Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Climate Change Temperature Mitigation: New Studies

A different method of characterizing potential climate tipping points is the subject of two studies.  One of the most cited metrics is temperature differences  – measured in global annual averages.  The 2007 IPCC Report identified 2C (3.6F) as the most likely average annual global temperature rise over climatological norms.  As I’ve discussed many times now, the IPCC Report is already quite out of date given recent study findings of both observational and model data.  Nevertheless, the 2C rise is being widely cited in subsequent studies as a tipping point that we should work to avoid.

The two new studies use man-made emitted carbon dioxide. To keep under the danger level cited above, the world has to spew less than 1.1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the first half of this century.  That’s a pretty impressive number, no?  I mean, that’s a huge freaking number.  Well, here’s the rest of the story: the world has already emitted one third of that in just nine years, according to studies published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.   We’ve emitted 367 billion tons of CO2 in 9 years.  Which means at maintaining current levels only, we have at most 18 more years before a potential tipping point is reached as we’re locking into >2C warming by 2100.  Ah, but how will we maintain current levels?  Nearly every nation on Earth is dead set on increasing their emissions.  Perhaps only European countries can say they’re serious about trying to emit less.  Their efforts to date may not satisfy every critic, but they’ve tried to do far more than America has.  The scale at which we must act is large, indeed.  Not impossible – just large.

The important message to take from these studies is the following:

President Barack Obama said he wants to cut U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by 80 percent. That is a “good start but it’s not enough to limit warming,” said Bill Hare, a study co-author who is also at the Potsdam Institute. Assuming that other countries cut their per-person emission levels to match the United States, the United States has to cut its overall pollution by 90 to 95 percent to keep the world from exceeding the 1.1 trillion ton mark, Hare said.

My worry is that given Obama’s 80% goal, the Cons and CorporateDems in Congress will water down any climate change legislation to come in well below that goal.  All the while, they’re missing the big picture: 80% isn’t enough; the problem is the opposite of the way the fossil fuel industry and climate change deniers present it.

On a slightly different note, the article mentions something else that is very, very important:

Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who paints a worst case scenario for global warming in a commentary in the journal, said the studies make it seem like scientists know where there’s a solid danger line for emissions, when they don’t.  The papers acknowledge there is a 25 percent chance the limit should be lower. Schneider said that’s a pretty big risk when the consequences of being wrong are severe.

Indeed, that is a big risk.  It’s the biggest risk anyone and everyone on the planet is facing.  How many years of inaction, weak action, or even moderate action do we have?  There is a 25% chance it’s less than 18.  If there were a 1-in-4 chance of something catastrophic occurring in people’s everyday lives unless they took action, most of us wouldn’t sit idly by.  Is a 25% chance too small to bet a multi-trillion dollar world economy on?  Is a 25% chance too small to bet the world’s ecosystems on?  It is critical that these kinds of questions need to be presented to policy makers by scientists.  It is critical that elected officials discuss these and many other questions.  We can’t afford not to act this year.  The costs only skyrocket with time as needed measures become more drastic.

Cross-posted at SquareState.


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Quick Hit: Ice Sheet Melt Picks Up

I’ve encountered folks writing or saying that the globe and/or poles are actually cooling and that melting glaciers are completely natural and people aren’t influencing them significantly.  The truth (based on actual observations) is that the poles have warmed more than the rest of the globe.  The truth is that the land-based ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are melting at faster rates than they did during the 20th century.  Those land-based ice sheets are what will cause sea level rise to reach dangerous rates and levels unless we do everything we can today to slow down their melt rate.

From an MSNBC article:

The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than expected, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, an expert with the Center for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, told the Arctic Council conference in the Arctic town of Tromsoe.

The 2007 IPCC report issued a sea level rise forecast of a couple of feet – at worst.  Observations since that report was issued, including ones Ms. Dahl-Jensen are basing her warning on, are outpacing the rates that were in the 2007 IPCC report.  The only 2-year old forecast of a couple of feet of sea level rise (in itself catastrophic for geopolitical stability) is already an antique.  More realistic levels based on rates seen in the past two years point toward 5-foot sea level rise, which would be even more devastating to global societies and ecosystems.


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Quick Hit: California’s Low-Carbon Fuels Mandate

California’s Air Resources Board voted to approve a mandate requiring low-carbon fuels.  In a strong move toward progress, the rules call for reducing the carbon content of fuels sold in the state by 10 percent by 2020, a plan that includes counting all the emissions required to deliver gasoline and diesel to California consumers — from drilling a new oil well or planting corn to transporting it to gas stations.  Life-cycle costs of every fuel and energy source we consume needs to be reflected in their use.

Critics of the plan say that the Board didn’t listen to enough perspectives; that the new calculations aren’t done well enough and that putting them in place by 2011 is too fast.  To which I say: perhaps (so keep the lines of communication open); develop and publicize better models; and b.s.  If it were up to many people, zero progress would be made – rules and regulations would be too harsh or be implemented too quickly.  Look: marketplaces for goods aren’t collapsing like the doomsdayers say they will.

The consumers in California’s fuel market have spoken through their duly-elected representatives and their off-shoots.  They want fuels to contain less carbon in order to start reducing their impact on the environment.  Thankfully, those rules will likely make their way across the U.S. eventually.


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Two Climate Change-Pole Stories

Backup up the science that predicted such things would happen, I read two stories about climate change impacts on the poles.  A New York City-sized chunk of ice has broken off from the Wilkins Ice Shelf, following the break-down of the ice bridge stabilizing the Shelf, as this Independent article states.  Air temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have warmed 3C in the past century, placing strain on the shelves and glaciers.  Additionally, water temperatures surrounding the continent have also warmed, melting the shelves from below.  As the floating shelves melt from both sides and break off the continent, inland glaciers have picked up speed toward the ocean.  It’s those glaciers that would translate to rising sea levels if they melt in the ocean faster than they can grow on land.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme study relays profound changes to sea ice and permafrost, among others.  That’s the secondary lede from a Guardian article discussing some of the findings.

In the past four years, air temperatures have increased, sea ice has declined sharply, surface waters in the Arctic ocean have warmed and permafrost is in some areas rapidly thawing.  In addition, plants and trees are growing more vigorously, snow cover is decreasing 1-2% a year and glaciers are shrinking.

In Russia, the tree line has advanced up hills and mountains at 10 metres a year. Nearly all glaciers are decreasing in mass, resulting in rising sea levels as the water drains to the ocean.

The Greenland ice sheet has continued to melt in the past four years with summer temperatures consistently above the long-term average since the mid 1990s. In 2007, the area experiencing melt was 60% greater than in 1998.  Melting lasted 20 days longer than usual at sea level and 53 days longer at 2-3,000m heights.

In 2007, some ice-free areas of the Arctic were as much as 5C warmer than the long-term average.

All these observations have been made by climate forecasters for years now.  The problem is, they’ve occurred faster than predicted in every case.  That presents the exact opposite problem that climate change deniers claim.  The science has predicted effects correctly time and time again.


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It’s Amazing What A Little Crisis Can Do

Republicans have plenty of problems to deal with from news from the past 24-48 hours.  I’m going to center my focus around the swine flu infections because it provides an interesting related topic to most of them.

Republicans have spent some of their energy the past two years denouncing any efforts to plan or prepare for a possible influenza epidemic, even though the probability of one occurring continues to mount.  It’s an offshoot of their anti-science agenda and it’s left the country in a worse state than it otherwise should be in.  As cases of swine flu infections continue to increase, most Americans are rightfully worried about the topic.  The swine flu can obviously be transferred from swine to humans, something that isn’t terribly shocking in an of itself if you’ve paid attention to how influenze evolves.  The scary question now, and in any potential influenze epidemic, is how transferable is the flu from person to person?  What is the rate of infection between people?  The higher that rate, the more strained our health management system becomes.  Side-topic: if it were actually a health-care system, people might be less worried.

One shameful aspect of this story is the actions of Maine’s Senator Susan Collins, a self-styled “moderate”.  I’ve argued for a number of years now that many elected officials aren’t “moderate” in the sense that they once were or in ways that are relevant in today’s political climate.  For instance, how “moderate” is it for Sen. Collins to extoll her efforts to remove a $900 million pandemic preparedness proposal from President Obama’s recovery bill?  Further, how “moderate” is it for Sen. Collins to have removed any record of doing so from her website?  Either she believes she did the morally right thing in preventing some “wasteful spending” from making it through the Congress or she doesn’t.  Now that we have a potential epidemic on our hands, she isn’t, though she was even a few short days ago.  That isn’t principled and it isn’t moderate.  She was sucking up to the extremist Cons in her party until it became painfully obvious that she would be rightfully targeted by a majority of the public for doing so.  What happens if the outbreak spreads and real people end up dying and the economy further suffers?  How proud will Sen. Collins be of her anti-spending stance then?

Another shameful aspect of this story is the lack of a Health and Human Services Secretary.  Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius was nominated months ago, but the extremist, obstructionist, ‘Party of No’ had placed an unwarranted hold on her nomination due to her pro-choice stance.  That hold was in place until today, when the Senate suddenly moved her nomination forward and approved her.  Again, a group of extremist Con Senators were doing their best to placate their extremist anti-woman base by denying Gov. Sebelius’ nomination until it looked like it would be very politically stupid to continue to do so.  Sec. Sebelius didn’t gain any special skills overnight.  None of her views changed.   Neither did those of the Senators holding her nomination back.  Sec. Sebelius won’t be running around the country forcing women to have abortions that they don’t want to have.  The Con Senators were simply more interested in proving how ideologically pure they were; they were determined to show the American people that the government really doesn’t work, dammit, until a potential crisis erupted.

This behavior is disgusting.  Again, if Americans end up dying and if the rest of us end up suffering due to any lack of emergency preparedness that otherwise would have been in place or due to the lack of leadership of a Health Secretary, the ramifications for the extremists shouldn’t be pretty.  Already a weak regional party, they will reduce Americans’ confidence in their ability to handle anything above tying their own shoes.  And they’ll have only themselves to blame.

Isn’t it amazing what a little crisis can do?


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Colorado Energy and Politics News – Part I

I got behind the news late last week and into the weekend, so this the first of two roundups of items I saw.

State Representative Sara Gagliardi (D-JeffCo) introduced a bill (HB09-1331) that promotes low-emitting cars and trucks. It makes changes to the existing tax credit for purchases of vehicles using alternative fuels, for purchase of idling reduction technologies or for conversion of vehicles to use alternative fuels.  I heard a segment on the Ed Schultz show earlier this afternoon about an idling technology that I’ll have to look into.  It sounded like it would reduce the amount of fuel burned from 1 gallon per hour during idling to 1 gallon per 20 hours, but I could have heard the improved ratio incorrectly.

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The Scary State of Science in American Society

As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I find the state of science in America to be scary.  A lot of good research and development is being conducted, yet fewer Americans display a basic understanding of scientific fact than do most (any?) other industrialized nation.  Americans’ religious evangelism has a great deal to do with this.  Yet the following came as somewhat of a shock to me.  Bill Nye (the Science Guy) was booed at a lecture last week in Waco, TX.  Why?  For saying the moon reflects light from the sun.  People are certainly entitled to believe whatever they choose.  I simply find it interesting that faith can shove fact out of the way so easily for so many.  I also think the episode reflects a great deal of disrespect on the part of the Christians in attendance.  They’re free to disagree with whatever Nye said in his lecture.  But to boo at him during the lecture isn’t classy – it’s the behavior of people who love to self-victimize.

The second example of the sad state of science in America today is related, of course, to politics.  In this story, Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton asked Energy Secretary Stephen Chu a question during testimony on President Obama’s clean energy proposals.  The question was incredibly ludicrous and demonstrates how important it is to send science-savvy officials to Washington to represent you.  Here is the question:

I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?

I’m not going to mince words on this one: what is this idiot thinking by asking this question?  He has to have an intense desire to publicly show how scientifically ignorant he is.  Contrary to what today’s Republican Party (co-opted by extremists, granted) think, this lack of savvy isn’t a positive attribute for Barton to hold.

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State of the Arctic – 4/27/09

The Arctic ice sheet areal extent has slowly decreased in the month since my last post.  It has done so at a rate that is less than the climatological norm as well as less than the melt seen during March and April the past couple of seasons.  This should be good news for the areal extent of ice later this season, barring anomalous weather conditions this summer and fall.  I want to point out that areal extent does not equal volume extent.  The Arctic ice sheet’s volume is lower this year than in past years due to the extensive summer melts that have occurred in consecutive years.  As the NSIDC notes, thin ice is more susceptible to summer melting than is thick ice, which makes perfect sense.  So to update my last post, here are the corresponding graphs showing the state of the arctic ice sheet as of yesterday:

The extent of the ice sheet graphically looks like this:

The recent La Nina that hung around for the better part of two years has recently ended.  As we move toward neutral El Nino conditions this year, what kind of storm systems will the Arctic experience?  How long will one-year ice last under even climatological conditions?  Will weather conditions this summer and fall only be “normal” or will they be as warm or warmer than recent summers and falls?  I’ll keep an eye on developments.


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Climate-Related News Items

A few news items dealing with the climate caught my eye recently.  The first, which I subsequently did more investigation into, was a study conducted by a climate research group at NCAR.  They ran a climate model in ensemble for two scenarios: a business-as-usual GHG emissions scenario and a emissions reduction scenario.  The results confirm what most climatologists are saying: act now and reduce the worst effects of future climate change by a substantial margin.  Warming was largely held in check in the mitigation scenario: 0.6C compared to 2.2C for the non-mitigation case.  Sea level rise due only to thermal expansion is held to 14cm in the mitigation case (22cm in the non-mitigation case).  This study didn’t consider melting poles or mid-latitude glaciers.  Importantly, the warming wasn’t constant over the globe, something deniers have a hard time grasping.  The poles would continue to experience the majority of the globe’s warming.  A big lesson derived from this paper is the following: a 70% reduction in emissions results in virtually no cooling anywhere on the globe by the year 2100.  In fact, similar studies indicate that warming is likely to be locked in for the next 1000 years.  Forcing already in the system is likely to manifest as continued warming far into the future.  The thing we’re in control of at this point is just how much warming we allow to occur.  I’ll have a more in-depth look at this and other articles in a future post.

Researchers are warning that Western Africa could experience more severe droughts in the future.  Along with other portions of the globe, including the southwestern U.S., future droughts in western Africa could become more severe and long-lasting, exacerbating otherwise normal drought conditions.  Other research has indicated that multi-decadal to century-scale droughts could become more prevalent, affecting millions of people worldwide.

Technology-wise, this article reported on fake “trees” – towers filled with materials that could absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.  Which sounded like a really cool technology until I continued reading and found the following:

GRT plans to sell the purified CO2 to a range of buyers. Oil and natural gas companies are probably the biggest customers for the artificial trees. Petroleum companies pump CO2 underground to raise the pressure and force oil to the surface. Greenhouses could pump in extra C02 to help plants grow. Fizzy soda drinks and sanding auto parts also require concentrated CO2.

All of these customers currently get CO2 by truck or by pipeline, most of which originates in Texas. The advantage of the artificial trees is that they can be placed next to whatever factory needs CO2 without having to ship it in.

Another use for the artificial trees would be in the cap-and-trade carbon credit system. The idea is that companies that produce CO2 would pay another company, like GRT, to get rid of it. The most likely place to put the C02 is in the salt-lined caverns that once held oil, a process known as carbon sequestration.

This technology is more pie-in-the-sky than not.  Nobody has any idea whether pumping CO2 (in any form) underground is a good long-term solution or not.  Massive releases of CO2 by geologic activity (over the short- or long-term) would undo every bit of work done to collect the CO2 in the first place.  If plants use “extra” CO2 to grow, how is it kept out of the carbon system?  Decomposing plants re-release the absorbed CO2 back into the atmosphere.  Soda drinks re-release their CO2 to the atmosphere.  Sanding auto parts using CO2 re-releases CO2 back to the atmosphere.  None of these ideas would reduce CO2 concentrations from the atmosphere in the long-term (perhaps the sequestration, but it’s still unproven).

Using in the cap-and-trade credit system sounds good.  But again, what will GRT do to “get rid of it”?  GRT needs to demonstrate a viable technology and business plan to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for millenia.  Has anyone seriously addressed responsibility for ensuring permanent storage?  What happens if it leaks?  Who is responsible?  What will the potential penalties be?

Last, indigenous groups held a climate summit this week in Anchorage, Alaska.  Groups around the world that are on the front lines of being affected by climate change met to create a plan and demand that countries around the world include indigenous people as they respond to climate change.  They have a very valid point: they are some of the least responsible parties for forcing they climate, yet to date they are disproportionally suffering from its effects.  Moreover, they have been largely left out of the climate change action debate.   They have little influence individually to encourage larger, richer groups to pay attention to their needs.  Erosion and rising sea levels are displacing entire communities and island populations today.  They’re planning on presenting recommendations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009, designed to put forth post-Kyoto Protocol climate actions.


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Economy Still Struggling

I know what’s going to happen soon.  Republicans will, at some point, begin complaining that President Obama’s economic policies aren’t working – if they were, why would we still be in a recession.  That’s why President Obama continues to personally address the American people, explaining his administration’s moves and why they’re being taken.  The American people in turn recognize that recovering from this economic disaster will take time and patience.  Not endless amounts of either, but reasonable doses.  The most recent corporate earnings reports haven’t thrilled Wall St.  Big deal – they shouldn’t thrill Wall St.  The fundamentals are still recovering from decades of economic mismanagement – initiated by Republicans and supported by Democrats.

That’s why it’s no surprise that sales of existing homes in the U.S. fell 3% again last month.  Markets in the West recovered, selling homes at 23% more than last year’s numbers.   That’s a sharp recovery, but I’m not convinced it will be long lived.  Those markets were overpriced for many years before taking a hard tumble in this recession.  Did they fall far enough so that market fundamentals can support their prices?  Or are people still trying to squeeze unsustainable returns from their properties?

Continued economic weakness is the message in this article about additional unemployment news.  The Labor Department reported today that initial claims for unemployment compensation rose to a seasonally adjusted 640,000, up from a revised 613,000 the previous week.  More bad news: 6.1 million people continue to file claims for benefits.  Few companies are hiring – they won’t until the economic outlook improves.  That means we’re a long way away from recovery.  It’s a bad chicken-or-egg problem that more and more Americans are suffering under.  These claims mean that the unemployment figures for April are likely to go higher than March’s (which was over 15%).

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