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Andrew Revkin

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Join Andrew Revkin, professor, author, and creator of the New York Times Dot Earth blog on climate change and sustainable living, to explore contemporary trends in collaborative communication and design and how they can be used to shape a sustainable human journey. How can nurturing the 'knowosphere' increase public awareness of an increasingly human-dominated planet and foster constructive discussion and action?

China’s Going to Cap Its Carbon Emissions (Updated: Maybe One Day)

Smithsonian Magazine

Update: Over at the New York Times, reporter Andrew Revkin notes that the statement by He Jiankun—the source of the news about the carbon cap—was a matter of opinion and not the official position of the Chinese government. "It’s not the case that the Chinese government has made any decision," He told another reporter at the Times. "Other, more recent news coverage has reflected that this isn’t China’s position, although many experts in Beijing (including at the meeting I’m participating in) foresee an eventual cap and a peak in China’s emissions sometime after 2030," writes Revkin.

Stopping the flow of carbon dioxide into the air really is a global problem. Every source of carbon emissions, from a cook stove in Kenya to a coal plant in Estonia, is contributing to global climate change, ocean acidification and a host of other environmental issues. But some countries' contributions are just plain bigger than others.

With 1.35 billion people and a rapidly developing economy, China is the world's largest carbon emitter, accounting for as much as 29 percent of global emissions. No attempts to mitigate against climate change will work unless China is on board.

For Reuters, Kathy Chen and Stian Reklev report today—just one day after the Obama administration announced its own plan to limit carbon emissions—that China is looking to take a big step toward tackling its share of the carbon problem.

In 2016, the Reuters reporters say, China is going to set an “absolute cap” on its carbon emissions, effectively freezing its contribution to climate change at some as-of-yet unknown level. This promise comes on the tail of a rapid ascent in the country's carbon emissions—a burst that made China the world's top carbon emitter just a few years ago.

(original image)

Though China is the top carbon polluter in the world, its per capita emissions aren't actually all that high. At 6.2 metric tons per capita, China is much cleaner than the U.S. on a per person basis. In the U.S., emissions are around 17.6 metric tons per person—2.8 times higher.

How much of an effect China's proposed plan will have is not clear, as the details have yet to be laid out.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's own plan, released yesterday, would reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent of 2005 emissions levels within the next 16 years. China and America together represent 45 percent of global carbon emissions—with the two powers on board working to freeze or reduce their emissions, we may just yet have a shot of stalling global climate change.

That Weird Siberian Hole Has a Twin

Smithsonian Magazine

The discovery last week of a weird hole in northern Siberia—a big, sheer pit in the Yamal Peninsula, a place whose name translates to the "end of the earth"—was a true spark for the imagination.

Among the more interesting theories pitched for the hole's origin, says Gizmodo were: "Meteors, giant worm from hell coming out of its lair, and drilling UFOs." A second strange pit discovered just 18 miles away, then, should come to the conspiracy theorists' delight. 

The true cause of the hole is not so strange, and not nearly so dangerous as hell beasts and hostile aliens. Yet the pits are a sign of the things to come, as human activity and natural forces change the face of the Earth—sometimes right under our feet. 

We can blame the weird pits on melting permafrost, and on the fact that the ground in the Yamal Peninsula is packed with natural gas says Marina Liebman, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Earth Cryosphere Institute, in an interview with the New York Times' Andrew Revkin

In the Siberian Times, Anna Kurchatova from the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre explains how it works:

Global warming, causing an 'alarming' melt in the under soil ice, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne bottle cork.

The ground in Siberia is frozen solid. The end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago and the more recent effects of anthropogenic warming mean that some of that permafrost is thawing out

"It’s as if the Earth is celebrating," quips Slate. "Soon, no more humans!"

Nature seems to be doing a lot of this "no more humans" dancing. In April, National Geographic reported that melting permafrost is making "drunken trees" in Alaska:

"Because permafrost melts, it causes a lot of erosion," says James, who lives in Arctic Village, a small Native American village in northeastern Alaska. "A lot of trees can't stand up straight. If the erosion gets worse, everything goes with it."

Its not all cute antics. Permafrost melting also wrecks havoc to infrastructure—it "cracks pavement, breaks pipelines, and opens holes," says National Geographic—and reportedly even causes slumps in the ground large enough to swallow a house. (In a way, climate change is kind of like a slow moving hell beast. But just think how easy it would be to get everyone on board with "defeat the hell beast!" research.)

In Canada, ClimateWire explains, melting permafrost is putting ponds of oil-sands mining waste at risk of seepage. It's also quickly releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mimicking the effect of industrial pollution. 

We're in for more of this leaky, hole-y, drunken world. Per National Geographic: "Some climate models have predicted that most permafrost could melt by the end of the century."

What Will Make the Paris Climate Talks a Success?

Smithsonian Magazine

­This week, leaders from more than 190 countries have gathered in Paris to discuss ways to curb human-driven global warming before temperatures reach a dangerous tipping point. Called COP21, the two-week event is the 21st annual Conference of the Parties, a United Nations summit established in the 1990s with the goal of reaching international consensus on a plan to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions.

It sounds straightforward, and the scientific evidence for climate change and its effects is overwhelming. But considering that this is the 21st attempt at drafting a plan, it's clear that the negotiations can get complex and that reaching consensus will be a challenge.

So what has happened with these climate talks so far, and what will be different in Paris?

To get the download on COP21, Generation Anthropocene talked with Stanford researcher Aaron Strong, who studies climate policy and has attended some of the past U.N. meetings. Strong points out that many countries did adopt the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997. That agreement bound all signing members to reduce emissions to an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels. But the protocol had a stipulation that put most of the burden on developed nations, and that proved problematic.

"A few months before we went to Kyoto at the end of 1997, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 95 to 0 ... that was a simple statement that said [that] we will not ratify anything that doesn’t include binding commitments from China and India and other major developing countries. We just won’t do it. Period," says Strong. That means Congress, for one, never ratified the Kyoto treaty.

This sparring between developed countries and developing nations has continued to be a sticking point, according to New York Times reporter Andy Revkin. After all, richer countries got rich over decades of unregulated fossil fuel use, while poorer nations are now being asked to forgo relatively cheap sources of energy in favor of greener technologies.

And while this debate has raged, some of those developing countries have seen economic booms that have increased their emissions.

"Some of the tension now is coming because there are countries that still call themselves developing countries ... and the United States and Europe are saying, Hey you guys—China, couple other countries—you’re no longer among the poor and struggling nations of the world, you need to do more,” Revkin told Generation Anthropocene.

For the Paris talks, the COP nations are trying a new approach, one that asks each country to pledge to what it believes is the most realistic course of action for its unique needs. In theory, each pledge can then be stitched together into a "bottom up" global agreement. With this plan in motion, what are the odds of success in Paris? Listen to the full interview above to find out.

Here’s What Would Happen if All the World’s Fossil Fuels Burned Up at the Same Time

Smithsonian Magazine

If you’re worried about climate change, you’ve probably envisioned a world in which the world’s ice sheets slowly fade as humans exhaust Earth’s remaining reserves of fossil fuels. But what would happen if all of those fuels burned up at the same time?

That’s the question asked by a group of scientists eager to explore the absolute worst-case scenario, reports Reuters’ Alister Doyle. And the results wouldn’t be pretty, Doyle writes: If all of the world’s fossil fuel reserves were burned in a single go, humans could expect sea levels to rise by over 160 feet and the ice sheet that covers Antarctica would disappear.

The study used a model of how ice sheets flow and move to determine what would happen with an input of 10,000 gigatons of carbon. “The currently attainable carbon fuel resources are sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet,” writes the paper’s authors — but they warn that it would actually take “much lower amounts of cumulative emission” to threaten large parts of the sheet.

Though it would take millennia to destroy the entire ice sheet for good, the paper notes that burning all of Earth’s fossil fuels now could result in a 100-foot rise in sea level within the next 1,000 years beginning in about a century.

Doyle, who notes that a catastrophic thaw would also do away with Greenland’s ice sheet, writes that the results would “inundate cities from New York to Shanghai and change maps of the world with much of the Netherlands, Bangladesh or Florida under water.”

It’s a simple equation, writes Andrew C. Revkin for The New York Times: “Burn it all…lose it all.” Revkin writes that though the study is more thought experiment than actual prediction, it’s a sobering reminder of the long-term consequences of humans’ short-term decisions.

The question of whether Earth’s current fossil fuels could melt the entire ice sheet has plagued the study’s authors for years, writes The Washington Post’s Chelsea Harvey. Co-author Ken Caldeira tells Harvey that “It was a great pleasure to finally get to address this question” — even if the answer is sobering indeed.

Are We Living in the Plastic Age?

Smithsonian Magazine

For centuries, historians and archaeologists have defined periods of human history by the technologies or materials that made the greatest impact on society—like the Stone Age, Bronze Age, or Iron Age. But what age are we in now? For some researchers, according to Atlas Obscura's Cara Giamo, that question can be answered with one word: plastics.

The idea of named ages is not to be confused with geologic subdivisions of time like the Holocene or the proposed Anthropocene—a period resulting from massive human impact on the planet. This most recent geologic epoch is not yet official, but there have been many calls for its designation. A recent study argued that the Anthropocene began during the mid-20th century with the detonation of the first nuclear bombs, writes Ker Than for Smithsonian.com.

The last geologic epoch, the Holocene, is thought to encompass both the Bronze and Iron Ages. But we do not yet have a tool or material to define our current age. Scientists point to a few specifics changes that humans have wrought on the planet, including nuclear fallout and the rapid spread of materials like aluminum, concrete, and silicon as forensic proofs of humanity’s influence on Earth. 

But according to archaeologist John Marston, plastic "has redefined our material culture and the artifacts we leave behind," and "will be found in stratified layers in our trash deposits," Giamo reports.

There is no place on Earth that plastics are naturally made, and the wide variety of synthetic polymers would not exist if it weren't for human action. Since the first plastic polymers were invented, about six billion tons of plastics have been made and spread around the planet, from forests to oceans. Along with the first nuclear detonations in 1945, plastics are one of the most significant changes that humans have made to the Earth’s makeup, Andrew C. Revkin reports for the New York Times

To add to the problem, most plastics don't easily degrade, and recycling isn't an adequate solution. Not all types of plastic are easily recyclable, and there are only a few recycling plants in the United States that can process all varieties of plastic.

This means that much of the materials thrown into recycling bins can crisscross the planet several times before they are processed to produce rugs, sweaters, or other bottles, Debra Winter writes for The Atlantic. Although millions of tons of plastic are recycled every year, millions more end up in landfills or the ocean. The problem has reached the point where it's possible that in just a few decades there might be more plastic in the world's oceans than fish.

"With a presumed life span of over 500 years, it’s safe to say that every plastic bottle you have used exists somewhere on this planet, in some form or another," Winter writes. 

Even if human populations worldwide change their plastic-using ways, the damage may already be done. With plastics filling landfills and washing up on coastlines around the world, the Plastic Age might soon take its place next to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in the history of human civilization.

Maybe the World's Loneliest Whale Isn't So Isolated, After All

Smithsonian Magazine

The strange song was first heard in 1989, by a classified array of sensors—hydrophones spread across the floor of the Puget Sound by the Navy. They were originally supposed to pick up the rumble of Soviet subs, but when the array was partially declassified, researchers began to use it to listen to the noises of the ocean, a place that is anything but silent. On December 7, 1992, a technician noted a noise that appeared to be the song of a whale. But, strangely, it was coming in at a frequency of 52 hertz. Leslie Jamison writes in "52 Blue" from the Atavist (excerpted by Slate):

For a blue whale, which is what this one seemed to be, a frequency of 52 hertz was basically off the charts. Blue whales usually come in somewhere between 15 and 20—on the periphery of what the human ear can hear, an almost imperceptible rumble. But here it was, right in front of them, the audio signature of a creature moving through Pacific waters with a singularly high-pitched song.

The odd pitch attracted the attention of researchers, media and the public—all of whom almost immediately latched on to the story of this whale, dubbed the 52 hertz whale or 52 blue. Andrew Revkin from the New York Times spoke to Kate Stafford, a researcher at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle who was listening to the whale’s sound:

"The fact that this individual has been capable of existing in that harsh environment for at least these 12 years indicates there is nothing wrong with it," she said. But she agreed that there was something poignant about the finding.

"He's saying, 'Hey I'm out here,' " she said. "Well, nobody is phoning home."

Here’s 52’s sound, sped up to be more audible:

Many regard this whale as the loneliest in the world. There’s even a Kickstarter campaign built around finding the Lonely Whale. (Though we have many recordings, no one has yet found the creature. Sound carries far in the ocean.)

Bill Watkins, a marine mammal researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution poured over 12 years worth of recordings and concluded that the whale was certainly unique. But some researchers question the narrative that the whale is lonely. 

For BBC Nature, Chris Baranuik writes:

One critic is Christopher Willes Clark of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He made recordings of the 52Hz whale in 1993 and says it's not quite as anomalous as it might seem.

Many types of idiosyncratic whale calls have been detected, and some studies suggest that groups of whales living in particular regions have dialects. When you consider that, the 52Hz whale is "not completely mind-bogglingly unique," he says.

Furthermore, Clark and others reject the idea held by some that the 52Hz whale cannot be heard or understood by "normal" blue whales that make lower-frequency calls. "The animal's singing with a lot of the same features of a typical blue whale song," he says. "Blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales: all these whales can hear this guy, they're not deaf. He's just odd."

Though many refer to the whale as "he," we still don’t know the whale’s gender or even species. The mystery whale may be a hybrid between two different species, though the pattern of behavior seems to indicate a blue. "It had the exact same seasonality as blue whales and if you look at the migratory patterns that Bill and his colleagues found, it's the same thing," Kate Stafford told BBC. "So I feel pretty confident that at least part of this animal is a blue whale."

The song may even be sung by more than one whale. In 2010, Baranuik reports, sensor off the coast of California picked up calls that appear to follow the pattern found by Wilkins but showed up on widely separated sensors. John Hildebrand of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography notes that this means multiple animals could be singing. 

Only a concentrated search will identify the singer of the 52 hertz song—whether it is one lonely individual or a group of hybrids. In the meantime, the rest of us will wait and listen.