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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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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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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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