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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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What will 2040 US GHG emissions be

if this graph is anywhere close to accurate?

 photo Electricgeneratingcapacityadditions2000-2040-EIA_zpsa9ed57ae.png

That projection of electric generating capacity additions does not get us to stated emissions goals (e.g., 80% or 90% of 2005 levels by 2050.)  We can easily observe that out-year EIA projections probably are not very accurate and that’s a fair point.  I doubt, for instance, that this graph takes the EPA’s recent proposed rule into account.  The next 5-10 years is probably close to what will happen, however – close enough that any difference will not significantly impact say 2030 or 2040 emissions.

Note the vast difference between natural gas/oil additions for any single year between 2000-2005 and total renewables during any other year.  The only year that comes close to the same size for renewables will be 2015, but that still only amounts to 1/3 to 1/2 the natural gas additions ten years ago.  In order to achieve stated emissions goals, renewable additions will have to double every year between now and 2040.  That’s because new additions have to replace the oldest coal plants first, followed by oldest natural gas plants, and also meet increasing future demand, and generate enough energy during peak production periods to exceed peak consumption periods (not the same times of day).

Additionally, if we want to keep global mean annual temperature increases <2C, the projected natural gas additions have to tail off to zero (not stay constant) because they still emit GHGs.  And if all of that weren’t challenging enough, we must remove carbon from the atmosphere that is due to historical combustion and leakage.  But the basic story of this graph remains: this projection will not enable us to achieve stated emission reduction goals.  This graph is therefore useful in helping us understand what policies are working and what needs to be done in order to approach our emission goal.  For instance, renewables appear to enter a period of no growth in the 2020s.  That is probably unrealistic, but what policies should we consider to boost their deployment above 2005-2010 levels during the 2020s and on into the 2030s and beyond?  How about finance policies for starters?  How about long-term federal and state guarantees?  If we enact the EPA’s proposed power plant rule in most any way close to how it is currently structured, the 2020s and 2030s will likely look very different from this.  That rule could be a good start toward meeting future goals (just not 90% reduction by 2050 or <2C warming; more like 30% reduction by 2050).


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Deep Decarbonization Pathways Interim Report Released

An international group of folks put together an interim report analyzing “Deep Decarbonization Pathways”.  Decarbonization refers to the process of using less carbon within an economy.  The intent of the report was to show ways forward to keep global mean temperatures below 2C.  Readers of this blog know that I no longer think such a goal is achievable given the scope and scale of decarbonization.  We have not moved from a “business-as-usual” approach and have run out of time to reduce GHG emissions prior to relevant limits to meet this goal.  I argue the exact opposite of what the authors describe in their summary:

We do not subscribe to the view held by some that the 2°C limit is impossible to achieve and that it should be weakened or dropped altogether.

Thus the main problem with this report.  They’re using a threshold that was determined without robustly analyzing necessary actions to achieve it.  In other words, they a priori constrain themselves by adopting the 2C threshold.  Specifically, a more useful result would be to ascertain what real-world requirements exist to support different warming values in terms real people can intuitively understand.  The report is not newsworthy in that it reaches the same results that other reports reached by making similar assumptions.  Those assumptions are necessary and sufficient in order to meet the 2C threshold.  But examination unveils something few people want to recognize: they are unrealistic.  I will say that this report goes into more detail than any report I’ve read to date about the assumptions.  The detail is only slightly deeper than the assumptions themselves, but are illuminating nonetheless.

An important point here: the authors make widespread use of “catastrophe” in the report.  Good job there – it continues the bad habit of forcing the public to tune out anything the report has to say.  Why do people insist on using physical science, but not social science to advance policy?

On a related note, the report’s graphics are terrible.  They’re cool-color only, which makes copy/paste results look junky and interpretation harder than it should be.  So they put up multiple barriers to the report’s results.  I’m not sure why if the intent is to persuade policy makers toward action, but …

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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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REMI’s Carbon Tax Report

I came across former NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s email last week supporting a carbon tax.  At the outset, I fully support this policy because it is the most economically effective way to achieve CO2 emission reductions.  An important point is this: it matters a lot how we apply the tax and what happens to the money raised because of it.  Many policy analysts think that the only way a carbon tax will ever pass is for the government to distribute the revenue via dividends to all households.  This obviously has appealing aspects, not least of which is Americans love free stuff.  That is, we love to reap the benefits of policies so long as they cost us nothing.  That attitude is obviously unsustainable – you have simply to look at the state of American infrastructure today to see the effects.

All that said, the specific carbon tax plan Hansen supported came from a Regional Economic Models, Inc. report, which the Citizens Climate Lobby commissioned.  The report found what CCL wanted it to find: deep emission cuts can result from a carbon tax.  There isn’t anything surprising with this – many other studies found the exact same result.  What matters is how we the emission cuts are achieved.  I think this study is another academic dead-end because I see little evidence how the proposed tax actually achieves the cuts.  It looks like REMI does what the IPCC does – they assume large-scale low-carbon energy technologies.  The steps of developing and deploying those technologies are not clearly demonstrated.  Does a carbon tax simply equate to low-carbon technology deployment?  I don’t think so.

First, here is an updated graphic showing REMI’s carbon emission cuts compared to other sources:

 photo EPA2014vsEIA2012vsKyotovsREMI2014_zps961bb7c7.png

The blue line with diamonds shows historical CO2 emissions.  The dark red line with squares shows EIA’s 2013 projected CO2 emissions through 2030.  EIA historically showed emissions higher than those observed.  This newest projection is much more realistic.  Next, the green triangles show the intended effect of EPA’s 2014 power plant rule.  I compare these projections against Kyoto `Low` and `High` emission cut scenarios.  An earlier post showed and discussed these comparisons.  I added the modeled result from REMI 2014 as orange dots.

Let me start by noting I have written for years now that we will not achieve even the Kyoto `Low` scenario, which called for a 20% reduction of 1990 baseline emissions.  The report did not clearly specify what baseline year they considered, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt in this analysis and chose 2015 as the baseline year.  That makes their cuts easier to achieve since 2015 emissions were 20% higher than 1990 levels.  Thus, their “33% decrease from baseline” by 2025 results in emissions between Kyoto’s `Low` and `High` scenarios.

REMI starts with a $10 carbon tax in 2015 and increases that tax by $10/year.  In 10 years, carbon costs $100/ton.  That is an incredibly aggressive taxing scheme.  This increase would have significant economic effects.  The report describes massive economic benefits.  I will note that I am not an economist and don’t have the expertise to judge the economic model they used.  I will go on to note that as a climate scientist, all models have fundamental assumptions which affect the results they generate.  The assumptions they made likely have some effect on their results.

Why won’t we achieve these cuts?  As I stated above, technologies are critical to projecting emission cuts.  What does the REMI report show for technology?

 photo REMI2014ElectricalPowerGeneration-2scenarios_zpse41c17d9.png

The left graph shows US electrical power generation without any policy intervention (baseline case).  The right graph shows generation resulting from the $10/year carbon tax policy.  Here is their models’ results: old unscrubbed coal plants go offline in 2022 while old scrubbed coal plants go offline in 2025.  Think about this: there are about 600 coal plants in the US generating the largest single share of electricity of any power source.  The carbon tax model results assumes that other sources will replace ~30% of US electricity in 10 years.  How will that be achieved?  This is the critical missing piece of their report.

Look again at the right graph.  Carbon captured natural gas replaces natural gas generation by 2040.  Is carbon capture technology ready for national-level deployment?  No, it isn’t.  How does the report handle this?  That is, who pays for the research and development first, followed by scaled deployment?  The report is silent on this issue.  Simply put, we don’t know when carbon capture technology will be ready for scaled deployment.  Given historical performance of other technologies, it is safe to assume this development would take a couple of decades once the technology is actually ready.

Nuclear power generation also grows a little bit, as does geothermal and biopower.  This latter technology is interesting to note since it represents the majority of the percentage increase of US renewable power generation in the past 15 years (based on EIA data) – something not captured by their model.

The increase in wind generation is astounding.  It grows from a few hundred Terawatt hours to over 1500 TWh in 20 years time.  This source is the obvious beneficiary to a carbon tax.  But I eschew hard to understand units.  What does it mean to replace the majority of coal plants with wind plants?  Let’s step back from academic exercises that replace power generation wholesale and get into practical considerations.  It means deploying more than 34,000 2.5MW wind turbines operating at 30% efficiency per year every year.  (There are other metrics by which to convey the scale, but they deal with numbers few people intuitively understand.)  According to the AWEA, there were 46,100 utility-scale wind turbines installed in the US at the end of 2012.  How many years have utilities installed wind turbines?  Think of the resources required to install almost as many wind turbines in just one year as already exist in the US.  Just to point out one problem with this installation plan: where do the required rare earth metals come from?  Another: are wind turbine supply chains up to the task of manufacturing 34,000 wind turbines per year?  Another: are wind turbine manufacturing plants equipped to handle this level of work?  Another: are there enough trained workers to supply, make, transport, install, and maintain this many wind turbines?  Another: how is wind energy stored and transmitted from source to use regions (thousands of miles in many cases).

Practical questions abound.  This report is valuable as an academic exercise, but  I don’t see how wind replaces coal in 20 years time.  I want it to, but putting in a revenue-neutral carbon tax probably won’t get it done.  I don’t see carbon capture and sequestration ready for scale deployment in 10 years time.  I would love to be surprised by such a development but does a revenue-neutral carbon tax generate enough demand for low-risk seeking private industry to perform the requisite R&D?  At best, I’m unconvinced it will.

After doing a little checking, a check reminded me that British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008; currently it is $40 (Canadian).  Given that, you might think it serves as a good example of what the US could do with a similar tax.  If you dig a little deeper, you find British Columbia gets 86% of its electricity from hydropower and only 6% from natural gas, making it a poor test-bed to evaluate how a carbon tax effects electricity generation in a large, modern economy.


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More on EPA’s Proposed CO2 Emissions Rule: Podesta; Role of Science

I just found this article and wanted to point out a couple of things related to my post on the EPA’s proposed CO2 emissions rule.  The first (emphasis mine):

In a two-hour interview conducted just weeks before his return to Obama’s inner circle as White House Counsel, Podesta told me that the president had been willing to take risks and expend political capital on the climate issue. “But fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” Podesta asked. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.

Podesta blamed Obama’s spotty climate record in part on the president’s top aides during his first term (aides who Podesta, as Obama’s transition director in 2008, helped select). The aides’ attitudes about climate change, Podesta recalled, were dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.

I agree with Podesta’s assessment that fifty years from now people will look back and judge that Obama and everyone else didn’t do enough to curtail GHG emissions and prevent a great deal of additional global warming.  That isn’t a slight on Obama’s character – or anyone else’s – it’s a statement on how I view action on the topic.

Isn’t it interesting that Podesta helped select the same aides who refused to push climate higher on the problem list?  Podesta is a smart guy – he knew what peoples’ pet issues were and what weren’t on their list of priorities.  So in the same interview that Podesta says Obama’s climate actions won’t seem like enough in fifty years, Podesta lays some blame at the feet of first-term aides who didn’t prioritize climate for the lack of Obama’s action.  Perhaps a little self-assessment didn’t make the article due to editing, but it would be nice to see people take responsibility for how we’ve gotten here.  That includes Democrats and climate activists right along with Republicans and skeptics.

The next quote really rankles me:

The Obama Administration’s newly proposed regulations on power plants illustrate how the president continues to fall short of what science demands in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change. From a scientific perspective, there is much less to these regulations than either industry opponents or environmental advocates are claiming.

[...]

The science he is faced with [...] demand actions that seem preposterous to the political and economic status quo.

This language implicitly assumes that what certain people want should take precedence over others.  The author, like many others, think they would like those certain people to be scientists instead of conservative theologians or accountants or any other person.  Science doesn’t demand anything in this or any other instance.  We use physical science to assess what the physical effects of GHGs have been and will be on the climate system.  That’s where physical science ends.  If you want to do anything about that information, you bring in social science – political science, sociology, environmental science, philosophy, etc.  Those fields have much to say about what to do and why a particular course of action might be desirable – see normative theory.

Too many people confuse the two.  Or more accurately in the climate change realm, they argue using physical science as a proxy in normative debates.  This is a large source of the polarization of science today.  Instead of using proxies, people should debate the core issues.  If the core issue is the political left versus right, the debate should be on value systems and specific values.  Instead, people drag climate science into the normative debate and among the results is the refusal to accept climate science as valid by skeptics.  This has more to do with perception of legitimate authority than the actual science.

Back to the science:

Podesta, however, acknowledged that Obama’s climate policy (as it stood last November) would not hit the 2°C target. “Maybe it gets you on a trajectory to three degrees,” he said, “but it doesn’t get you to two degrees.”

I wrote much the same thing.  The science is quite clear on this.  Whether you think the policy is bad or good or whether hitting or not hitting the 2°C target is a bad or good thing are separate discussions.  Personally, I think not hitting the 2°C target is a bad thing.  But I know that’s a normative judgment about a scientific result.  I therefore support more effective policy actions such as a carbon tax.

Again, this rule is merely proposed at this time.  EPA originally said it would propose the rule in 2011-2012, then put it on indefinite hold so Obama could run for re-election.  It will now face legal challenges.  It will not go into effect for at least two years, and quite possibly four to six years after all the legal challenges.  In that time frame, we will have at least one new president, who will put their choice for EPA administrator in place, who will be responsible for directing the agency on the rule’s implementation.  The rule will be effective until 2030 and will face two additional presidential election results.  Do climate activists think Republicans will leave the rule alone through 2030?  How do we square that with the knowledge the rule is far from sufficient to limit warming to <2°C?  What are the next policy steps with these real world boundaries?


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EPA’s Proposed CO2 Emissions Rule in Context

 photo EPA2014vsEIA2012vsKyoto_zps8d150e25.png

If you follow climate and energy news, you probably have or will encounter media regarding today’s proposed CO2 emissions rule by the EPA.  Unfortunately, that media will probably not be clear about what the rule means in understandable terms.  I’m writing this in an attempt to make the proposed rule more clear.

The graph above shows US CO2 emissions from energy consumption.  This includes emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas.  I have differentiated historical emissions in blue from 2013 EIA projections made in red, what today’s EPA proposal would mean for future emission levels, and low and high reductions prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol, which the US never ratified.

In 2011, historical US energy-related emissions totaled 5,481 million metric tons of CO2.  For the most part, you can ignore the units and just concentrate on emission’s magnitude: 5,481.  If the EPA’s proposed rule goes into effect and achieves what it sets out to achieve, 2020 emissions could be 4,498 MMT and 2030 emissions could be 4,198 MMT (see the two green triangles).  Those 2030 emissions would be lower than any time since 1970 – a real achievement.  It should be apparent by the other comparisons that this potential achievement isn’t earth shaking however.

Before I get further into that, compare the EPA-related emissions with the EIA’s projections out to 2030.  These projections were made last year and are based on business as usual – i.e., no federal climate policy or EPA rule.  Because energy utilities closed many of their dirtiest fossil fuel plants following the Great Recession due to their higher operating costs and the partial transfer from coal to natural gas, the EIA now projects emissions just above 2011’s and below the all-time peak.  I read criticism of EIA projections this weekend (can’t find the piece now) that I think was too harsh.  The EIA historically projected emissions in excess of reality.  I don’t think their over-predictions are bad news or preclude their use in decision-making.  If you know the predictions have a persistent bias, you can account for it.

So there is a measurable difference between EIA emission projections and what could happen if the EPA rule is enacted and effective.  With regard to that latter characterization, how effective might the rule be?

If you compare the EPA emission reductions to the Kyoto reductions, it is obvious that the reductions are less than the minimum requirement to avoid significant future climate change.  But first, it is important to realize an important difference between Kyoto and the EPA rule: the Kyoto pathways are based off 1990 emissions and the EPA is based off 2005 emissions.  What happened between 1990 and 2005 in the real world?  Emissions rose by 19% from 5,039 MMT to 5,997 MMT.  The takeaway: emission reductions using 2005 as a baseline will result in higher final emissions than using a 1990 baseline.

If the US ratified and implemented Kyoto on the `Low` pathway (which didn’t happen), 2020 emissions would be 4,031 MMT (467 MMT less than EPA; 1445 MMT less than EIA) and 2050 emissions would be 2,520 MMT (no comparison with EPA so far).  If the US implemented the `High` pathway, 2020 emissions would be 3,527 MMT (971 MMT less than EPA!; 1,949 MMT less than EIA!) and 2050 emissions would be drastically slashed to 1,008 MMT!

Since we didn’t implement the Kyoto Protocol, we will not even attain 2020 `Kyoto Low` emissions in 2030.  Look at the graph again.  Connect the last blue diamond to the first green triangle.  Even though they’re the closest together, you can immediately see we have a lot of work to do to achieve even the EPA’s reduced emissions target.  Here is some additional context: to keep 2100 global mean temperatures <2C, we have to achieve the lowest emissions pathway modeled by the IPCC for the Fifth Assessment Report (see blue line below):

 photo CO2_Emissions_AR5_Obs_Nature_article_zps1e766d71.jpg

Note the comment at the bottom of the graph: global CO2 emissions have to turn negative by 2070, following decades of declines.  How will global emissions decline and turn negative if the US emits >3,000 MMT annually in 2050?  The short answer is easy: they won’t.  I want to combine my messages so far in this post: we have an enormous amount of work to reduce emissions to the EPA level.  That level is well below Kyoto’s Low level, which would have required a lot of work in today’s historical terms.  That work now lies in front of us if we really want to avoid >2C warming and other effects.  I maintain that we will not reduce emissions commensurate with <2C warming.  I think we will emit enough CO2 that our future will be along the RCP6.0 to RCP8.5 pathways seen above, or 3-5C warming and related effects.

Another important detail: the EPA’s proposed rule has a one-year comment period which will result in a final rule.  States then have another year to implement individual plans to achieve their reductions (a good idea).  The downside: the rule won’t go into effect until 2016 – only four years before the first goal.  What happens if the first goal isn’t achieved?  Will future EPA administrators reset the 2030 goal so it is more achievable (i.e., higher emissions)?  Will lawsuits prevent rule implementation for years?  There are many potential setbacks for implementing this rule.  And it doesn’t achieve <2C warming, not even close.


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NASA & NOAA: April 2014 Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA this month, April was the warmest April globally on record.  Here are the data for NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in slightly different temperature anomaly values but the same overall rankings within their respective data sets.  The analyses result in different rankings in most months.  The two techniques do provide a check on one another and confidence for us that their results are robust.  At the beginning, I will remind readers that the month-to-month and year-to-year values and rankings matter less than the long-term climatic warming.  Weather is the dominant factor for monthly and yearly conditions, not climate.

The details:

April’s global average temperature was 0.73°C (1.314°F) above normal (14°C; 1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.63°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (May 2013 – Apr 2014) had a +0.62°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The 2010-2012 downturn was largely due to the last La Niña event (see below for more).  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niño).  As previous anomalously cool months fell off the back of the running mean, the 12-month temperature trace tracked upward again throughout 2013 and 2014.

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Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through April 2014 from NASA.

According to NOAA, April’s global average temperatures were +0.77°C (1.386°F) above the 20th century average of 13.7°C (56.7°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for April (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer and cooler than average during the month.

 photo NOAA-Temp_Analysis_201404_zps92d3f6cb.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for August 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same spatial temperature patterns and their relative strength.

Influence of ENSO

 photo NinoSSTAnom20140501_zpsc925f282.gif

Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is `NINO 3.4` (2nd time series from top).

There has been neither El Niño nor La Niña in the past couple of years.  This ENSO-neutral phase is common.  As you can see in the NINO 3.4 time series (2nd from top in Figure 3), Pacific sea surface temperatures were relatively cool in January through March, then quickly warmed.  This switch occurred because normal easterly winds (blowing toward the west) across the equatorial Pacific relaxed and two significant westerly wind bursts occurred in the western Pacific.  These anomalous winds generated an eastward moving Kelvin wave, which causes downwelling and surface mass convergence.  Warm SSTs collect along the equator as a result.  These Kelvin waves eventually crossed the entire Pacific Ocean, as Figure 4 shows.

 photo PacifcOcEqTAnomaly20140523_zpsff7554f1.gif

Figure 4.  Sub-surface Pacific Ocean temperature anomalies from Jan-Apr 2014.  Anomalously cool eastern Pacific Ocean temperatures in January gave way to anomalously warm temperatures by April.  Temperatures between 80W and 100W warmed further since April 14.

The Climate Prediction Center announced an El Niño Watch earlier this year.  The most recent update says the chances of an El Niño during the rest of 2014 exceeds 65%.  There is no reliable prediction of the potential El Niño’s strength at this time.  Without another westerly wind burst, an El Niño will likely not be very strong.  Even moderate strength El Niños impact global weather patterns.

An important detail is whether the potential 2014 El Niño will be an Eastern or Central Pacific El Niño (see figure below).  Professor Jin-Yi Yu, along with colleagues, first proposed the difference in a 2009 Journal of Climate paper.  More recently, Yu’s work suggested a recent trend toward Central Pacific El Niños influenced the frequency and intensity of recent U.S. droughts.  This type of El Niño doesn’t cause global record temperatures, but still impacts atmospheric circulations and the jet stream, which impacts which areas receive more or less rain.  If the potential 2014 El Niño is an Eastern Pacific type, we can expect monthly global mean temperatures to spike and the usual precipitation anomalies commonly attributed to El Niño.

 photo EastvsCentralPacificENSOschematic_zps08856e81.jpg

Figure 5. Schematic of Central-Pacific ENSO versus Eastern-Pacific ENSO as envisioned by Dr. Jin-Yi Yu at the University of California – Irvine.

If an El Niño does occur later in 2014, it will mask some of the deep ocean heat absorption by releasing energy back to the atmosphere.  If that happens, the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 will likely set global surface temperature records.  2014, 2015, or both could set the all-time global mean temperature record (currently held by 2010).  Some scientists recently postulated that an El Niño could also trigger a shift from the current negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO; or PDO for just the northern hemisphere) to a new positive phase.  This would be similar in nature, though different in detail, as the shift from La Niña or neutral conditions to El Niño.  If this happens, the likelihood of record hot years would increase.  I personally do not believe this El Niño will shift the IPO phase.  I don’t think this El Niño will be strong enough and I don’t think the IPO is in a conducive state for a switch to occur.

The “Hiatus”

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less energy is leaving the Earth than the Earth is receiving; this is due to atmospheric greenhouse gases) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  The heat has to go somewhere – energy doesn’t just disappear.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see figure below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor due to the warmer atmosphere.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 6. Recent research shows anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

You can see in Figure 6 that the upper 300m of the world’s oceans accumulated less heat during the 2000s (5*10^22 J) than during the 1990s.  In contrast, accumulated heat greatly increased in ocean waters between 300m and 700m during the 2000s (>10*10^22 J).  We cannot and do not observe the deep ocean with great frequency.  We do know from frequent and reliable observations that the sea surface and relatively shallow ocean did not absorb most of the heat in the past decade.  We also know how much energy came to and left the Earth from satellite observations.  If we know how much energy came in, how much left, and how much the land surface and shallow ocean absorbed, it is a relatively straightforward computation to determine how much energy likely remains in the deep ocean.

Discussion

The fact that April 2014 was the warmest on record despite a negative IPO and a neutral ENSO is eye-opening.  I think it highlights the fact that there is an even lower frequency signal underlying the IPO, ENSO, and April weather: anthropogenic warming.  That signal is not oscillatory, it is increasing at an increasing rate and will continue to do so for decades to centuries.  The length of time that occurs and its eventual magnitude is dependent on our policies and activities.  We continue to emit GHGs at or above the high-end of the range simulated by climate models.  Growth in fossil fuel use at the global scale continues.  This growth dwarfs any effect of a switch to energy sources with lower GHG emissions.  I don’t think that will change during the next 15 years, which would lock us into the warmer climate projections through most of the rest of the 21st century.  The primary reason for this is the scale of humankind’s energy infrastructure.  Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will take decades.  Acknowledging this isn’t defeatist or pessimistic; it is I think critical in order to identify appropriate opportunities and implement the type and scale of policy responses to encourage that switch.


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Climate Communication: Case Study

Climate Communication

What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?  Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, or radon?

I’ll give you an opportunity to think about your answer.

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60% of 2013 Pew poll respondents answered correctly: carbon dioxide.

What was the political affiliation of those correct responders: Democratic, Unaffiliated, or Republican?

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There was no statistically significant difference between the responders’ affiliation, but Republicans were somewhat more likely than Unaffiliateds and Democrats to answer correctly:

 photo PewPoll-CO2andTempbyPoliticalParty_zps96cdd163.png

What a minute.  Does that make sense?  More Democrats than Republicans believe that humans are causing global warming, but they don’t know the most fundamental fact about the topic.  Conversely, more Republicans do not believe the human-global warming relationship, but know that CO2 is a GHG and causes the atmosphere to warm.  Don’t climate activists rail against Republicans for dismissing facts or being uneducated?  They sure do, and I  think it increasingly hurts their cause.

In a nutshell, it’s not about education.  Belief statements about climate change don’t convey science knowledge; they express who people are.

This is a very good piece, which Dan Kahan delivered at Earthday “Climate teach in/out” at Yale University last month.  The  upshot: What you “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*.  This flies in the face of the approach many physical scientists (and academic faculty) take.  According to them, people are stupid and need only be filled with knowledge they possess.  That isn’t the case at all.  Instead, people respond to this and similar questions according to their identification with a cultural group.  As Kahan writes:

It [the result of taking the “wrong” position in relation to a cultural group] could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between individual the people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

And note this doesn’t just apply to evangelical Christians, a group many climate activists derogatorily cite.  This applies just as equally to those climate activists – which explains ideological positions entrenchment on the topic of climate change, evolution, the Big Bang, etc.

Kahan continues:

But while that’s the rational way for people to engage information as individuals, given what climate change signifies about their cultural identities, it’s a disaster for them collectively.  Because if everyone does this at the same time, members of a culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on scientific evidence that is crucial to the welfare of all of them.

So there’s more helplessness as a result of climate change?  No, there’s not.  Kahan offers a solution and well stated opinion on where things stand:

If we want to overcome it, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.

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That means you, as a science communicator, can enable these citizens to converge on the best available evidence on climate change.

But to do it, you must banish from the science communication environment the culturally antagonistic meanings with which positions on that issue have become entangled—so that citizens can think and reason for themselves free of the distorting impact of identity-protective cognition.

If you want to know what that sort of science communication environment looks like, I can tell you where you can see it: in Florida, where all 7 members of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners — 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans — voted unanimously to join Broward County (predominantly Democratic), Monroe County (predominantly Republican), and Miami-Dade County (predominantly Republican) in approving the Southeast Climate Compact Action plan, which, I quote from the Palm Beach County Board summary, “includes 110 adaptation and mitigation strategies for addressing seal-level risk and other climate issues within the region.”

I’ll tell you another thing about what you’ll see if you make this trip: the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything  like the culturally assaultive “us-vs-them” YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for America are flooding national discourse.

And if you want to improve public engagement with climate science in the United States, the fact that advocates as high profile and as highly funded as that still haven’t figured out the single most important lesson to be learned from the science of science communication should make you very sad.

Those last two paragraphs convey my sentiments well.  Climate activists rail against skeptics as uneducated and ideologically motivated.  They label them anti-scientific and Luddites.  They try to put themselves on the high ground of the debate landscape by claiming the science flag.  Unfortunately, they focus their attention singularly on physical science and discount social science results.  While they do this, they alienate potentially receptive audiences and ensure the pace of climate action remains glacial.

There are proven ways to better communicate climate risk to a culturally pluralistic population.  Small examples are available for study and emulation.  We need to break old communication habits and adopt new ones.


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April 2014 CO2 Concentrations: 401.33ppm

During April 2014, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 401.33 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 401.33 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any April in recorded history.  This year’s April value is approximately 2.97 ppm higher than April 2013′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is outside of that range, but not extreme.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

April 2014’s mean value of 401.33 ppm also represents the first time in contemporary history that a monthly mean exceed 400 ppm.  The last time CO2 concentrations were this high was at least 800,000 years ago, and likely even longer – on the order of millions of years ago.  The implications of this measurement are in some ways subtle and in some ways overt, as I discuss below.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest recorded value (neglecting proxy data) in 2013.  May 2013′s record held until April of this year when the annual cycle pushed a monthly value above this record.  Just like in years past, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February or March 2015 … you get the idea.)  April 2014 is the first calendar month with mean CO2 concentrations above 400 ppm, but it won’t be the last.  May 2014 will be the second.  September 2015 will likely be one of the last months with mean concentrations below 400 ppm.  After that, we probably won’t witness <400 ppm again.

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201404_zpsf4794b1c.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in February from 1958 through 2014.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201404_zps537c4cea.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2010 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred seven months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred eleven months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

The data in this graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201404_zps13abf83e.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  The extra heat added to the climate system during the past 150 years has almost exclusively gone into the ocean; during the past 15 years into the deep ocean (>700m).  The latter is the result of low-frequency climate oscillations’ recent states (e.g., negative IPO phase).  That process cannot and will not last forever.  Within the next 5-15 years, those oscillations will switch phase and the excess energy will once again be more apparent near the Earth’s surface (where measurements are numerous and accurate).  Meanwhile, the extra oceanic heat will continue to expand the ocean’s volume, which will further increase global mean sea level.  That heat will also one day transfer to the atmosphere, causing further changes for land-based systems.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

Climate change as a result of increasing GHGs is affected cumulatively – that is, climate change effects we witness today are mostly a result of previous decades’ GHG concentrations, not today’s.  Today’s concentrations will exert climate influence in future decades, not tomorrow.  This lagged effect is one significant problem with climate action.  Theoretically, if we could reduce CO2 emissions to zero today, today’s concentrations would cause further climate change for decades.  All that said, the most obvious way to reduce additional future climate change is to reduce emissions.  That requires either economic contraction or decarbonization (reducing the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic output).

Since we don’t want the former to happen, we have to focus on the latter.  What does that entail?  That entails directing public money to widespread science and technology research, development, and deployment.  That entails innovators trying thousands of ideas so that we implement a few successes that are really efficient.  Not every attempt will succeed – indeed, most will fail.  We have to find out what doesn’t work as part of the process to find out what does work.  That entails a sustained commitment to such efforts.  This won’t happen with three years’ funding.  It will happen with thirty and three hundred years funding.  The California-related reports I mentioned yesterday (and will write about) demonstrate just how challenging the task is.  Those challenges relate to opportunities, which is exactly how we have to frame them in order to get people to support them.  As I often write, CO2 emissions and later concentrations will decline when we as a society want them to.


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2014 US National Climate Assessment Released

The US Global Change Research Program issued its latest National Climate Assessment today. There are lots of goodies in it.  I want to focus on a couple of things that caught my eye in an initial skim.

Impacts will increase in frequency and severity (no big surprise there). This assessment includes up-t0-date research results on those impacts.  Like most reports, they leave `Responses` as a final category.  I understand the logic of laying out the evidence of climate change and its impacts prior to discussing solutions, but as I’ve written before today, people primarily respond to solutions and not problems.  Only the most dedicated readers will make it all the way through the report to get to the Response section.  My worry is that the Response section will not be the focus of activists’ attention; a continuation of decades of wasted energy.

Extreme Weather

The report summarizes the state-of-the-science well: “Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts.”  That is accurate.  I do not think one example is valid, however.  The report discusses anomalous warmth and dryness in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011.  I do not argue that the event occurred; I blogged about it and the subsequent 2012 Great Plains drought.  Where I deviate from the Assessment is this: there is scant evidence that the 2011 Southern Plains drought had a strong climate signal.  The same goes for the 2012 Great Plains drought.  Instead, these droughts were strongly linked to drier summertime conditions during the recent decade as part of a regime shift, most probably due to natural decadal variability (Hoerling et al. 2014).  The 2011 Texas heat wave was more likely to occur than it was 40 years ago.  This is not the same thing as identifying a clear attribution – something that remains at the cutting edge of climate science.

Likewise, the largest determinant of Atlantic hurricanes remains natural variability.  The Assessment’s statement that Atlantic hurricane activity increased since the early 1980s is true, but there are important details to consider.  The Atlantic signal is opposite the global signal (a small reduction in overall hurricane activity in that same time period), so regional effects are important to consider.  The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation is currently in a positive phase (since the early 1980s – isn’t that interesting?), which includes a warmer than usual Atlantic Ocean.  All else equal, this facilitates tropical storm development, which we’ve seen.

The Assessment’s conclusion stands in direct contrast to a couple of peer-reviewed papers, including Chylek and Lesins 2008 (we find no increase in the number of major hurricanes (category 3–5); If there is an increase in hurricane activity connected to a greenhouse gas induced global warming, it is currently obscured by the 60 year quasi-periodic cycle.) and Enfield and Cid-Serrano 2009 (Projections to the year 2025 show that the cumulative change in summer warm pool size since 1975 will depend critically on whether a subsequent cooling in the multidecadal cycle occurs, comparable to the warming between 1975 and 2000 AD.)  In other words, determining how man-made warming affects Atlantic hurricanes will not be detectable from the natural signal for many years to come.

That doesn’t mean we do nothing.  To the contrary, I argue that we need to adapt our current infrastructure to our current climate.  Multi-billion dollar events occur today.  Most of that is related to increases in population and wealth, as the Assessment reports.  We can lessen impacts by hardening our infrastructure (taking the likeliest climate effects into account) today while simultaneously mitigating future climate effects.  One should not happen without the other, but at a minimum, we need to adapt to today’s climate while recognizing tomorrow’s climate will be different.

Southwest

I want to cite the impacts the Assessment identifies for the Southwest, which includes California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.  This region is the hottest and driest of the US.  They include: “increased heat, drought, insect outbreaks, and wildfires.  Declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas are additional concerns.”

Key messages:

  • Reduced snowpack and streamflow
  • Agricultural threats
  • Increased wildfire
  • Sea level rise
  • Heat threats to health

Southwest Responses

I really want to highlight one of the responses.  Without having read through all the responses carefully, I want to point out that I hope other responses are better than this one.  The selected response shows one scenario that could theoretically achieve 80% GHG reductions from 1990 levels by 2050:

 photo SW_energy-generation-by-2045_12447_v10-hi_0_zps2c73bc2c.jpg

I’ll discuss Colorado here; the Assessment included references to exhaustive reports for California, which I’ll cover in the future.

The latest data for Colorado’s net generation shares (2012) demonstrate the immense challenge confronting the scenario shown above.  Broken down by percentage: coal (64.3%), natural gas (20.1%), wind (11.2%), hydroelectric (3.7%), solar (0.3%), biomass and other (0.1% each).  The scenario above (still trying to pin down units) shows that wind can become the dominant source of electricity generation.  In principle, I agree.  But wind would have to switch places with coal as the dominant generation type by 2050 to achieve 80% GHG reductions.  Wind has penetrated the electricity generation market, which I fought for and applaud.  But it still trails natural gas (1/2 the generation) and significantly trails coal (1/5 the generation).  Changing those ratios requires a policy upheaval which I don’t think is likely.  Renewables will eventually supplant fossil fuels as primary generation technologies.  At this time, I don’t think it will happen in Colorado or anywhere else (California has an outside shot) by 2050.

Conclusion

This Assessment is useful for academics and activists, but is probably not useful for the general public.  A brief review of the Response section didn’t convince me that the writers and editors had the public as their primary audience.  I’ve seen Twitter explode today with comments regarding how people were at the forefront of this report, how actionable the information is, etc.  I’m not convinced yet.  Hopefully that will change.

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