base of the ice shelf. That’s making the ice around the West Antarctic Ice Sheet increasingly unstable—and the researchers could find no clear geographical obstacle that would slow down the retreat of the glaciers. Essentially, that means these glaciers—which collectively hold enough ice to boost sea levels by 4 ft (1.2 m)—”have passed the point of no return,” Eric Rignot, a glaciologist with UC-Irvine and NASA and the lead author on the paper, said in a statement. “The retreat of this ice seems to be unstoppable.”

Another new study in the journal Science by researchers at the University of Washington gives us an idea of how long that irreversible decline might take—and the news isn’t good. The researchers estimate that the Thwaites Glacier—one of the six Antarctic glaciers also studied in the NASA paper—could collapse within 200 to 500 years. And the collapse of the Thwaites and its bordering glaciers could lead to the loss of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, like removing the keystone from a bridge.

It’s not news that the ice sheets of Antarctica are melting as the glaciers that border the sea retreat, adding to sea-level rise. (Sea levels only rise when land ice melts into the oceans—the loss of floating ocean ice, like the shrinking Arctic sea ice on the North Pole, makes no difference on sea level.) But both of these new studies provide far more precise data on just what’s happening in Antarctica—and what will likely happen in the future. The NASA/UC-Irvine study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, is based on some 40 years of observation of the glaciers, chiefly using radar data from satellites. The researchers found that the grounding line—the point where the glacier first loses contact with the land as it moves into the sea—is retreating as the flow rate of the glaciers increases. As the grounding line retreats, more of the glacier lifts off the land and floats, becoming an ice shelf. As more of the glacier becomes waterborne, there’s less friction, which in turn speeds the flow of the glacier. At the same time, the glacier beds slope deeper below sea level, which further speeds the glaciers, like a roller coaster going down a hill. “They all reinforce each other to make the retreat unstoppable,” Rignot said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had projected that sea level will rise by about 35.5 in (98 cm) at most by 2100, but that prediction will likely need to be revisited in the wake of these new studies. As the Science study shows, it will likely be a few hundred years before the glaciers along West Antarctica fully collapse and melt into the sea. That does give us plenty of time to figure out a way to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change, which in turn can give us more time to deal with sea level rise.

But these studies are sobering—the warming we have already baked into the climate system seems to have put into motion a physical changes that will utterly remake the planet we live on.

TIME Environment

The World Needs More Clean Coal, or We’re Screwed

Coal plants in China
STR/AFP/Getty Images Coal plants like this one in China produce 40% of the world's electricity

Environmentalists have celebrated the rapid growth of renewable power. But a new International Energy Agency report makes clear that coal is still a major, and growing source of electricity. Unless we spend more time developing carbon-free coal technologies, there's little hope of holding back global temperature increases

The growth of renewable energy has gotten a lot of attention recently — and with good reason.

Buoyed by falling costs, wind and solar PV electricity generation has experienced double-digit growth globally in recent years. In the U.S. alone, demand for solar power increased by 41% in 2013. Altogether there are more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., a number that is growing every day thanks to the work of innovative new retailers like Solarcity. The Department of Energy just gave the go-ahead to three pioneering offshore wind developments along the U.S. East Coast.

All that good news makes it easy assume the world will soon be mostly powered by renewable sources. But as a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) makes clear, the numbers simply don’t back those dreams up. The global increase in coal-fired power generation has been bigger than that of all non-fossil fuel sources combined. And that’s not a recent change — coal has been outpacing non-fossil sources for 20 years, and coal now supplies about 40% of the world’s electricity needs. Six out of ten coal plants built over the past decade use the least efficient combustion technology, which means they emit even more pollution and carbon emissions then they should.

Even as the threat of climate change grows, the world is still using more and more of the dirtiest energy source out there; the World Resources Institute estimates that there are almost 1,200 big new coal plants in 59 countries proposed for construction. Developed countries like the U.S. should be able to reduce coal use rapidly, but most of the growth in electricity demand in the decades to come will be in developing nations—and coal will almost certainly be a big part of it. “Some people don’t want to talk about coal, but it’s the elephant in the room,” says Maria van der Hoeven, the executive director of the IEA. “It is there and it will be there for decades to come.”

Given that reality, you’d think the world would be working hard to make “clean coal” a commercial reality. That would be achieved by carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, in which carbon emissions from fossil fuel sources are captured and then buried in the ground, making coal essentially carbon-free. But CCS has been stalled by technological challenges and high costs. Even though the G8 in 2008 backed an IEA recommendation to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010, a recent Wired cover story on the subject reported that the number of such projects around the world is actually falling, except in China.

That has to change. As the IEA makes clear, growth in electricity demand is outpacing all other uses of energy, as developing nations begin to achieve electrical parity with the developed world. Efficiency will help significantly, but given that there are still 1.2 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, we’re going to need more power. Renewable energy will keep growing as it gets cheaper and cheaper, while smarter grids will allow utilities to manage intermittent sources and reduce waste. The grid of tomorrow won’t look at all like the grid of today — except that it will almost certainly still include coal.

The IEA reports that if the world wants to hold global temperature increase to 3.6 F (2.0 C), the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity must decrease by 90% by 2050. It won’t be cheap; the agency estimates the transition will cost $44 trillion, though that could potentially be largely offset through fuel saving from efficiency. Either way, we almost certainly won’t get there unless we can make coal a carbon-free source of electricity, too.

TIME Environment

Obama’s Energy Announcements Are Nice, But We’ll Need Much More

Obama touts solar power
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Solar power in the U.S. has grown nearly elevenfold under President Obama's watch

The President visits a California Walmart to tout new policies on energy efficiency and solar

The warnings in the National Climate Assessment released earlier this week could not have been louder, predicting intensifying heat, torrential downpours and rising seas. And when President Obama spoke about the report, he was clear as well. “This is not some distant problem of the future,” Obama told The Today Show’s Al Roker on May 7. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

But if climate change is the problem, what’s the solution? Today Obama began to answer that question, announcing several executive actions on renewable energy and energy efficiency at a speech he’ll give later today at a Walmart in Mountain View, California. Those actions include a plan to drive $2 billion in energy efficiency upgrades to Federal buildings over the next three years, using long-term energy savings to pay for up-front costs. The Department of Energy will issue two final energy efficiency conservation standards for industrial products like escalators and walk-in supermarket freezers, as well as tougher new building efficiency standards. Altogether the White House expects that the actions will push private companies to invest an additional $2 billion in energy efficiency, and will cut carbon pollution by more than 380 million metric tons—equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road for a year.

That’s nice—and the President will also announce plans by a number of housing developments to increase their use of solar power—but it’s important to remember that the U.S. alone emits more than 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. These new executive actions are small bore compared to the sheer size of the climate challenge—although they are taking place against the backdrop of rapid growth in the U.S. solar industry, which has increased nearly elevenfold since Obama took office. The selection of a Walmart for today’s announcement—while controversial with labor activists—isn’t accidental. Walmart already gets about a quarter of its electricity from solar, far more than the country as a whole, and the company has been a leader in energy efficiency for some time. Walmart might not be a political ally to President Obama most of the time, but the retail giant is light-years ahead of most of corporate America when it comes to climate change.

But energy efficiency and solar power are comparatively easy climate policies. The real challenge will come when the Environmental Protection Agency issues regulations on the amount of carbon that can be emitted by existing power plants, the single biggest source of greenhouse gases—and the single biggest action Obama can take to answer the climate challenge. Today’s announcement in Mountain View is just a warm-up. The marathon is still ahead.

TIME psychology

In China, Personality Could Come Down to Rice Versus Wheat

Rice farming in China
Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images Chinese from rice-producing regions tend to be more collectivist

Chinese in the north have always been different than their counterparts in the south of the country. Farming could explain why

In the mind of many Americans, China is a monolith of 1.3 billion people, all equally similar to each other and all equally different from the U.S. But Thomas Talhelm knows better. Talhelm first went to China in 2007, working as a high-school English teacher in the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. Observant from the start—he’s now a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia—Talhelm noticed that his students tended to be very conflict averse. But when Talhelm moved after a year to Beijing in China’s north, he noticed a difference. “On one of my first visits to a museum, a curator pointed to my roommate and told him, ‘Your Chinese is good,'” says Talhelm. “But then she pointed to me and said, ‘But your Chinese is much better.'” People in Beijing were much blunter, Talhelm noticed.

He found differences in dialect as well, and the dividing line was the Yangtze River, which divides China’s north and south. Above the Yangtze one word meant “hand,” for instance, while south of the river it meant “arm.” By no means were these regional traits true 100% of the time—there were northerners who were conflict averse and southerners who were outrageously brash. But the differences seemed common enough to Talhelm that they were worth exploring.

As it turns out, the Yangtze doesn’t just divide China between the north and the south—it also marks the rough boundary between the chiefly rice-producing regions below the river and the mainly wheat-producing regions above it. That gave Talhelm an idea. Rice production is extremely labor-intensive, requiring about twice the number of hours from planting to harvest that wheat does. Rice is also mostly grown on irrigated land, which requires communities to build canals and dikes cooperatively, while sharing water. “Rice farming provides an economic incentive to be cooperative,” says Talhelm. By contrast, the only thing wheat farmers need to cooperate with is the rain, which allows them a greater measure of independence.

That is how Talhelm came up with what he calls his “rice theory”: personality differences between China’s north and its south could be explained at least in part by the kind of farming practiced in each region. And in a new paper published in today’s Science, Talhelm puts the rice theory to a successful test. Talhelm and his colleagues conducted psychological studies on 1,162 Chinese college students in the north and in the south, as well as on countries that straddle the borders of the rice-wheat divide. The northern Chinese tested as more individualistic and analytic—similar to Westerners—while southerners were more interdependent, holistic-thinking and more loyal to their friends. (Analytic thinkers prefer to use abstract categories, while holistic thinkers focus on relationships.) “The differences fell along that rice-wheat border,” says Talhelm.

There have been earlier attempts to explain the psychological differences within China. The modernization hypothesis argues that as societies become wealthier and more capitalistic, they become more individualistic and analytic. But that’s not the case in China, or indeed much of East Asia—southern Chinese cities like Guangzhou experienced economic liberalization sooner than northern cities, and are still much richer, yet it’s northerners who remain more independent. The pathogen prevalence theory argues that a high prevalence of communicable disease in some areas makes it more difficult to deal with strangers, which in turn can make a region more insular and collectivistic. Infectious disease tends to be correlated with warmer temperatures, and China’s south is warmer than it’s north—so it’s possible the pathogen prevalence theory could explain China’s psychological differences. But Talhelm’s study found that Chinese students who lived just south or just north of the rice-wheat divide were as different from each other as students from the far south and the far north. And he noted rice-producing Japan scores uniformly high on the collectivist scale, even though the country is cooler and wealthier than most of China.

The rice theory isn’t foolproof. It’s almost certain that none of the young Chinese college students participating in Talhelm’s study have any direct experience with wheat or rice farming, which raises the question of how these psychological values are transmitted. The sheer pace of change in modern China, which has transformed from a closed communist country to a global capitalist powerhouse in a single generation, can make it difficult to be certain of any larger conclusions about the society. And as different as northern and southern Chinese can seem, they’re still more similar to each other on the individualistic/interdependent spectrum than China as a whole is to the West. The real test of the rice theory will come outside Asia—Talhelm plans to look at West Africa next, which has a vibrant rice-growing tradition.

There’s also something slightly uncomfortable about using agricultural practices to stereotype several hundred million people. Surely we’re more than what our ancestors chose to plant in the ground. But Talhelm notes that in China, regional psychological differences are taken for granted. “A Chinese word for ‘northerner’ literally means ‘direct’ or ‘brash,'” he says. “They’ve just never thought it could be due to rice or wheat.”

TIME health

The Medieval Black Death Made You Healthier—If You Survived

Plague killed millions in Europe
Photo by Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images The Black Death killed as much as half of Europe's population

The plague was horrific, could hit without warning and killed tens of millions in 14th century Europe. But paradoxically, the population that survived ended up better off, with higher wages, cleaner living conditions and healthier food

Game of Thrones doesn’t tell you the half of it. Life during the medieval ages was nasty, brutish and short. That was especially true during what became known as the Black Death. The widespread outbreak of plague struck between 1347 and 1351, killing tens of millions of people, resulting in the loss of 30 to 50% of the region’s population. The disease itself was horrific. “In men and women alive,” wrote the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.” And it seemed to strike indiscriminately and without warning. People could be healthy in the morning and dead by evening.

The upside, if you can call it that, is that the plaque left in its wake populations that were healthier and more robust than people who existed before the plague struck, according to a new study published today in PLOS ONE. “The Black Death was a selective killer,” says Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of South Carolina and the author of the paper. “And after the Black Death ended, there was actually an improvement in the standard of living.” The plague was natural selection in action.

In a way, that’s a marker of how brutal the medieval era was. It took a serial killer of a plague to actually bring about an improvement in living conditions. If that sounds counterintuitive, think about how life might have changed after half of Europe’s population died off. Suddenly there was a dramatic drop in the number of able-bodied adults available to do work, which meant survivors could charge more for their labor. At the same time, fewer people meant a decreased demand for foods, goods and housing—and as a result, the prices for all three dropped. By the late 15th century, real wages were three times higher than they were at the beginning of the 14th century, before the plague struck. Diets improved as employers were forced to raise wages and offer extra food and clothing to attract workers. As a result, the money spent per capita on food in the wake of the Black Death actually increased. “People were able to eat more meat and high-quality bread, which in turn would have improved health,” says DeWitte.

But the clearest evidence that people were healthier after the Black Death than they were before it comes in the bodies themselves. DeWitte looked at skeletal samples taken from medieval cemeteries in London both before the plague and after it. She found that post-Black Death samples had a higher proportion of older adults, and that morality risks were generally lower in the post-Black Death population than before the epidemic. In other words, if you were strong and lucky enough to survive one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, you were probably strong enough to live to a relatively ripe old age. And since the Black Death was so widespread, that was true for the surviving population as a whole.

Earlier studies looking at historical documents like diaries, letters and wills from the time period had shown conflicting results, but that kind of data only covers the very small part of the population that was literate, male and relatively well off. The advantage of DeWitte’s grave-combing bioarchaeological research methods is that they encompass a much more representative swath of the medieval population. “This provides information about the people who are missing from historical documents, including women and children,” says DeWitte. Not everyone in medieval London left a will behind—but everyone left a corpse.

So for survivors, life after the Black Death would have been at least a little less nasty, brutish and short than life before it. But that doesn’t mean the survivors were really the lucky ones. The Black Death was a period of unremitting horror and terror, the likes of which we can’t imagine. No one knew how the disease spread, or how to treat it. Popular but gruesome methods like blood-letting or boil-lancing would have been counterproductive at best, assuming victims could find anyone to treat them. Doctors abandoned their patients for fear of infection, and priests even refused to give last rites to the dying—an appalling dereliction given medieval fears of eternal damnation. Even animals like sheep, cows and pigs fell victim to the disease. “The people who survived the Black Death would have lost everyone they knew,” says DeWitte. “They’re the people I feel sorry for.” If the Black Death really was natural selection at work, it was the cruelest form imaginable.

TIME Environment

Carbon Pollution Could Make Your Sandwich Less Healthy

Nutrient levels will fall as CO2 rises
Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg via Getty Images Nutrient levels in crops like wheat could fall as CO2 rises

Add more thing to worry about on climate change: the more CO2 we put in the atmosphere, the fewer nutrients many crops will have

The massive National Climate Assessment (NCA) that came out yesterday was full of sobering lessons about the way that human-caused global warming is changing life around us. That includes human health: the report found that rising temperatures could exacerbate air pollution and allergies, including asthma, while worsening wildfires and killer heat waves. More extreme weather—including frequent heavy downpours—can raise the risk of food and waterborne illness, and allow disease-carrying pests like deer ticks and mosquitoes to expand their range.

Now a new study published today in the journal Nature offers the most direct evidence yet of a significant health threat associated with climate change: less-nutritious crops. Researchers led by Dr. Samuel Myers at the Harvard University School of Public Health looked at how rising levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide will impact staple foods like wheat, maize and soy. They found that as CO2 increases, the levels of vital minerals like zinc and iron will decline. Some 2 billion people around the world already suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies—resulting in a loss of 63 million life years annually. Elevated levels of CO2 will make that malnutrition even worse. “These crops are an important source of dietary zinc and iron for people who are near the nutritional threshold,” says Myers. “From a human health standpoint this could be very important.”

Researchers grew crops at different test sites—some sites had CO2 levels close to the levels we see today while others had levels we’re likely to reach by mid-century if the world keeps burning fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate. Earlier studies have found that elevated levels of CO2 could depress nutrient levels, but they were carried out in greenhouses or closed chambers, which might have skewed results. The experiments Myers and his colleagues drew on used free air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) technology, which allowed the crops—dozens of different types of grains, rice, soybeans and field peas—to be grown with variable levels of CO2 in open fields, as they would in the real world. “These FACE experiments are the gold standard,” says Myers.

Elevated CO2 levels affected different crops in different ways. Zinc, iron and protein concentrations in wheat grown at high CO2 sites fell by 9.3%, 5.1% and 6.3%. Field peas and soybeans also lost zinc and iron as CO2 rose. Maize and sorghum plants, however, showed less sensitivity to changing levels of CO2. And even within a crop like rice, different cultivars or genotypes were more or less resistant to the effects of CO2. Nor is it exactly clear why rising concentrations of CO2—which on the whole help fuel plant growth—might result in lower concentrations of important nutrients, though it’s possible the increased CO2 might be washing out some of those elements.

What do know is that the malnutrition would worsen if the staple crops that the world’s poorest people depend on become less nutritious as CO2 levels rise. One way to adapt to that threat, of course, would be to slow the increase of CO2 emissions, which would also have the useful side effect of slowing disastrous climate change. Farmers can also try to grow varieties of staple crops that have shown more resistance to high CO2 levels, while scientists can begin the work of breeding crops that are more resilient to carbon. Microsupplements of essential nutrients like zinc, which bolsters the immune system, could fill the gap as well. But there’s no getting around the fact that we already struggles to properly feed the 7 billion plus people who live on the planet. Higher CO2 levels and warmer temperatures will just make that task tougher.

For the first time in at least 800,000 years—if not far longer—average carbon concentrations in April stayed above 400 ppm for the entire month. Barring some way of cheaply removing CO2 from the atmosphere, those levels will only go up for the foreseeable future. “We are radically changing the entire global environment,” warns Myers. “We are moving into a set of environmental conditions we haven’t adapted to, and there will be impacts that affect our well being that will be hard to anticipate.” We are entering a new world, even if it is one of our own making. Expect a bumpy ride ahead.

TIME Environment

National Climate Report Is a Study in Extremes

A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on Jan. 28, 2014 in San Jose, California.

The newly released National Climate Assessment grimly shows that warming is already upon us and extreme weather could become the norm

The White House pulled out all the stops for today’s rollout of the new National Climate Assessment (NCA), including making President Obama available to talk to local and national weather people about global warming. The report itself — download the whole 839-page paper here — is an incredibly impressive piece of work, detailing the current impacts and projected effects of global warming in the U.S. across a range of geographic regions and economic sectors. Even better is the government website dedicated to the NCA, which offers fascinating interactive and multimedia tools to help anyone see how climate change will affect their life, their community and their country. The entire document is much easier to understand — and much bolder — than the increasingly antiquated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. If the U.S. were as good at stopping climate change as we are at studying it, we’d have nothing to fear.

But we’re not—and we do. It’s worth exploring the NCA on your own — start with the highlights — but what struck me is this: to understand what climate change has done and will do to the U.S., you need to understand the extremes. There’s something about the very term “global warming” that makes it seem as if climate change is something that will happen gradually and uniformly, like boiling a pot of water. The NCA finds U.S. average temperature are expected to rise 2°F (1.1°C) to 4°F (2.2°C) over the next few decades, which on the face of it can seem easy to adapt to. The difference between an 83°F (28.3°C) and an 87°F (30.6°C) summer day is barely noticeable.

But those averages can hide dramatic changes in extremes. Heat waves have become more frequent across the U.S. in recent decades, with western regions setting records in the 200s, while the number of extreme cold waves has reached the lowest level on record. The number of record low monthly temperatures has declined to the lowest level since 1911, while the number of record high temperature days has increased to the highest level since the 1930s. And that’s expected to worsen — by the end of the century, what would have previously been once-in-20-year extreme hot days are projected to occur every two or three years across much of the country.

That’s true for precipitation as well. On average, precipitation is expected to increase across the country, which makes sense — warmer air can hold more water. But increasingly that rainfall is coming in very heavy precipitation events. (That’s a once-in-20-year day of rainfall.) In the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events is more than 30% above the 1901–60 average. If carbon emissions keep growing, those extreme precipitation events could occur up to five times more often. Even in regions where total precipitation is expected to decrease — like the parched Southwest — what rain that does fall is more likely to fall in heavy events. “It’s not the average changes we’ll notice,” said Jerry Melillo, the chairman of the National Climate Assessment Committee, at the White House event this afternoon. “It’s the extremes.”

That’s because it’s extreme weather that really tests our resilience. A prolonged heat wave leads to a spike in electricity demand as people turn up their air conditioning, which in turn can stress out our vulnerable electrical grid, leading to brownouts and blackouts. Those who don’t have access to cooling—especially the elderly and the poor — are at direct risk for heat-related health conditions. Extreme precipitation events — like the one that struck much of the Southeast last week — can lead to devastating floods, which have been on the increase in the eastern Great Plans, parts of the Midwest and much of New England. The inland floods from Hurricane Irene were devastating for much of the Northeast, destroying farms and infrastructure. Those costs will compound over time as we keep adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The red-carpet rollout of the NCA wasn’t by accident — later this year Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will put forward regulations designed to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. It’s in his interest to make the scientific threat of climate change crystal clear — and the NCA does that. But the science is the easy part. “We all have to come together and turn these words into actions,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan at the White House event. That’s the tough part.

TIME climate change

Obama Administration Releases Major Climate Change Report

Hurricane Sandy
Scott Eells—Bloomberg/Getty Images Superstorm Sandy showed the dangers of climate change

A new report released by the Obama administration details the tough toll of climate change on the U.S. and what may happen if it's not addressed. The findings are especially bad for California and Alaska, which will experience severe drought and melting

The Obama administration released a wide-ranging climate change report on Tuesday, laying out exactly what impact the changing climate is having on the U.S., and what could happen if it isn’t addressed.

The third National Climate Assessment (NCA), a kind of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report focused on the U.S., is the product of years of work by over two hundred climate scientists. A review draft was released last year, but the report has now been signed off by the federal National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee.

The White House will unroll the report’s findings with a PR blitz today, the latest signal that President Barack Obama is placing a fresh emphasis on climate change during his second term in office.

Among the NCA’s findings, four critical conclusions stand out:

1.The Southwest will bake: California’s epic drought has done more than anything else this year to draw attention to the threat of global warming—even if the climate history of the West has shown evidence of decades-long droughts even before humans started pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But climate change will only make it worse—the reports predicts that the entire region, including states like California and Arizona, will get hotter, and the southern half of the region will get much drier, prompting major wildfires. Given that population in the Southwest has been growing rapidly in recent years, warming will only increase the decades-old competition for water in the West.

2.Alaska will melt: The Arctic is the fastest warming part of the world, which is why Alaska—America’s Arctic state—has been heating up more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the country over the past 60 years. That trend will likely continue in the future, which might sound like good news in a place where winters can last for more than six months. But the retreating summer sea ice, shrinking glaciers and melting permafrost will radically change Alaska—and especially Inuit communities that have lived on the land for thousands of years.

3.Coastlines will be in danger: Superstorm Sandy provided a very expensive preview of what happens when a powerful storm and rising sea levels meet over some of the biggest and richest cities in the world. Even if climate change doesn’t end up making Atlantic hurricanes more powerful or more frequent—and the debate is still out on that question—sea levels will continue to rise. That will put the 164 million Americans who live in coastal counties—more than half the country, and growing by 1.2 million a year—at intensified risk from flooding.

4.Agriculture will be resilient… at first: Many farmers should actually be able to adapt relatively well to warming for the next 20 to 25 years, in part because increased CO2 concentrations and longer growing season can benefit some crops. But that won’t last for long—as warming intensifies, the negative impacts for crops and livestocks will begin to outweigh the positive ones, especially in drought-stricken farming regions.

The release of the report comes as the Obama administration begins to renew its commitment to climate change. The White House released its Second National Climate Assessment (NCA) in 2009, only months after the president’s election. The document didn’t get a whole lot of attention, but that didn’t matter much to environmentalists. 2009 was the high-water mark for climate action in Washington. Obama had promised that his election would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow,” and that June, national carbon cap-and-trade legislation had narrowly passed the House of Representatives. The wonky work of the NCA, a Congressionally mandated program that pulls together the latest science on how climate change will impact the U.S., seemed important, but also a bit besides the point. The scientific debate was over—and environmentalists believed the time was ready for the U.S. to finally lead on climate change.

It didn’t work out that way. Cap-and-trade stalled and eventually died in the Senate in 2010, and when Republicans took back the House during midterm elections later that year, hopes for national climate legislation evaporated. While Obama could claim meaningful environmental wins—toughening fuel efficiency standards and channeling billions of dollars to renewable energy—many environmentalists believed he had turned his attention away from one of the most dire threats facing the country and the world.

But beginning with his second inaugural address in January 2013, marked by a promise to “respond to the threat of climate change,” Obama has renewed his focus on global warming. The big showdown will come later this year, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts forward controversial rules that will curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, but this morning provides fresh evidence of the emphasis Obama is now putting on global warming. The release of the Third NCA will be marked by one-on-one Presidential interviews with local and national metereologists—still a trusted source on climate science for many Americans, even if they shouldn’t always be—and the presence of top White House officials at the rollout later this afternoon. The NCA is no longer a sideshow—to a White House searching for a climate win, it’s the main event.

 

TIME health

MERS Shows That The Next Pandemic Is Only a Plane Flight Away

SARS ravaged Hong Kong in 2003
Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images A single patient seeded Hong Kong's SARS outbreak in 2003

On Feb. 21, 2003, a 64-year-old Chinese physician named Dr. Liu Jianlun traveled to Hong Kong to attend a wedding. He stayed in room 911 on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel. Liu, who had been treating cases of a mysterious respiratory disease in the neighboring Chinese province of Guangdong, was already sick when he arrived in Hong Kong, and the next day he checked into the city’s Kwong Wah hospital. Liu died on Mar. 4 of the disease doctors soon named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. But before he died, he inadvertently infected at least 16 people who spent time on the ninth floor of that Hotel.

Some of those people boarded international flights before they knew they were sick, seeding new outbreaks in places like Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore. SARS had been confined to southern China for months, but once Liu checked into the Metropole Hotel, it was only a matter of time before the first new infectious disease of the 21st century went global. Before it was stamped out months later, SARS had infected 8,273 people, killing 775 people in 37 countries.

It’s that chain of events that must have been on American officials’ minds last week when news broke that the U.S. had its first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). A male health care provider had been in Saudi Arabia, the epicenter for the ongoing MERS outbreaks, before flying to Chicago via London on Apr. 24. After arriving in Chicago, he took a bus to the Indiana town of Munster, where on Apr. 28 he was admitted to the hospital and was eventually diagnosed with MERS. A deadly respiratory disease that has already infected hundreds, almost all in Saudi Arabia, and killed over 100 people had come to the U.S.

CDC officials played down the larger threat of the first U.S. MERS case. “In this interconnected world we live in, we expected MERS to make its way to the U.S.,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on May 2. “We have been preparing for this.” CDC officials will contact and track individuals who might have been close to the patient — including health workers who treated him and fellow travelers on his international flights and his bus ride to Munster — just in case any developed MERS symptoms. That’s not likely. So far MERS hasn’t shown much ability to spread easily from person to person, so the threat to the larger U.S. public is probably very small.

But if that Indiana case remains isolated — and MERS itself never becomes the global health threat that SARS was — it only means we were lucky.

As Schuchat put it, exotic, emerging diseases are now “just a plane’s ride away.” In the past, before international air travel became common, emerging pathogens could begin infecting people but remain geographically isolated for decades. Scientists now think that HIV was active among people in Central Africa for decades before it really began spreading globally in the 1970s, again thanks largely to international air travel. Today there’s almost no spot on the planet — from the rainforests of Cameroon to the hinterland of China — so remote that someone couldn’t make it to a heavily populated city like New York or Hong Kong in less than 24 hours, potentially carrying a new infectious disease with them.

The surest way to prevent the spread of new infectious disease would be to shut down international travel and trade, which is obviously not going to happen. The occasional pandemic might simply be one of the prices we pay for a globalized world. But we can do much more to try to detect and snuff out new pathogens before they endanger the health of the planet.

Because most new diseases emerge in animals before jumping to human beings (the virus that causes MERS seems to infect humans mostly via camel, though bats may be the original source), we need to police the porous boundary between animal health and human health. That work is being done by groups like Global Viral (whose founder I profiled in November 2011) is creating an early warning system capable of forecasting and containing new pathogens before they fuel pandemics. But as the stubborn spread of MERS shows, that’s easier said than done — especially if diseases emerge in countries that have less than open political systems.

Because as it turns out, the driving factor behind the spread of new diseases isn’t just globalization. It’s also political denial. SARS was able to spread beyond China’s borders in part because the Chinese government initially covered up the outbreaks — at one point even driving SARS patients around Beijing in ambulances to hide them from an international health team. Meanwhile, the autocratic Saudi government has made life difficult for researchers studying MERS. Much the same thing happened when the avian flu virus H5N1 began spreading in Southeast Asia in 2004. In every case, a rapid and public response might have contained those viruses before they threatened the rest of the world.

Eleven years later Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel is now called the Metropark, and Liu Jianlun’s infamous room 911 doesn’t exist any more. After SARS, hotel management changed the number to 913 in an attempt to scrub out the past. Denial is always so tempting. But in an interconnected world, where the travel plans of a single person can seed deadly outbreaks a continent away, it’s no longer an option.

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