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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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New Orleans – How Will Rebuilding Play Out?

Newsweek’s Fineman wrote about the need for Recovery money to be directed at places like New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.  It brought back to mind another National Geographic article about New Orleans.  It was in the August 2007 issue and detailed some updates since the landfall of Hurricane Katrina nearly two years prior.

On some level, I agree with Mr. Fineman.  New Orleans could be rebuilt.  It’s the how that I’m concerned with.  People have removed the ability of the Mississippi River to maintain the wetlands that in previous decades protected the city of New Orleans from the worst of storm surges.  Many square miles of wetland succumb to the waters of the Gulf every day, making the next storm to hit the area more of a danger than it otherwise would be.  The land under the city is sinking because it was drained.  Sea levels are rising because of our impact on the climate system.  Here is a decent map indicating what a 3-foot (1m) sea-level rise would do to the New Orleans area.  Keep in mind that the 2007 IPCC report considered a 1m sea-level rise by 2100 to be realistic under current emission rates.  More recent research has revealed that a 1m sea-level rise will likely occur much sooner than 2100 unless serious action is taken soon.  New Orleans has been threatened by tropical storms for a long time.  That threat is increasing.

Which should mean that efforts to protect the city’s infrastructure and citizens should also be increasing.  Unfortunately, as the National Geographic article detailed, that’s not happening.  The Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding levees to their prior rating.  Those levees couldn’t protect the city from a strong Category 2 storm (at time of landfall) because of shoddy engineering an an unfortunate approach angle.  Things to consider include: the storm could have been stronger and the approach angle could have been more direct.  Rebuilding the cities’ defenses to prior criteria that failed therefore isn’t a good idea.

Therefore, if we’re to continue the rebuilding of city defenses and personal property, it makes sense to ensure higher standards are set.  The levees, gates and pumps should be built to withstand a much stronger hurricane.  Any complaints of cost need only look to the cost of rebuilding billions of dollars of private and public property throughout the city.  Houses need to be built several feet above the ground.  The Mississippi River needs to be less controlled.  The wetlands surrounding the city need to be encouraged to grow and not shrink.  All of these efforts need to arise from solid, scientific recommendations.  Further, they need to be put under strict oversight and accountability.  Otherwise, any and every effort currently being spent to rebuild the city will be wasted.

Another storm will impact the area.  A city that has lost 30% of its pre-Katrina population can ill-afford to lose even more due to negligence and a reluctance to improve on yesterday’s habits.


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New Solar and Wind Energy Infrastructure

I’m sure there are more stories out there than just the two I’m going to profile here.  These happened to catch my eye and I wanted to pass along the news.

A new series of concentrated solar thermal power farms are being planned in southern California.  If the plan goes through, 1300MW of electricity will be produced.  Put another way, 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year will be generated by the series of plants.  That’s enough to power 845,000 homes (according to the article, that’s more homes than are in San Francisco!).  Solar thermal power concentrates the sun’s rays to create steam in a boiler and spin a turbine.  It gets at part of the original problems with solar energy: the lack of capacity to store energy for later use.  Constructed properly, solar thermal plants should be able to store energy in the form of heat for hours after the sun has set.  Current technologies allow for heat to be used four to six hours after collection.  With additional research, power collected during the day should be able to be stored and used throughout the night.  That will help keep electricity rates down for consumers.  It won’t be subject to the kind of excessive speculation that plagued the oil and natural gas markets last year, for instance.

Another challenge facing renewable energy utilization is the best areas to collect the power are typically far away from the areas that want the power.  To deal with that, new transmission lines will have to be built across the country.  Those lines will need to carry power generated from solar plants (like the ones described above) as well as power from wind plants.  A new wind power transmission plan seeks to address the latter.  Excellent wind resources exist in the northern Plains of the U.S.  Major users nearby include the Chicago area in Illinois.  The new plan would seek to deliver 12,000MW of wind energy from the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa to Chicago.  How much power is 12,000MW?  Well, it’s almost 10x as big as the CSP plants being planned for California, which means it could power about 8 million homes.  It would cost $10 to $12 billion to build the transmission lines.  Sound like a lot of money?  It could be described that way.  Let me add some additional context:

But in fact the study found that “increasing wind’s share to 20 percent of U.S. power production would yield annual net savings of $12 billion annually by 2024 based on wind’s low production cost compared to the fossil plants the turbines would replace.

So it would not only be good for the planet (by reducing future GHG emissions), but it would be cheaper to operate than our current fossil-fuel burning approach?  That’s a win-win.


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NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Crashes During Launch

I was excited the other day to hear that NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory was set for launch today.  It was designed to map carbon sources and sinks over a period of time (the carbon cycle) to assist climate scientists’ efforts to ascertain the state of our climate.  Most unfortunately, the satellite failed to reach orbit this morning after a shroud failed to separate during ascent.  Likely weighing too much, the satellite came back to Earth near Antarctica.

NASA will of course investigate the data from launch in an attempt to determine cause.  It’s too early to tell what future plans regarding similar efforts might be.  To my knowledge, I don’t think NASA or climate researchers have an operating satellite that can do what OCO was designed for.  It took eight years to plan and build this satellite, so any future replacement wouldn’t be ready for quite some time.


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Weekend News Roundup: 2/20-21/09

I was disappointed to read that President Obama has taken NAFTA renegotiation of the table.  American workers are suffering because of failed “free-trade” policies.  If he wants high employment and a strong economy, protecting our workers is a primary way to get there.  This is a result of the people Obama has put into power.

Congratulations go to formor President Bush for allowing Iran to become another nuclear state.  It joins North Korea as a country that can threaten our allies for years to come, just as the War industry wanted.

Hexcel Corporation broke ground on a 100,000-sq-ft facility in north-eastern Colorado that will manufacture epoxy-resin components for wind blades.  They moved here because Vestas manufactures those wind blades at an adjacent location.  While the gas and oil industry cuts jobs in Colorado due to lack of demand for their products, the wind and solar industry enjoys new businesses and new jobs.

Another 627,000 jobs were lost in the Economy Bush Built.  Net job losses could total 700,000 for February.  Good thing corporate profits were setting records as late as last year.  I’d hate to think the economy was bad or something.

About one in four people with a mortgage owe more than their homes are worth.  One of Obama’s solutions is to force lenders to re-negotiate mortgage terms.  The lending industry, who got us into this mess in the first place, is objecting to the plan.  As usual, they’re also not proposing any kind of solution.  Doing nothing will all but destroy our economy.

David Harsanyi continues his crusade against America with his op-ed this week.  He claims taxes, extreme government spending and wealth redistribution are patriotic in an attempt to slam President Obama’s recovery plans.  In Con Fantasy Land, it seems tax reductions are now called tax increases.  Similarly, the past 8 years of keeping occupations off the budget and creating the largest government program in 30 years (that doesn’t work with its peers) went by uncommented since it was a Con “president” who proposed the “extreme government spending”.  Last but not least, Harsanyi’s characterization of wealth redistribution comes across as pathetic after we’ve seen the effects of Bush’s “tax cuts”.  Americans were sure glad to get one two grand back (the first year only) they were passed weren’t they?  Oh, except for the richest 1%.  They’re keeping hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year thanks to Bush’s tax cuts.  Wealth redistribution indeed.  And what’s up with this:

Yes, the same Freddie and Fannie — once implicitly guaranteed by government and now explicitly run by government — that helped, through social engineering, to push us into recession.

I wish the rest of us had figured out what the great sage Harsanyi did – Fannie and Freddie (with Cons leading them right up through the beginning of this horrible recession) were so unbelievably powerful.  Cons love their conspiracy theories.  I learned an important lesson during the Bush years.  When a Con says something, the reality is exactly opposite.

Breckenridge ski resort may not be allowed to expand onto Peak 6.  At issue is a lynx recovery plan.  It’s nice to see more honest consideration of all factors with something like this.

A Colorado constitutional rewrite is being seriously considered by more and more people.  State spending is affected by numerous, conflicting amendments.  Colorado can either lose out on education, health care and prisons or a group of adults (hopefully) can come together and implement realistic solutions.  If a Constitutional Convention is called, one potential flaw is they can rewrite any part of the Constitution they want.  It would be nice if people who were convinced government can’t operate weren’t put in charge of that government.  It simply makes no sense.

The Colorado House Agriculture Committee killed a proposal to limit the involvement of the Division of Wildlife in issuing oil and gas drilling permits.  The CDoW became involved in the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission only after a Democratic Governor was elected.  Not surprisingly, this pro-business article ony quoted a proponent of the bill.  Unlike climate change articles, where the denyers’ point-of-view in nearly sacrosant, opponents of HB-1255 didn’t get their comments published.

On a positive note for science, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory is scheduled to launch Tuesday.  The polar-orbiting satellite will measure oxygen-to-carbon ratios to indicate where carbon sources and sinks are at.  My fear is that carbon sources will be found to be larger and more prevalent than carbon sinks.  There are already indications that the warming oceans are soaking up less carbon every year, allowing the atmosphere and oceans to warm up even further.


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Climate Change News: NYC’s Steps & Alaskan Erosion

New York City can’t afford to pooh-pooh climate change.  How much infrastructure is within a few feet elevation of sea level?  How much is that infrastructure worth?  Billions?  Trillions?  Recognizing this, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg requested a report from the NYC Panel on Climate Change to provide one of the first detailed examinations into how a specific location could be affected by a climate system being forced by people.  The report that came back identified some interesting items.  It was based on the 2007 IPCC Report (more on this in a moment).  Thankfully, Bloomberg knows that waiting is not an option for a metropolitan area.  There are too many things to take care of and the timeline before they’re affected is moving up.  The time for action is now when options can be discussed and fleshed out, prior to the time when events move to crisis level.  Another point to be made is that at this time, few municipalities are seriously studying the potential risks involved with climate change.  As New York begins to grapple with the situation, lessons in improving and moving infrastructure will be learned.  Other places will be able to benefit from those lessons.  After all, it will take billions of dollars and years of effort to fortify our infrastructure from rising seas and stronger storm systems.  The sooner we start, the cheaper it will end up being.

Some of the reports’ findings:

The report predicts average annual temperatures will increase by 4 to 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit and extreme events such as heat waves, intense rain, droughts and coastal flooding will become more frequent and more intense.

Coastal floods that are now expected occur once every 10 years could occur once every three years and floods that occur once in a century could begin to occur once in every 15 to 35 years, the report said.

According to the U.N. panel, global temperatures are likely to rise by between 2 and 11.5 degrees F and sea levels by between 7 inches and 23 inches this century.

I will once again point out that at the time of the 2007 IPCC Report, lots of good information was used.  Unfortunately, many signals from the climate system since then have indicated that climate change is occurring faster than even the most pessimistic model used for the IPCC Report.  The predictions made by the report to policy makers were out-of-date right after their initial issuance.  That’s not indicative of anything wrong with the process.  It is indicative that policy makers need to view the IPCC recommendations through the correct lens.  Those recommendations should operate as a baseline or floor, not as a ceiling.  Policy makers need to stay on top of the latest science results that have come out since the 2007 IPCC Report and base their policies on those updated results, not the results from years ago.

*****

In a similar vein, a news report came out regarding coastal erosion in the Alaskan Arctic.  The rate of erosion along a stretch of coast recently doubled from previous rates.  The erosion could be tied to declining Arctic sea ice extent, rising sea level, and stronger storms and waves, all of which are associated with climate change.

The details: Average annual erosion rates along the area studied had already climbed from about 20 feet (6.1 m) per year during the 1950, 60s and 70s to 28 feet (8.5m) per year in the period from the late-1970s to the early 2000s. The most recent erosion rates reached an average of 45 feet (14 meters) per year during the 2002 to 2007 period, said Benjamin Jones, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage.  They also documented sections of coastline that eroded more than 80 feet (24 meters) during 2007 alone.

45 feet per year is pretty significant.  Just like New York, infrastructure is being affected in addition to the land itself.  The difference is clear, of course: northern Alaska isn’t New York City.  But the effects of a changing climate are already here.  They will only get more numerous and more significant as time goes on.  We must stop forcing the climate system with our greenhouse gas emissions – today, not tomorrow.


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Legislation from Rep. Claire Levy – 2/18/09

Courtesy of an email I received, here are a few bills that Rep. Claire Levy is working on this Session:

HB1094 to require use of a hands-free device for talking on a cell phone while driving passed out of the Transportation & Energy Committee on a vote of 9 – 2.  The bill must be heard in the Appropriations Committee before being debated on the floor of the House.  I am encouraged by the support I have received from across Colorado.  Many people have written to me that they would like it to be stronger and eliminate all use of a cell phone, whether hands-free or not.  I have read the literature that supports a stronger bill but do not believe such a bill would pass.  Eliminating as much distracted driving as possible is a start.

HB 1093 to end the practice of WalMart and other large retailers of artificially increasing their business expenses by effectively paying rent to themselves and deducting that as a business expense passed the House and is in the Senate.  I sponsored a similar bill last year, which the Governor vetoed.  I have worked out the issues with the bill and got it out of the House with only token opposition.

SB 51 allows a third party installer to own the renewable energy equipment installed on residential property and sell the power to the consumer without being considered to be a utility. This will enable the installer to finance the renewable energy equipment on behalf of the consumer by being paid back in the form of payment for the energy generated by the equipment. The bill also facilitates financing of larger systems owned by the consumer.  SB 51 survived its first hearing in committee.

I think HB1094 is a good idea.  I wish current distracted driving offenses currently on the books were enforced better, however.  We all see drivers doing something in addition to or instead of driving their vehicles.  Having another law on the books that won’t get enforced doesn’t help anybody.

I absolutely like HB1093.  Loopholes like this should be researched and shut down.  Let the largest corporations pay their fair share of use of the commons.  They get too many breaks as it is.

I hadn’t heard of anything like SB51 yet.  At first glance, I think it’s a good idea.  It sounds like another way to chip away at the expense of installing renewable energy infrastructure where the energy is being used.


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EPA Will Review Potential CO2 Dangers

Back in the dark days of the Bush “administration”, the EPA was prohibited by the science-hating Bushies from controlling CO2 emissions.  Elections, as Bush famously said, have consequences.  In this case, the 2008 election means that the EPA will review the CO2 emissions control policy.

At a minimum, over 100 planned coal plants will be immediately impacted.  If CO2 is, as it should be, regulated by the EPA as pollution, the costs of operating a coal power plant will finally begin to more closely reflect reality.  Coal plants have operated for yeas at a lopsided advantage over other types of plants.  As a mature industry, coal should be able to pay for itself.  It should not receive any more taxpayer dollars and should instead by charged to operate according to its real costs on society and the planet.

More generally, operating costs for everybody will go up in the short term as those costs are passed along.  That, in turn, will have a direct influence on the imperative to develop clean energy infrastructure that doesn’t have the same costs associated with it.  The “sky-is-falling’ message will be incessant from the over-indulged coal industry.  Keep the following in mind as they gear up their multi-million dollar marketing campaigns: more jobs will be created and maintained with renewable energy; the health of people will improve with time as old coal plants are shuttered; our emissions of climate change-forcing gases will slow down and eventually decrease.

Kudos to the Obama administration. This won’t be a silver-bullet solution, but it is one step in the correct direction.


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News Survery 2/17/09: Oil, Afghanistan & Antarctic Station

Some recent articles caught my eye.  Here are three of them:

Crude oil is getting cheaper – so why isn’t gas?  Short answer first: greed.  Longer answer: the oil price reported in the media is West Texas crude.  It’s currently selling for less than other oil grades around the world.  The gas we fuel our vehicles with?  It’s processsed from that foreign oil.  The article actually mentions that refining capacity for West Texas crude is less than for other types of crude.  Why aren’t more refineries built?  Well, that would cost oil corporations money – money they’d rather see in executive bonuses and stock dividends.  Don’t think this benefits your retirement account.  As most of us are now aware, the only people who benefited from stock payouts were the already mega-rich.  That won’t change anytime soon.  So when you’re paying more than $2 per gallon again this year, keep in mind all the record profits the oil corporations posted last year.  The money that we’re all paying at the pump every day could go to building refineries and lowering the price at the pump, but it’s not.

Escalation of troops in Afghanistan.  I’d be happier to read news reports of large-scale, detailed plans to revitalize the infrastructure of Afghanistan.  At this point, I think troops are necessary.  But they’ll be worth less in the long-term if fundamental issues aren’t addressed at the same time.

New Antarctic research station is carbon-free.  It won’t stop deniers/delayers from further beating their dead talking-point horses, but this article is good news for realists.  The station uses wind mills, solar panels and water recycling … in Antarctica.  If buildings in Antarctica can be built as zero-emitters, do you think they can be built on the rest of the continents?  Darn right.

The only beef I have with the last article is its treatment of two separate facts.  Both are important (and correct) alone, but the writer did nothing to merge them coherently.  They are:

Scientists monitoring global warming predict higher temperatures could hasten melting at Antarctica, the world’s largest repository of fresh water, raising sea levels and altering shorelines. If Antarctica ever melted, world sea levels would rise by about 180 feet.

That would impact some 146 million people living in low-lying coastal regions less than three feet above current sea levels, researchers said.

On the path toward total Antarctic ice sheet melt (the continent itself can’t melt, by the way), sea levels would obviously rise 3 feet before they rose 180 feet.  So if a 3 foot sea level rise would impact 146 million people, what kind of an impact would sea level rises between three and 180 feet have?  More than the number indicated in the article.

A two-year old paper indicated over 400 million people for selected parts of the globe.  That’s bad enough.  When you factor in recorded sea-level rise amounts have already exceeded earlier estimates, that number is likely to be higher.  And what about the rest of the globe that the study didn’t examine, such as the west coast of the U.S. and most of Africa?

While the article could have benefited from some additional context, I was glad to see the information that did make it in.  We must rein in greenhouse gas emissions.  Millions of peoples’ livelihoods and untold numbers of plants and animals depend on it.


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Sec. Chu & Obama Administration Recognize Climate Change’s Danger

Dr. Steven Chu was chosen by President Barack Obama to be his Secretary of Energy.  Sec. Chu has a PhD in Physics, which means he’s a scientist.  That kind of statement needs to be made after the treatment science and scientists received under the Bush “administration”.  Sec. Chu is immensely qualified to hold his post, something that hardly ever happened in the last 8 years.

That was on display in a Los Angeles Times piece I stumbled across.  Under current trends, Sen. Chu warned that California farms are under threat by climate change.  One way to look at that scenario is this: $2.5 Trillion worth of real estate assets are threatened.  Think the U.S. economy is struggling now?  Wait until multiple trillions of dollars worth of real estate is impacted by a new climate regime that we’re forcing the planet into.  Because California won’t be alone.  Not only coastal areas are at risk.  The interior of the U.S. is edging towards desertification by the end of the century.  How will Americans react to widespread Dust Bowl-era desertification that will last for centuries?

So far, they haven’t reacted.  Because the Bush “administration” and the corporations pulling his strings spent the past eight years convincing their Con base that there is no threat.  They were very effective in doing so, unfortunately.  Things break down like this: every day we don’t act adds untold amounts of money that societies across the globe will be forced to spend in reaction to the changes in climate.  This situation demands large-scale, aggressive action today.  We’ve literally run out of time.  Our greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically reduced in a very short time frame or the next generation will inhabit a planet we wouldn’t recognize.  The technology exists today to do just that.  Up until this year, we didn’t have elected officials who understood that and were willing to act on it.  I know Sec. Chu and President Obama recognize the threat.  The only question remaining is are they willing to do the hard work that needs to be done to confront the threat.


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Job Losses in Context

How do the job losses during this horrible recession compare to past recessions?  There are a couple of graphs at this post at Calculated Risk that provide some context.  More people have lost their jobs in this point in the recession than any other recession since WWII: 3.6 million.  That’s actually more than any other maximum loss.  The 1982 recession came close with 2.8 million people.

When job losses as a percentage of work force is examined, this recession is in the top 30%.  We just passed the percentage reached in the 1981 recession: 2.5%.  At this same point in time, only three recessions were worse: the 1953, 1958 and 1948 recessions.  The total number of workers has obviously increased since then, so more people would have to lose their jobs before the percentage in this recession got to 4% or 5%.

I doubt undocumented workers were counted in any of these calculations.  I would imagine the actual total of people who have lost their jobs, documented and undocumented, would come much closer to previous steep job losses.

Also clear in the graphs: the last three recessions took much longer to recover from than did previous recessions.  Maybe because we don’t actually make things in this country the way we did in the immediate post-WWII era.  If things aren’t made in the U.S., U.S. workers have nothing to do, limiting the job recovery that would otherwise occur.  How patriotic of the pro-job off-shoring crowd.

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