12/14/2018

Three Years Later, Checking In On The Paris Accord

6:17 minutes

The Rub´ al-Khali desert on the Arabian peninsula is one of the driest places on the earth. But when Tropical Cyclone Mekunu passed over the region in May 2018, rainwater pooled in the lowlands between the sand dunes, something that hadn’t happened for about 20 years. Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory

Three years ago, the world’s countries came together in Paris to set standards for reducing global carbon emissions. Today, those same countries are meeting again in Katowice, Poland to discuss how to measure and verify whether countries are making any progress towards meeting those goals. But world leaders are facing even bigger hurdles today than they did three years ago. The negotiations are complicated by the fact that one of the world’s largest emitters, the United States, wants out of the accord. Even more significant, all the countries failed to agree to adopt the U.N.-commissioned IPCC report on limiting warming to 1.5 C.

Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, joins Ira to discuss what these developments mean for the future of the Paris Climate Agreement. Plus, he brings us a report card from the ends of the earth, and talks about what melting ice and pink penguin poop can tell us about the state of climate change at the poles.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll be talking about cancer immunotherapy. But first, a few months back, the UN published a report put together by an international group of scientists explaining what it would take to limit global warming to 1 and 1/2 degrees Celsius. 

But this week, this same group of UN leaders that commissioned that report chose not to adopt it but rather say they acknowledge or welcome appreciate it– insert the euphemistic diplomatic word of your choice. Here to tell us more about that story, as well as other short subjects in science, is Umair Irfan, staff writer with Vox. Welcome to “Science Friday.” Welcome back. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: So what does it mean that the UN is still arguing over this IPCC report? 

UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, it shows just how strong the implications of this report are. Remember one of the big findings was that 2 degrees Celsius of warming is no picnic, and 1.5 degrees is still a better target. And so a lot of countries are worried that if they commit to this report, they’re essentially locking themselves into an actually more aggressive greenhouse gas target. That was the substance of the US State Department’s objection to it. They said that they were worried that if they said that they welcomed the report, that would count as a commitment and then there would be a legal obligation to have a more stringent target. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm, so there were a lot of countries then, not just a few? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, it was basically just a few that made that big objection. It was the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait that objected to the word “welcome,” and they wanted it replaced with “note.” Now a draft of the report was released this morning, and I think the compromise they really agreed to was essentially that they would appreciate the findings of these scientists. So that kind of checks all the boxes and keeps everybody a little bit happy so they can let the discussions go on. 

IRA FLATOW: Umair, you have to be a diplomatic reporter now to study science. Yeah, while that was going on, scientists issued their annual Arctic Report Card at the annual AGU meeting this week and that was sort of a blockbuster, wasn’t it? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, and if you’re the Arctic’s parents, you’d probably be very disappointed in that report card. Essentially, what they found was that we’re experiencing warmth, unlike anything we’ve seen on record. Last year’s report cards show that the Arctic was losing ice at its fastest rate in 1,500 years. This year’s report card looked at some of the ecological consequences of that. 

So they found that the newer, more ice-free Arctic is allowing algae to bloom. That can spread toxins that cause paralysis. Alaska has seen an increase seven-fold of shellfish poisoning over the past 40 years. 

Similarly, Arctic species like reindeer, caribou– they’ve seen massive declines upward of half over the past 20 years. Some herds have declined by as much as 90%. Now those species– they do vary a good amount year to year. But ecologists are worried that they’re reaching such low levels they might not recover. 

IRA FLATOW: And they’re also seeing melting at a rate they never thought would be happening. 

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right and they’re seeing so little ice in the summer that they’re saying that we might see a summer ice-free Arctic in the very near future. 

IRA FLATOW: And on the other side of the world, scientists say they’ve been studying the health of the Antarctic with the help of some penguins, I understand. 

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. These are Adelie penguins, and they love this tiny crustacean called krill. And they eat so much of it that it actually turns their guano– their feces– bright pink, which actually forms a very nice contrast with the ice around it. Scientists have found out that they can track these skid marks from space using satellites. And these penguins are actually kind of neat because they live on ice, but they have to breed on exposed rock. 

So as they watch where these penguins leave their mark, scientists can track the movement of ice. And they’ve also used this method to actually sea to identify new colonies of these penguins in other parts of the Arctic. 

IRA FLATOW: Is that true? You can see pink from space? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Pinkish brown. 

IRA FLATOW: Pinkish brown? 

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right– yeah. And the color actually matters too because they can actually see how much krill these penguins are eating. They’re competing now with commercial fisheries that are actually harvesting the krill for fish oil. And so they can make sure that the penguins are actually getting enough to eat by looking at the shade of the guano they leave behind. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. OK, leaving planet Earth now– some exciting updates about a couple of space missions. Let’s first talk about the new Mars Insight Lander. It’s already sending back amazing data from the red planet, including sound, which we have a little cut of. That is the first wind recording of wind sent back from another world, isn’t it, Umair? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s not actually from a microphone. It’s from a device called a seismometer. This is what’s on the NASA Insight probe that they’re using to study Mars as geology, and it’s a device that they want to use to measure Marsquakes. But as they were calibrating and testing the instrument out, they figured out that they could actually detect some of the movements of air, and they estimate about a 15 mile an hour breeze was blowing over the probe’s solar panels. 

And what you hear is actually sort of a pitched up version of that. The noise it actually makes is very low frequency. And it’s hard to hear, but it definitely is making a sound. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that does bring it home, doesn’t it? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: And then finally, my favorite interplanetary explorer, Voyager 2, has reached another milestone this week. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, it is now the second human-made craft ever to reach interstellar space. It’s essentially escaped the bubble of the sun’s particles and is now being bombarded with high energy cosmic rays. It’s about 11 billion miles away from Earth, and it’s still sending us data. 

IRA FLATOW: Its sister ship, Voyager 1, went there first– got out first? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, Voyager 1 was actually launched after Voyager 2, but it was sent on a more sharp or narrower trajectory. And one of the key instruments on it that would detect this has failed, and so it’s not really doing as much for us scientifically. 

IRA FLATOW: And it’s amazing. And I think the transmitter on that thing is about eight watts– something like that? It’s just fantastic. They’ve had to become better at hearing the transmissions because it puts out so little. 

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right, and it’s now NASA’s longest-running scientific exploration. 

IRA FLATOW: Fascinating– we hope it keeps going– both of them. Thank you, Umair. 

UMAIR IRFAN: You bet. 

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is a staff writer with Vox.

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