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2 °C Warming Goal: Zombie Myths Continues

Fresh on the heels of my last post on whether 2 °C should be the exclusive threshold in international diplomacy negotiations, a link to a Grist article written yesterday caught my eye: “What you need to know about the next big climate report“.  What did I find in the 4th paragraph but this appeal to scientific expertise (emphasis mine):

The panel intends for this assessment report to guide international negotiators as they work, in the run-up to the big Paris climate summit in December 2015, to hammer out an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.N. hopes nations will find a way to squeeze through the ever-shrinking window of opportunity and cut a deal to keep the planet from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius of warming — the goal scientists have set to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — before we blow right past that target.

It is worth reminding yourself that everything you encounter in any media is biased somehow.  We’re all human and we all have our own biases.  Nothing is unbiased or objective because the act of putting words to concepts is derived from brains with preferred neural pathways.  There is nothing inherently bad with the bolded language above.  It comes from Grist, which many in the climate activist community view as a legitimate source of information (unlike say, Fox News).  However, the 2 °C threshold was not originally scientific.  That was one of the fundamental take home messages of my last post.

Negotiators in the early 1990s for the IPCC asked for some type of threshold that they might use in negotiations because, not being scientists, they didn’t know what threshold might be useful or appropriate.  A German scientist offered up the 2 °C threshold as part of the UNFCCC process and because nobody else came up with a different threshold or challenged the temperature threshold, negotiators moved it through their process until politicians from countries around the world agreed to insert the language in a formal report.  As is usually the case with these type of things, it has remained as the public threshold ever since.  Climate scientists started using the threshold as part of their work in an attempt to maintain legitimacy in the funding process because politicians control research purse strings.  Finally, as I wrote in my last post, the status quo is very hard to change.  Witness the personalized (not science-based!) attacks on the authors of the Nature Comment that initiated the most recent version of the threshold discussion.

The language Grist uses plays into skeptics hands.  “The goal scientists have set.”  That implies that scientists have political power and have already exercised it at the expense of every other person.  Unsurprisingly, most people aren’t fans of yielding power without a chance at involvement.  Hence one very good reason to subvert those scientists.  Grist is helping perpetrate the meme that there is a conspiracy against non-scientists – a meme that many climate scientist activists further inflame when they claim exclusive providence over anything climate related.  If activists don’t view someone as a perfect example of their tribe, they attack the “other” without hesitation because they’re using the climate issue as a proxy for arguments they should have instead.

Politicians and diplomats set the 2 °C threshold.  They were the only ones that had the power to do so.  Scientists don’t approve the IPCC’s language.  They write their own papers and contribute to the IPCC process, but politicians are responsible for approving every last word in IPCC reports.  Grist writers and editors should know this.  They’re all too willing to allow zombie myths to keep roaming the discussion space, it appears.


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What About That 2 °C Warming Goal?

David G. Victor and Charles F. Kennel, who are researchers in International Relations and Oceanography, respectively, wrote a Comment article for Nature at the beginning of October.  In it, they argued that climate and policy folks should stop using 2 °C as the exclusive goal in international climate policy discussions.  I agree with them on principle, but after reading their paper and numerous rebuttals to it, I also agree with their reasoning.

I’ll start with what they actually said because surprise, surprise, tribal and proxy arguments against their commentary focused on very narrow interpretations.

Bold simplicity must now face reality. Politically and scientifically, the 2 °C goal is wrong-headed. Politically, it has allowed some governments to pretend that they are taking serious action to mitigate global warming, when in reality they have achieved almost nothing. Scientifically, there are better ways to measure the stress that humans are placing on the climate system than the growth of average global surface temperature — which has stalled since 1998 and is poorly coupled to entities that governments and companies can control directly.

I agree with their political analysis.  What have governments – including the US – done to achieve the 2 °C goal?  Germany for instance largely switched to biomass to reduce GHG emissions while claiming that renewables (read: solar and wind) are replacing fossil fuels.  The US established more robust vehicle emissions and efficiency requirements, but the majority of US emission reductions in recent years result from cheap natural gas and the Great Recession.  No country will meet its Kyoto Protocol emissions goal – hence the hand-wringing in advance of the Paris 2015 climate conference.  And by the way, even if countries were meeting Kyoto goals, the goals would not lead to < 2 °C warming.

More from the authors:

There was little scientific basis for the 2 °C figure that was adopted, but it offered a simple focal point and was familiar from earlier discussions, including those by the IPCC, EU and Group of 8 (G8) industrial countries. At the time, the 2 °C goal sounded bold and perhaps feasible.

To be sure, models show that it is just possible to make deep planet-wide cuts in emissions to meet the goal. But those simulations make heroic assumptions — such as almost immediate global cooperation and widespread availability of technologies such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage methods that do not exist even in scale demonstration.

We will not achieve either of the last two requirements.  So we will very likely not achieve <2 °C warming, a politically, not scientifically, established goal.

A single index of climate-change risk would be wonderful. Such a thing, however, cannot exist. Instead, a set of indicators is needed to gauge the varied stresses that humans are placing on the climate system and their possible impacts. Doctors call their basket of health indices vital signs. The same approach is needed for the climate.

Policy-makers should also track ocean heat content and high-latitude temperature. […]

What is ultimately needed is a volatility index that measures the evolving risk from extreme events — so that global vital signs can be coupled to local information on what people care most about. A good start would be to track the total area during the year in which conditions stray by three standard deviations from the local and seasonal mean.

So the authors propose tracking a set of indicators including GHG concentrations, ocean heat content, and high-latitude temperature.  What is most needed? An index that measures evolving risk from extreme events.  That’s pretty cut and dry reading to me.

Of course, climate scientist activists took umbrage that somebody left their tribe and tried to argue for something other than a political goal that they didn’t have any input on that, by the way, we won’t meet anyway.

RealClimate (RC) starts by attacking the authors personally for not describing why the recent surface global warming pause isn’t really a pause – which is a tangential discussion.  RC also writes that “the best estimate of the annual cost of limiting warming to 2 °C is 0.06 % of global GDP”.  Really?  The “best” according to whom and under what set of assumptions?  These aren’t details RC shares, of course.  Cost estimates are increasing in number and accuracy, but this claim also misses the fundamental point the authors made: “technologies such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage methods that do not exist even in scale demonstration”.  RC confuses theoretical calculations of economic cost with the real-world deployment of new technologies.   To achieve the 2 °C goal requires net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.  That means we need to deploy technologies that can remove more CO2 than the entire globe emits every year.  Those technologies do not exist today.  Period.  IF they were available, they would cost a fraction of global annual GDP.  It’s the IF in that sentence that too many critics willfully ignore.

RC then takes the predictable step toward a more stringent goal: 1.5 °C.  Wow.  Please see the previous paragraph to realize why this won’t happen.

RC also dismisses the authors’ claim that the 2 °C guardrail was “uncritically adopted”.  RC counters this wildness by claiming a group came up with the goal in 1995 before being adopted by Germany and the EU in 2005 and the IPCC in 2009.  Um, what critical arguments happened in between those dates?  RC provides no evidence for its own claim.  Was the threshold debated?  If so, when, where, and how?  What happened during the debates?  What were the alternative thresholds and why were they not accepted?  What was it about the 2 °C threshold that other thresholds could not or did not achieve in debates?  We know it wasn’t the technological and political features that demanded we choose 2 °C.  Diplomats and politicians don’t know the scientific details between IPCC emission scenarios or why 2 °C is noteworthy other than a couple of generic statements that a couple of climate-related feedbacks might start near 2 °C.  Absent that scientific expertise, politicians were happy to accept a number from the scientific community and 2 °C was one of the few numbers available to use.  Once chosen, other goals have to pass a higher hurdle than the status quo choice, which faced no similar scrutiny.

RC then rebuts the authors’ proposed long-term goal for a robust extreme events index, claiming that such an index would be more volatile than global temperature.  The basis for such an index, like any, is its utility.  People don’t pay much attention to annual global temperatures because it’s a remote metric.  Who experienced an annual mean global temperature?  Nobody.  We all experienced local temperature variability and psychological research details how those experiences feed directly into a person’s perception of the threat of climate change.  Nothing will change those psychological effects.  So the proposed index, at least in my mind, seeks to leverage them instead of dismissing them.  Will people in Miami experience different climate-related threats at a different magnitude than mid-Westerners or Pacific Islanders?  Of course they will.  2 °C is insufficient because the effects of that threshold will impact different areas differently.  It’s about a useful a threshold as the poverty level or median wage.  Those levels mean very different things in rural areas compared to urban areas due to a long list of factors.  That’s where scientific research can step in and actually help develop a robust index, something that RC dismissed at first read – a very uncritical, knee-jerk response.

Also unsurprisingly, ClimateProgress (CP) immediately attacks the authors’ legitimacy.  It’s telling that the same people who decry such tactics from the right-wing so often employ them in their own discourse with people who are trying to achieve similar goals.  CP also spends time hand waving about theoretical economic analyses while ignoring the basic simple real-world fact that technologies don’t exist today that do what the IPCC assumes they will do starting tomorrow on a global scale.  It’s an inherent and incorrect assumption which invalidates any results based on it.  I can cite lots of theoretical economic analyses in any number of discussions, but the theory has to be implemented in the real world to have any practical meaning.  I want carbon capture technologies deployed globally tomorrow too because I know how risky climate change is.  Wishing doesn’t make it so.  It’s why I’ve been critical of the Obama administration for putting all of their political capital into a plan to drive millions of US consumers into for-profit insurance markets instead of addressing the multitude of problems facing the country, including the desperate need to perform research and development on technologies to help alleviate future climate change.

The authors responded to RC and CP in a DotEarth piece.  I agree with this statement:

The reality is that MOST of the debate about goals should centrally involve the social sciences—more on that below.

What I find interesting about this statement is that if we were to follow RC’s and CP’s heavy-handed criticism, they shouldn’t have a seat at the climate goal-setting table because they don’t have the requisite expertise to participate.  What social science credibility do physical scientists have?  Too many activists like those at RC and CP don’t want anyone else to have a seat at the table, but have they staked out a legitimate claim why they get one while nobody else does?  They continue a little later on:

This is where a little bit of political science is helpful. I can’t think of any complex regulatory function that is performed according to single indicators. Central bankers don’t behave this way when they set (unilaterally and in coordination) interest rates and make other interventions in the economy. Trade policy isn’t organized this way. In our article we use the example of the Millennium Development Goals because that example is perhaps closest to what the UN-oriented policy communities know—again, multiple goals, many indicators. That’s exactly what’s needed on climate.

They also note that different perspectives leads to different types of goals – which directly contradicts the climate community’s acceptance of 2 °C as the only goal to pursue.  They push back against their critics’ denouncement for not including enough about how people set the 2 °C threshold:

The reason it is important to get this story right is not so that the right community gets “credit” for focusing on 2 degrees but so that we can understand how the scientific community has allowed itself to get lulled into thinking that it is contributing to serious goal-setting when, in fact, we have actually not done our jobs properly.

They identify what I think is the real critical issue which people bury with the proxy battles I present above:

That means that for nearly everyone, the question of goals is deeply intertwined with ultimate impacts, adaptability and costs.  Very quickly we can see that matter of goal-setting isn’t some abstract number that is a guardrail but it is bound up in our assessments of risk and of willingness to pay for abatement as well as bear risk.

The point here is perhaps most salient: the 2 °C threshold is but one value in a very large set.  Different people have different goals for different reasons – based on their value system.  As well they should.  The 2 °C threshold is treated as a sacred cow by too many in the climate community.  What happens when, as I now believe will happen, the globe warms more than 2 °C?  Will folks finally stop cherry picking statistics and brow-beating other folks who are really their allies in this effort?  Will folks set aside tribalism and accept expertise from other researchers, you know, acceptance of other sciences?

There are many more pieces written about this Nature Comment that I didn’t get into here.  They all serve as interesting exhibits in the ongoing effort to get our heads around the wicked problem of climate change and design efficient policies to change our emissions habits.  This unfortunately won’t be the final example of such exhibits.


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State of Polar Sea Ice – September 2014: Arctic Sea Ice Minimum and Antarctic Sea Maximum

Global polar sea ice area in September 2014 remained at or near climatological normal conditions (1979-2008).  This situation has held true since early 2013 – a clear departure from conditions during the past 10+ years.  Global sea ice area values consist of two components: Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.  Conditions are quite different between these two regions: there is abundant Antarctic sea ice while Arctic sea ice remained well below normal again during 2014.  I’ll discuss both regions below.

Arctic Sea Ice

According to the NSIDC, September 2014′s average extent was 5.28 million sq. km., a 1.24 million sq. km. below normal conditions.  This value is the minimum for 2014 as less sunlight and colder fall temperatures now allow for melting ice.  September 2014 sea ice extent continued a two-plus year-long trend of monthly mean below normal values.  The deficit from normal was different each month during that time due to weather conditions overlaying longer term climate signals.

Sea ice anomalies at the edge of the pack are of interest.  Laptev and East Siberian Sea ice, for instance, was lower than their respective normals this year while Beaufort Sea and Canadian Archipelago ice maintained higher ice extent this year than they did a few years ago.  Arctic Basin ice extent was lower than its normal, but higher than it was during the late-2000s.

September 2014 average sea ice extent was the sixth lowest in the satellite record (post-1979).  Figure 1 shows that the September linear rate of decline is 13.3% per decade (blue line) relative to the 1981 to 2012 mean, compared to 2.6% per decade decline for March through 2014.  Summer ice is more affected from climate change than winter ice.  Of note, the trend through September 2013 was 13.7%, so this year’s minimum, while historically significant, was not as bad as it was during recent years.

 photo Arctic_monthly_sea_ice_extent_201409_zpsc2d01bbf.png

Figure 1 – Mean Sea Ice Extent for September: 1979-2014 [NSIDC].

Arctic Pictures and Graphs

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of April 1st, 2014:

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_20140401_zpsdd9dbc04.png

Figure 2 UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20140401.

Compare that with the following graphic – a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of October 7th, 2014:

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_20141007_zps42639b5f.png

Figure 3UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration (color contours) from 20141007.  Recent snowfall is indicated by gray-scheme contours over land.

As described above, the 2014 melt season ended with the sixth lowest Arctic sea ice extent during the satellite era.  Approximately 10 million sq. km. of sea ice  melted again this year.  That isn’t a record (11.5 million sq. km. melted in 2012), but that is a lot of melted ice.

Of greater importance is the overall health of the ice pack, which we can begin to ascertain by looking at the volume of ice, as in Figure 4:

 photo SeaIceVolumeAnomaly_20140930_zps48c8bf58.png

Figure 4PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through September 2014.

This graph shows something unique: a recent resurgence of ice volume anomalies during the past 2-3 years.  You can see that in 2011 and 2012, Arctic sea ice volume reached values below the 2nd standard deviation from normal – near -7000 and -8000 km^3.  2013 looked a bit better and 2014 looks better still: volume anomalies are back above the long-term trend line.  While that isn’t enough to declare no problems exist in the Arctic, the situation certainly is different from it was just a couple of years ago.  Put another way, these graphics show something quite different from the strident proclamations of doom from climate activists in early 2013 when holes and cracks were seen earlier than normal on Arctic sea ice.  At the time, they wondered (too loudly at times) whether an ice-free summer was in our immediate future.  I cautioned against such radical conclusions at the time and continue to do so now.  While not healthy, Arctic sea ice isn’t in as bad a shape as some wanted to believe.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Take a look at September’s areal extent time series data:

 photo N_stddev_timeseries_20141001_1_zpsa497f1ad.png

Figure 5NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through early Ocrtober 2014 (light blue line) compared with four recent years’ data, climatological norm (dark gray line) and +/-2 standard deviation envelope (light gray).

This figure puts 2014 into context against other recent winters.  As you can see, Arctic sea ice extent was at or below the bottom of the negative 2nd standard deviation from the 1981-2012 mean during each of the past five years.  The 2nd standard deviation envelope covers 95% of all observations.  That means the past five years’ ice extents were extremely low compared to climatology.  Thankfully, 2014 sea ice extent did not set another all-time record.  This year’s values were within the 2nd standard deviation envelope and look similar to 2013’s.

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from April 2nd, 2014:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20140401_zpsd15f0ddf.png

Figure 6UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20140402.

And here is the corresponding figure from October 7th, 2014:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20141007_zps57847a53.png

Figure 7UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20141007.

Here we see evidence that the Antarctic is quite different from the Arctic.  Instead of record minimums, Antarctic sea ice is recording record maximums.  The April graphic begins the story: the Antarctic sea ice minimum value this year was quite high, so ice started from a different (higher) point than in recent decades.  This new pattern evolved during the past few years and absent additional changes is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  With a head-start on ice extent, mid-winter ice grew to the largest extent on record: 20.03 million sq. km., 1.24 million sq. km. above the 1981 to 2010 average for September ice extent.

Figure 8 shows this situation in time series form:

 photo S_stddev_timeseries_20141001_zps52351c47.png

Figure 8NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through early October 2014.

The big surge in extent in late September is all the more impressive because it set another all-time record for extent, as also happened in 2012 and 2013, as Figure 9 shows:

 photo Antarctic_monthly_sea_ice_extent_201409_zps735c9cd0.png

Figure 9 – Mean Antarctic Sea Ice Extent for September: 1979-2014 [NSIDC].

You’re eyes aren’t deceiving you: the Antarctic September sea ice extent trend is opposite that of the Arctic sea ice extent trend.  The Antarctic trend is +1.3%/decade.  The reason for this seeming discrepancy is rooted in atmospheric chemistry and dynamics (how and why the atmosphere moves the way it does) and ice dynamics.  A reasonable person without polar expertise likely looks at Figures 1 and 9 and says, “I don’t see evidence of catastrophe here.   I see something bad in one place and something good in another place.”  For people without the time or inclination to invest in the layered nuances of climate, most activists come off sounding out of touch when they always preach gloom and doom.  If climate change really were as clearly devastating as activists screamed it was, wouldn’t it be obvious in all these pictures and plots?  Or, as I’ve commented at other places recently, do you really think people who are insecure about their jobs and savings even have the time for this kind of information?

Policy

Given the lack of climate policy development at a national or international level to date, Arctic conditions will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.  This is especially true when you consider that climate effects today are largely due to greenhouse gas concentrations from 30 years ago.  It takes a long time for the additional radiative forcing to make its way through the entire climate system.  The Arctic Ocean will soak up additional energy (heat) from the Sun due to lack of reflective sea ice each summer.  Additional energy in the climate system creates cascading and nonlinear effects throughout the system.  For instance, excess energy can push the Arctic Oscillation to a more negative phase, which allows anomalously cold air to pour south over Northern Hemisphere land masses while warm air moves over the Arctic during the winter.  This in turn impacts weather patterns throughout the year (witness winter 2013-14 weather stories) across the mid-latitudes and prevents rapid ice growth where we want it.

More worrisome for the long-term is the heat that impacts land-based ice.  As glaciers and ice sheets melt, sea-level rise occurs.  Beyond the increasing rate of sea-level rise due to thermal expansion (excess energy, see above), storms have more water to push onshore as they move along coastlines.  We can continue to react to these developments as we’ve mostly done so far and allocate billions of dollars in relief funds because of all the human infrastructure lining our coasts.  Or we can be proactive, minimize future global effects, and reduce societal costs.  The choice remains ours.

Errata

Here are my State of Polar Sea Ice posts from April 2014 and October 2013.


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Climate mitigation and adaptation

Twitter and the blogosphere are aflutter with references to David Robert’s post, “Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent“.  I read the post with the mindset that David was trying to continue recent climate-related public themes.  With that in mind, I wanted to respond to some points.

Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy credited to White House science advisor John Holdren, to wit: We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix. […] It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.

I’ll start by noting my disagreement that Holdren’s framing establishes equitable fungibility.  That’s not the way I interpret it, anyway.  For me, it boils down to this: we have a finite amount of resources to devote to climate action.  What we spend them on remains undecided.  I don’t think of one unit of mitigation equaling one unit of adaptation.  Such a frame strikes me as silly, to be quite frank.  Many factors will go into deciding where to spend resources.  I think local and state US governments are choosing adaptation because they’ve correctly assessed that mitigation is costlier.  Governments have responsibilities to their constituencies – not far-off populations that are admittedly more at risk from climate change than ours.  That’s one of the Big Pillar Problems: climate change effects impact people with little responsibility to the problem disproportionately.  It is psychologically sound to muster less action for “others” than “selves” – for better or worse, altruism isn’t rewarded in our society.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live and operate in.  Wishes aren’t going to change that.

Communities and organizations could break up resources to mitigate potential dirty energy projects and make them clean in foreign countries where it is relatively cheaper to do so while simultaneously allocating remaining resources to address perceived threats locally.  That’s a harder thing to do than what I describe above – only adapt locally – but it’s also cheaper than mitigating locally (for now).

Say I pay $10 to reduce carbon by a ton. I bear the full cost, but because all of humanity benefits, I receive only one seven-billionth of the value of my investment (give or take).

David contradicts what he said prior to this with this statement.  The poorest and most vulnerable benefit more than he does.  But note the fundamental, critical point here: can anyone benefit by $10/7,000,000,000?  What can I do with 1.43*10^-9 dollars?  Absolutely nothing.  And neither can the primary benefitees, who have to share most of that calculable but meaningless number.  The second point which follows quickly on the heels of the first is that any mitigation investment requires multiple billions before anyone sees one dollar’s value and multiple trillions before anyone sees something meaningful.  Where does that money come from and how do we convince people to make the required investment with the aforementioned psychological barriers to doing so?

One obvious implication of this difference is that, to the extent spending favors adaptation over mitigation, it will replicate and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. The benefits will accrue to those with the money to pay for them.

I’ll look at this differently to help understand it better: will additional mitigation spending reduce wealth and power inequalities?  Is David arguing that developing countries will be equally wealthy and powerful if climate spending is directed towards mitigation and not adaptation?  That’s probably a logical extreme.  Will we reduce inequalities between developing and developed countries to a greater extent due to mitigation or adaptation is one potential question we can address.  I haven’t seen anything that convinces me of one argument or the other.  I haven’t seen anything that addresses quantitatively either argument, to be frank.

It becomes more expensive to mitigate to an arbitrarily chosen threshold if the date by which to do so remains unchanged.  That is, if you accept <2C warming by 2100 as a goal (though I’ve detailed many times why such a goal is unfeasible), then mitigation costs are lower if we begin mitigation today instead of 20 years from now.  But why do we accept unnecessary firm boundaries on the problem?  If, as I’ve postulated, <2C warming by 2100 isn’t technologically or politically feasible, then one or both boundaries must change.  The further out in time we set the goal, the likelier it is that technologies will exist to more cheaply attain the goal.  The higher the temperature goal is, the likelier we are to achieve it.  And just like in the rest of our lives, the easier the goal is to attain, the likelier we are to do so.  And once done, the easier it becomes to attain subsequent along-the-road goals.

What’s left out of these goals is developed nation-level energy generation in developing nations – in other words keeping poor people poor indefinitely.  Mitigation alone won’t reduce wealth inequality.  If David wants to reduce wealth inequality, the best way to do so is to post-industrialize developing nations as quickly as possible.  With reduced inequality comes increased power.  The side benefits?  Developed nations actually work on mitigation (again, saving costs by mitigating where it’s cheaper) they can concentrate on adapting to climate effects along the way.

I recognize David’s valid point that skeptics are likely to latch onto the “we need to adapt” frame as a way to continue avoiding “we need to mitigate” concept.  But skeptics are going to continue avoiding the problem so long as we don’t switch how we talk with them.


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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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Climate and Energy Links – 31Aug2014

Some goodies I’ve marked but don’t have time to go into detail on—

The recent slowdown in near-surface global temperature rise has been tackled by many researchers.  This is what research science is all about: proposing hypotheses to explain phenomena.  None of the hypotheses offered can, by themselves, explain all of the slowdown.  They are likely co-occurring, which is one reason why pinning the exact cause is so challenging.  The most recent is that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation is transporting upper-oceanic heat to intermediate depths, where satellites and surface observations cannot detect it.  This theory is in line with separate theories that Pacific circulation is doing much the same thing.  I myself now think the Pacific is probably the largest contributor to heat transport from the surface to ocean depth.  GHG concentrations remain higher than at any point in the past 800,00 years (or more).  Their radiative properties are not changing – which means they continue to re-radiate longwave energy back toward the Earth’s surface.  That energy is going somewhere in the Earth’s climate system because we know it isn’t escaping to space.  This process is hypothesized to last another 15-20 years – whether in the Pacific or Atlantic or both.

Some decent science gets written sloppily by an outfit that normally does  a pretty good job of writing: meteorological organizations across the world continue to say there is a relatively high chance that 2014 will feature an El Niño.  Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it’s reported in this article:

After initially predicting with 90 per cent certainty we’d see an El Niño by the end of the year, forecasters began scaling back their predictions earlier this month.

Number one – that’s not what forecasters predicted and the difference is important.  Forecasters predicted that there was a 90% probability that an El Niño would develop.  Probability and certainty are two very separate concepts – which is why we use two different words to describe two different things.  You’ll notice the forecasters didn’t predict either a 100% probability or with 100% certainty an El Niño would develop.  90% probability is very high, but there remained a 10% probability an El Niño wouldn’t develop.  And so far, it hasn’t.  It is still likelier than not that one will develop, but the chances that one won’t develop are higher now than in June.  A number of factors have not yet come together to initiate an El Niño event.  If they don’t come together, an El Niño likely won’t form this year.  But a blog devoted to climate science and energy policy should know how to write about these topics better than they did in this case.  Oh, and to all the climate activists who bet the farm an El Niño would definitely form this year and prove all those skeptics wrong … you look just as foolish as the skeptics screaming about their closely-held beliefs.  Scientists in particular should know better: wait until groups make observations about El Niño.  Predicting them remains much trickier than weather forecasting.  Because the next time you shout wolf…

On another note, a cool infographic:

Which means 50% of the U.S. population scattered across the entire rest of this big country is trying to tell urbanites how to lead their lives.  Something about tyranny and devotion to small government comes to mind…

Then,

This is certainly a small piece of good news.  Now the reality check: these numbers need to be orders of magnitude higher to keep global temperatures below 2C above the recent mean.  Furthermore, they need to be higher in every country.  China’s deployment of renewable energy dwarfs the U.S.’s and even that isn’t enough.  This is good, but we need much better.

More of this while we’re at it: dialogue between people and climate scientists.

Okay, that’s it.  I have my own paper to write.  Back to it.


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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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