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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Language surrounding ozone depletion

As a physical scientist who has also studied social aspects of science and technology, language – specifically word choice – is important.  That is why when “ozone hole healing” jumped out from my Twitter feed today, it disappointed me.  Why?

Is the ozone layer alive?  Is it currently wounded?  Can it heal?

I know environmental activists like to use the frame of Earth as a living thing.  It’s not.  It is a celestial body with multiple interacting physical systems.  The Earth neither grows nor reproduces within its environment.  There are things that are alive (obviously) on Earth.  Phenomena occur within Earth systems, but that doesn’t qualify as life.  Thus it cannot heal because it is not diseased or injured.

There is ozone depletion in the stratosphere that is exclusively caused by on life form on the planet – people.  In news today, ozone depletion has for the first time since being discovered in the 1980s slowed and even reversed.  That is very good news, as ozone depletion impacted some of Earth’s physical systems as well as actual life on the planet.

Metaphors are powerful tools in our language.  We must take care to use them appropriately.  There is nothing wrong with using scientific language to describe scientific processes.  We can make explanations as simple as necessary, which should promote wider understanding of complex phenomena.


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The Wrong Lesson From Increasing GHG Emissions

I saw two seemingly separate items today that I think more people should draw together.

The first from BBC news: Greenhouse gas levels rising at fastest rate since 1984

This isn’t news to anyone that reads this blog regularly: concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a record level in 2013.  News flash: they hit a new record in 2014.  And they’ll do it again in 2015, 2016, 2017, …, and on until we innovate and deploy technologies that remove the gas from the atmosphere.

The article also includes what I consider to be a fairly realistic assessment of upcoming climate negotiations:

While stressing the need for that agreement to be “legally binding”, Mr Davey explained that actual targets for emissions reductions may not be covered by that term.

“We do believe that the foundations of the agreement have to be legally binding, so what that might be? That might be the rules. That might include the measurements, the monitoring and the verification and those sorts of things.

“We would prefer the targets to be legally binding, we already have legally binding targets in the UK and we are trying to argue for more ambitious legally binding targets for the EU, but we recognise that other countries find that a little bit more challenging.

The agreement in question is the follow-up to the failed Copenhagen climate conference.  Countries since then have talked a lot about what they want to accomplish in terms of emissions reductions, but nobody has put together anything concrete.  As Mr Davey said, the UK has “legally binding targets”.  As with anything, the devil is in the details.  The UK isn’t going to meet their “legally binding” reductions (see below).  And what will happen when they finally acknowledge that they won’t?  Who knows – it will be the first time such a thing happens.  I think a safe bet is almost nothing will happen.  And therein lies the problem.  With no penalty, there is little incentive to actually make and enforce policies that will achieve stated goals.

The second article is one with which I disagree on many points, though its presence is good for discussion: Sorry policy-makers, the two-degrees warming policy is likely a road to disaster.

First, the obligatory admonishment: more disaster talk.  Really?  Really?  Quick to the chase: it turns people off from whatever else you have to say.  Starting your article with it is the worst strategy.  I’ve worked my way through climate disaster porn for over a decade now, so I continue.

The article tries to move the goal posts – the wrong way.  Alexander White, for the Guardian, argues that while a 2°C limit on global warming is the commonly used target for climate negotiations, the limit should be reduced to a 1.5°C.  After noting that national pledges aim only for 3°C and the real world is actually on track for 4°C.  Now I ask: what possible motivation would countries have to aim for 1.5°C when current policies lead to 4°C+?  Will moving the goal posts to 1.5°C somehow convince climate negotiators to go at it a bit harder?  No, of course not.

White makes several arguments for the 1.5°C target, based on moral points which I agree with.  However, neither he nor I can will the world to 1.5°C policies just because we want to.  Real people have to argue for real policies – mostly in democracies in Western nations.  Mr Davey had it correct: the first step is measurements, monitoring, and verification.  Countries should have implemented those rules 25 years ago.  They didn’t and we’re well on our way to 4°C.

Pricewaterhouse Cooper has the following in their summary:

In the Index’s G20 analysis, an unexpected champion surpassed the annual target – Australia –  recording a decarbonisation rate of 7.2% over 2013, putting it top of the table for the second year in a row. Three other countries – the UK, Italy and China – achieved a decarbonisation rate of between 4% and 5%. Five countries, however, increased their carbon intensity over 2013 – France, the US, India, Germany and Brazil.

The UK achieved a one-time decarbonization rate of between 4% and 5%.  What do they need to achieve their legally binding targets?  Between 7% and 9% every year until 2020.  And beyond too.  Those decarbonization rates have never been achieved in history.  To achieve them requires beyond Chinese-level investments in clean energy research and deployment by every country for the next 100 years.  Until we come close to achieving that, arguing over a 1.5°C target versus a 2°C or 4°C target is peeing into the wind.  It doesn’t accomplish much of anything useful.  On a related note, Chinese 2013 fossil fuel deployment far exceeded every clean energy deployment worldwide during the same year.  We need to spend our time establishing, implementing, and improving novel climate and energy policies.  What we’re really arguing over isn’t 1.5°C vs. 2°C, it’s 3.9°C vs. 4.2°C – which is not much of a difference, is it?

White finishes with:

A challenge for us all leading up to the New York summit is that the 2°C target rhetoric is likely sabotaging policy negotiations that would meaningfully tackle global warming.

I disagree.  This is the result of a fundamental misinterpretation of what policy negotiations failed to tackle historically.  Developed nations will continue to fail if the focus remains on abstract targets such as 2°C or 1.5°C – neither of which is achievable anyway.


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UN Continues to Issue Irrelevant Pleas for Climate Action

The United Nations will issue yet another report this year claiming that deep greenhouse gas emission cuts are within reach.  As reported by Reuters (emphasis mine):

It says existing national pledges to restrict greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, a U.N. ceiling set in 2010 to limit heatwaves, floods, storms and rising seas.

“Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees C … remain possible, yet will entail substantial technological, economic, institutional, and behavioral challenges,” according to the draft due for publication in Copenhagen on Nov. 2 after rounds of editing.

Substantial is an understatement.  To achieve a better than even chance at keeping global mean annual temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees C, emissions have to peak in 2020 and go negative by 2050.  Technologies simply do not exist today that would achieve those difficult tasks while meeting today’s energy demand, let alone the energy demand of 2050.

The following quote points toward understanding the scale of the problem:

Such a shift would also require a tripling or a quadrupling of the share of low-carbon energies including solar, wind or nuclear power, it said.

That’s actually an underestimate of the required low-carbon energies.  Because again, achieving <2C warming will require net-negative carbon, not just low carbon.  But let’s stick with their estimate for argument’s sake.  Low-carbon technologies currently provide 16% of the global energy portfolio.  I’m not entirely certain the tripling quote refers to this 16% or not for the following reason: “traditional biomass” (wood and similar materials) represent 10% of the global energy portfolio, or 63% of the low-carbon energies.  We’re obviously not going to use more of this material to provide energy to the global energy-poor or industrial nations.  Wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal together account for 0.7% of the global energy portfolio.  That is a key figure.  How many news stories have you seen touting wind and solar deployment?  All of those small utility-scale plants globally account for less than 1% of total global energy.

So perhaps the UN is referring to the 16% figure, not the 0.7% figure, because even quadrupling it yields 2.8% of total global energy.  But what I just wrote is then even more valid: we need enough new solar, wind, and nuclear deployment have to not only match 15.3% of today’s global energy, but 45% of today’s global energy.  How much new low-carbon energy is that?  A lot of new low-carbon energy.  The US alone would require either 1 million+ 2.5MW wind turbines or 300,000+ 10MW solar thermal plants or 1,000+ 1GW nuclear power plants (more than the total number of today’s nuclear plants – globally).  And this doesn’t include any requirements to update national transmission grids or CCS deployment or sequestration topics.  As I said, the scale of this problem is vast and is completely glossed over by previous and it looks like current UN reports.

Look, the reasons to decarbonize are valid and well-recognized.  Emissions are driving planetary changes at rates that occur only very rarely in geologic history.  Those changes will accelerate throughout the 21st century and beyond.  Yet this remains the obsessive focus of most climate activists.  The problem remains how to achieve deep decarbonization – what policies will facilitate that effort?  The fact remains that no economy has decarbonized at requisite rates – and that includes economies that historically widely deployed nuclear and biomass energy.  The UN continues to issue reports that are wildly out-of-date the day they’re issued.  They do themselves and the world’s population no favors by doing so.  We need new methods and new frameworks within which to define and evaluate problems.


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Coal Plants: Colorado and the US

Colorado has a renewable energy portfolio standard for energy utility companies:

Investor-owned utilities: 30% by 2020
Electric cooperatives serving fewer than 100,000 meters: 10% by 2020
Electric cooperatives serving 100,000 or more meters: 20% by 2020
Municipal utilities serving more than 40,000 customers: 10% by 2020

The standard started with a ballot measure that voters approved in 2004 and was subsequently strengthened by legislative action twice.  The dominant utility in Colorado is Xcel Energy, based in Minneapolis, MN.  Despite spending money to defeat the initial ballot measure and the two following standards to generate first 10%, then 20%, and now 30% renewable energy by 2020, Xcel would have, did, and will meet the standards.

As with most topics, implementing high-level policies turned out differently than many RES supporters envisioned.  After the 2004 ballot measure passed, Xcel convinced the Public Utilities Commission that it needed to build a 766MW coal plant in Pueblo, CO.  CO consumers overwhelmingly objected to the planned plant for a few reasons: nobody was in desperate need of those MW, the plant’s cost (which ended up being over $1 billion) would be passed directly onto those same customers who didn’t need excess capacity, and they wanted Xcel to focus on renewable energy plants (wind and solar).  Since the PUC approved the plant, it hasn’t run at capacity.  There’s no surprise there.  Costs definitely went up on every customer in Xcel’s service region, whether they received Comanche energy or not.  This is the primary problem with private and investor utilities: the easiest way to make money is to force consumers to pay for expensive infrastructure.  And as I stated above, Xcel will easily meet its renewable energy standard.

How did Pueblo fare?  Well, that’s a new part of the story for me.  A local utility serviced Pueblo, which Black Hills Energy bought, who opted to replace nearly all its cheap coal capacity with natural gas essentially overnight.  This meant ratepayers are footed some more big infrastructure bills all at once.  In fact, Pueblo’s residential rate per kilowatt-hour has risen 26 percent since 2010.  What portion of Comanche 3’s electricity made it to Pueblo?  None of it.  Instead, the northern half of the Front Range uses that energy – the same place that wouldn’t allow Xcel to build a coal plant due to pollution and cost.

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Climate and Energy Links – Jul 2014

Some things I’ve come across recently:
New mega-map details all the ways climate change will affect our everyday lives.  We’ll need more resources like this to help personalize climate change effects.  With personalization will come motivation to act.  It’s not a panacea, but a good start.

Is your state one of the 10 most energy-efficient US states?  Mine (Colorado) isn’t.  More context: the US is good at buzzwords, but lousy at implementing policies that increase energy efficiency.  Although it’s a good thing that China is currently ranked #4 globally – they’ll have much less legacy infrastructure than the US and other developed nations to upgrade in the future.

This might be news to some: climate models that did the best at portraying natural ocean cycles the best also did better than their peers when projecting the recent surface warming pause.  What most people don’t understand is that each climate model run portrays one individual potential outcome.  That said, scientists don’t claim that individual models make perfect predictions.  The recent warming trend is well within the range of available projections.  Many skeptics, of course, gloss over this important detail when they falsely claim the models are no good.  How much time do those same skeptics spend on financial projections, anyway?

This has the potential for misinterpretation and misuse: climate worriers don’t, on average, use less electricity than those who don’t worry about the climate (at least according to a very small UK study).  They use more.  This will continue the claims of hypocrisy by skeptics, and perhaps justifiably so.  My net utility use is 14% to 17% of the average American’s 903 kilowatthours (kWh) per month: 125-150 kWh per month during the past year.  That’s in a modern home with AC, computers, and smartphones.  People can use much less than they currently do with a modern lifestyle.  They just don’t prioritize it.

Continuing on the theme of energy efficiency and waste: we waste 80 billion USD per year due to inefficient electronic devices.  Wow.   And it doesn’t have to be that way: simple measures could save billions of dollars if we implemented them.  Priorities.

Random thought: poverty-wage employers always ask if people would be willing to pay more for products if they paid their employees living wages.  I haven’t come across an easy rebuttal: were customers asked if they were willing to pay more for products if they paid their executives millions of dollars with guaranteed golden parachutes?  Guess what most people would rather support?  That’s right, the folks in their communities, not executives in their fenced off country club homes.


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On False Equivalence

The Guardian recently ran a couple of really bad climate pieces.  The first has a headline guaranteed to draw eyes, “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away“.  Who would possibly allow a “great world city” drown?  The monsters!  Know that the author is billed as a “science editor”, which I take to mean he understands basic scientific concepts such as uncertainty, time scale, and accuracy.  What does Robin McKie have to say?

The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. [...] Only those on higher floors can hope to protect their cars from surging sea waters that corrode and rot the innards of their vehicles. [...] Miami and its surroundings are facing a calamity worthy of the Old Testament.

Really?  Old Testament calamity? Inundated. Paralysed. Ruined. Corrode and rot.

That’s fairly flowery language for a science editor.  How much of it is based in reality?  There are definitely localized effects of sea level rise in Miami.  Seawater is corrosive.  But I missed the news reports of Miami calamities, inundations, being a paralyzed city.  Those are serious effects he describes that aren’t quite as extensive or horrific as his article portrays.

Or, as Time writer Michael Grunwald writes, “I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn, but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.”

I agree with Michael on this one.  This type of journalism works against taking the very action that Miami actually is doing right now to adapt to a changing reality.  This quote says it perfectly:

What’s happening in the Middle East right now is calamitous. A blocked entrance is inconvenient.

Thank you, Michael, for some overdue perspective.  He adds,

But let’s get real. The Pacific island of Kiribati is drowning; Miami Beach is not yet drowning, and the Guardian’s persistent adjective inflation (“calamitous,” “astonishing,” “devastating”) can’t change that.

This encouraged a number of climate porn addicts to take to the Twitter and denounce Grunwald’s lack of enthusiasm for not wanting to be a part of their tribe.  Tweets displayed peoples’ camps:

Here is what folks were trying to say: person A has a gun held to their head right now; person B will die sometime in the future, but we don’t know exactly when.  And since the same characteristic will eventually apply to both persons, they both share existential threats.  Ask Kiribatians how much of their daily life is affected by sea level rise and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts you’ll get a very different answer than a Miamians’.  And contrary to most climate activists, that’s not because Miamians are climate uneducated.  It’s because their daily lives aren’t affected by climate change today to the same degree than a Kiribatian is.  Saying they are doesn’t make it so.

I also agree with Mike that this fact doesn’t alter the need to mitigate and adapt.  I agree with TheCostofEnergy that Miami and island nations face different timing and resource issues.  That is precisely why island nations face an existential threat today and Miami doesn’t.  Island nation people have nowhere to move to.  Their islands will disappear and they will be forced to move.  That presents an enormous culture disruption.  Miami has much more adaptive capacity than do island nations.  Miami will have to adapt, there is no doubt about that.  But that’s not an existential threat except in some absurdly narrow use of the term.

Disaster porn language usage has to stop.  It’s not accurate.  It dissuades instead of incentivizes action.  It breaks down instead of builds trust.


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Distopias are not Preferable to Distopias

Grist’s Nathanael Johnson has a good article up discussing the Anthropocene – a term that describes Earth influenced by mankind.  I highly recommend reading it, then thinking through what Andy Revkin and Clive Hamilton discussed.

I for one disagree with Clive Hamilton’s language.  Some examples:

I don’t accept this idea that we consumers in the West are irrevocably attached to cheap energy.

This from a person in Australia (dominant energy source: cheap coal) using 1st world technology to talk with Johnson and Revkin across the planet using Skype.  Those technologies are also powered, by and large, by cheap energy.  He continues with:

It’s easy for us in the US and Australia to forget that some countries in Europe have less than half — a third — of our emissions per person. And with strong public support, I’m thinking of Germany here, for policies that cut emissions. I think Western consumers can quite easily be weaned off high-polluting energy sources.

This ignores easily verified objective data that shows if the developing world used German-level energy, global energy consumption would triple or quadruple.  The developing world, like the developed, will expand energy production as cheaply as possible – and that means fossil fuels.  How will we meet stated climate goals with 3x more dirty energy?   Moreover, the West has not weaned itself from high-polluting energy sources.  If it was easy, we would have done it by now.  If we want to achieve the deepest emissions cuts pathway modeled by the IPCC, we need one 1GW carbon-free energy plant to come online every day between now and 2050.  That simply isn’t happening.

Or we can look at it with open eyes, and allow it to blast away all our utopian imaginings, and say, well, we are in really deep trouble, and it’s extremely unlikely that we are going to get out of it unscathed. So what do we do in that situation? And what does it mean for how we act? Does it mean we go for the muddle-through approach even though we know the consequences are likely to be catastrophic? Or do we fundamentally try to rethink and change strategies?

The “utopian imaginings” Hamilton refers to are solidly based in reality.  They are projections that new technologies will allow people in the future access to low-polluting energy at prices lower than today.  These technologies include renewables, carbon capture and sequestration, and things we can’t envision today because they haven’t been invented.  That’s not utopian.  By analogy, Hamilton would have said in the 1880s that mechanized transport will never exist and so stop imagining utopia.  But I also have problems with his characterization that we “are in really deep trouble”.  This is based on the concept of “civilization collapsing” and “catastrophe”.  I have written at length against this language since I read social science peer-reviewed literature that using it immediately makes people shut down anything else you have to say.  Thus, Hamilton and others continue to accomplish exactly the opposite of what they want.

Thankfully, Johnson immediately followed up with what Hamilton’s suggestion might look like.  You know, suggest something practical and not purely philosophical.  Hamilton’s response:

I don’t have an answer to that, Nate, except to say the first thing we must do is face up to the facts.

This is the fundamental problem for climate activists in my opinion.  They don’t have practical suggestions for solutions.  But they want everyone else in the same disaster-based landscape that the activists are in.  Only after everyone is miserable and paralyzed can we talk about ways forward.  This is not the solution.  Or it’s not my solution, anyway.  I just wrote a post about what happens when you present facts to people without the appropriate context.  In that example, N.C. residents directly challenged “the facts”.  And instead of long-term sea-level policy, N.C. now has short-term sea-level policy because a Commission did what Hamilton suggests without offering practical ways forward.  There isn’t evidence that Hamilton can be persuaded on this, as he ends with this:

It’s a question of a bad or less bad Anthropocene.

Good luck getting people to react to that in ways that advance a clean energy future.  Because history quite clearly tells us it won’t happen any time soon.  Hamilton in this instance advocates for a distopia while disdaining others’ viewpoints because he thinks they are distopian.  We should not replace one for the other.

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