The Earth’s oceans are taking quite the pounding. As a direct result of people’s activities, most of the accumulated warmth has been absorbed by the oceans. CO2 also presents a problem: chemical reactions involving CO2 work to make the oceans more acidic. It doesn’t take too much of a difference from long-term pH values for life-forms to be negatively impacted. The world’s oceans are currently acidifying at a rate that hasn’t been seen for at least 800,000 years. That acidifying rate is projected to further increase during the remainder of this century.
After the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, it was apparent that a number of countries had made pledges that needed backing up at home in the form of laws. The U.S. is one such example. Our House of Representatives passed a climate and energy bill back in June. Similar legislation has yet to come up for any votes at all in the Senate.
On the flip side of the coin, Brazil is an example of a country that made a pledge and now can point to a law backing up that pledge. The law requires CO2 emissions to be reduced by 39% by 2020. I haven’t found the baseline year they’re measuring against – i.e. 2005 emissions or 1990 emissions. The 1990 emissions would obviously be more restrictive, so my initial gut feeling is they’re using their 2005 emissions as a benchmark.
To be fair, Brazil isn’t the textbook case of a country which has always done things in an environmentally conscious way. But they are closer to action than we are.
By a twist of chance, I somehow missed the much talked about UN draft text yesterday afternoon, so I’m a little late to this. A number of bloggers have referred to it as a secret UN analysis. Most folks are completely up in arms about it. Until more information comes out from the end of the Copenhagen Conference, I’m going to exercise caution and not jump to conclusions. I’ll share what details I understand and provide my analysis of what’s gone on.
What is everybody freaking out about? Supposedly, a “leaked UN report” contained info on cuts offered at Copenhagen and what those cuts would mean for total GHG pollution amounts and associated warming. It shows a gap of up to 4.2 gigatonnes of carbon emissions below the required 2020 level of 44Gt, that is , the level currently thought to be required to stay below a global 2C rise. That 2C rise has been cited as being critical to keeping catastrophic climate change at bay. Below that rise, we should be “okay”; above it, we will face severe climatic consequences.
Do you know what the biggest problem with the 2007 IPCC Report is? If you think it’s the largest conspiracy in the history of mankind, you’re in for quite a shock. No, the biggest problem is that reality is far outpacing the assumptions made to construct the Report. What do I mean? I mean glaciers are melting faster, temperatures are rising faster, CO2 emissions are increasing faster, methane concentrations are rising faster, etc. The assumptions made for the report that I’m aware of all underestimate the pace at which the climate system is changing. And to be clear, I’m not bashing the report. I’m concerned that the problem is growing and it’s not getting enough attention.
Case in point: a new study [subscrip. req'd] comes to the conclusion that when sea surface temperatures increase, low cloud cover decreases, letting in more sunlight. More sunlight means more solar radiation hitting the same patch than before, increasing the temperature even more than before, etc. That is what is called a positive feedback loop. These kinds of loops are becoming more commonplace and more apparent to researchers as they delve further into the climate problem.
This feedback was investigated using two separate, independent datasets, a very encouraging sign, scientifically speaking. Since they’re independent, they lend credence to the other.
This further ties into the IPCC Report’s use of climate models in this way: only one climate model was “particularly realistic” in modeling the cloud feedback. Designated HadGEM1 (from the Hadley Center), the model warms the globe by 4.4°C when CO2 is doubled. This compares to a median of 3.1°C warming for all of the models used in the Report. This tells us that the IPCC must consider each model’s results more carefully in the future: they’re not all depicting realistic solutions.
Why is that important? Remember I wrote above that CO2 emissions are rising faster than everybody predicted earlier this decade in preparation for this Report. Without any change in our behavior, we’re headed toward more than three times the amount of CO2, much more than the doubling examined. So how much more warming would result from that kind of CO2 forcing? 6°C or more? For us Americans, that’s ~11°F.
Do you think we can handle an 11°F warmer world? Do you think the world can handle an 11°F warming? I don’t. In addition to that, the next IPCC Report will begin considering the results of these studies. The case for people’s influence on the climate will become more solid. The forecasts of climate change will almost certainly become more dire. We must do something about this now.
[h/t Climate Progress]
Here are some of the climate-related news stories that I’ve seen this week:
A new study proposes that if the West Antarctic ice sheets melted, global sea level rise would only be 10 feet, not 20 as previously estimated by other studies. The new study’s author claims that enough of the ice sheet would remain grounded on the Antarctic continent so that only some of the melting ice would find its way directly to the world’s oceans. If true, this would be at least some good news in the sea level rise arena. One take-away message is that we still don’t know nearly enough about ice sheet and glacier dynamics to reliably forecast their future conditions. These are interesting results – since they challenge previous findings, they need to be explored further.
Though not my chief concern over fossil fuel usage, a group of retired military officers argue in a recently released report that energy security and efforts to reduce the risks of climate change should be included in the nation’s national security and military planning. From the article:
The concerns extend beyond America’s dependence on foreign oil, the report says, because no matter what the source, America’s dependence on oil “undermines economic stability, which is critical to national security.”
Also, the report called for modernizing the nation’s electric power system. The country’s “fragile domestic electricity grid makes our domestic military installations and their critical infrastructure unnecessarily vulnerable to incident, whether deliberate or accidental,” said the report.
The report raised alarm about three converging concerns: A future global oil market shaped by limited supplies and increasing demand, rising fossil fuel prices caused by regulating climate-changing emissions, and the impacts of climate change on global insecurity.
Another casualty of the 2008-09 recession? CO2 emissions. Many people were curious how the worst recession since the Great Depression would impact emission trends. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions declined by 2.8 percent last year compared to 2007. The Energy Information Administration attributed the decline to a 2.2 percent drop in energy consumption, largely because of high gasoline and diesel prices last summer and the sharp economic decline in the last half of the year. It’s not the way anybody wanted emissions to be reduced – millions of Americans are unemployed and our economy is in tatters. Meanwhile, Cons and ConservaDems watered the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation down significantly, as I’ll cover later.
I read this article about the Maldives the other day and wasn’t sure if I detected two contradictory themes that the author presented (knowingly, unknowingly?) in it. I checked with a couple other friends and we all came away with the same interpretation. I’m going to go through it here and discuss what I think of it.
The undisputed theme of the article is adaptation to climate change. As usual, the devil is in the details. The Maldives are a collection of islands (atolls, really) in the Indian Ocean. Their average height above sea level is 4′ 11″. That means they’re in particular danger from melting ice sheets and glaciers, which is expected to happen as one result of our climate forcing. The Maldives’ President, Mohamed Nasheed, has proposed relocating all 350,000 inhabitants to other countries due to this threat. Much more was written about Nasheed and the Maldives in this Praer post by Wade Norris.
From the article:
But some recent data challenge the widespread belief that the islands are destined to disappear — and a few mainstream scientists are even cautiously optimistic about their chances for surviving relatively intact beyond the next century.
First off, I’m going to challenge the word ‘belief’. It has religious undertones, and that isn’t what scientists do. Without action, the polar ice sheets are forecasted to melt at increasing rates. Sea level rise could very well reach multiple feet by 2100, which would put the Malidives, among other locations, at risk of being submerged. Without action, the top of today’s islands will be under water. Those statements are based on our current understanding of physical processes. Scientists don’t have to believe in them in order for them to be true – they will be just as true if scientists don’t believe in them. So just who are the “mainstream scientists” who are optimistic for the islands’ chances for survival?
Paul Kench of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who has published studies in recent years in journals including Geology and the Journal of Geophysical Research. Andrew Cooper, a professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, added his support [emphasis mine]:
“They have detailed geological evidence that this kind of growth has happened before in the past. … I think the question of the Maldives being completely wiped out may be overstated.”
Oh. Detailed geological evidence. Which means the Maldives have transformed themselves in geologic time-frames. What do the 21st century residents of the Maldives do? They can’t wait on a geologic time-scale for the atolls to change. The article makes mention of scientists’ assumptions of Maldive damage following the 2004 Asian tsunami event. Sometimes I don’t know why the corporate stenographers even try. Is it so hard to stretch one’s mind around the fact that a tsunami event is very different than polar ice sheet collapse? The effective time-scales for each are far, far apart. Tsunamis immediate impact last hours to days, with longer term impacts lasting years. Polar ice sheet collapse begin operating on yearly time-scales, with “immediate” impacts lasting decades to centuries and longer term impacts lasting centuries to millenia. The key here is polar ice sheet collapse is the kind of catastrophe that our race has never faced before. Comparing it to the 2004 tsunami, which was a catastrophe in its own right, doesn’t do it justice.
Which is where the article contradicts itself. The very next paragraph reads:
Kench warned, however, that while only a small number of Maldivian islands may not be able to adapt to rising sea levels, those are unfortunately the ones where many people live: Male, the nation’s capital, and Hulule. Residents of those islands will probably need to relocate to another country or move to other Maldivian islands that won’t disappear so quickly, he said.
Oops. The devil really is in the details, isn’t it? As geologic formations, all of the atolls will be affected in one way or another by climate change. As geopolitical formations, the most critical portions of the Maldives are facing the gravest threat. How then is the question of the Maldives being completely wiped out be overstated, as Andrew Cooper said? As usual, the corporate stenographers do a grand disservice to their readers.
I do want to point out the following:
While much global warming work aims to limit emissions, adaptation advocates argue for the need to combat the inevitable effects of climate change through forward planning and construction. That includes moving people, building sea walls, and new construction techniques.
This is actually a reasonable statement. Unfortunately, it is undermined by the lack of a reasonable question: why not discuss both solutions? Indeed, in an increasingly forced climate, resulting in widespread, intense heating and desertification over 1/3 of the planet, why should adaptation be the only viable solution discussed? If we take aggressive, attainable measures to reduce our emissions, it has been demonstrated that we can avoid the worst climate change effects in the next 100, 1,000 and 10,000 years. Realistically, some measure of adaptation will have to be enacted, that much is obvious and agreed upon. But we can limit the amount of adaptation required if we simultaneously reduce our forcing. The corporate stenographers missed another opportunity to discuss that fact.
President Obama yesterday announced a new federal plan toto cut new vehicle carbon emissions and raise mileage by 30 percent. The new requirement is estimated to cost consumers an extra $1,300 per vehicle starting in 2016, or $700 on top of the expected $600 from previous standards’ increases. Fuel savings, using today’s dollars per gallon, would make up that increased cost in just a few years. If gas prices increase in the next 7 years (a virtual certainty), the increased cost will be offset that much quicker (which unsurprisingly was not in any media reports that I’ve seen or read).
What do the more aggressive targets really mean? It’s being estimated that 900 million tons of CO2 won’t be emitted. That would help (if even only a little) keep our total CO2 emissions under 1 Trillion tons, as several researchers are now saying we need to stay under to prevent catastrophic climate change. Every billion tons not emitted is a little more buffer we give ourselves, which is important because the 1Trillion ton metric is relatively new and not very robust. It could be significantly lower.
Cars will be required to get an average of 39mpg starting in 2016, up from today’s 27.5mpg standard. The good news is the current operational average is 32.6mpg. I think an addional 6.4mpg in seven years is easily doable. Kudos to the Obama administration for orchestrating this rule. A lot of disparate interests were brought together to make this work. That couldn’t have been done with the previous administration.
A different method of characterizing potential climate tipping points is the subject of two studies. One of the most cited metrics is temperature differences – measured in global annual averages. The 2007 IPCC Report identified 2C (3.6F) as the most likely average annual global temperature rise over climatological norms. As I’ve discussed many times now, the IPCC Report is already quite out of date given recent study findings of both observational and model data. Nevertheless, the 2C rise is being widely cited in subsequent studies as a tipping point that we should work to avoid.
The two new studies use man-made emitted carbon dioxide. To keep under the danger level cited above, the world has to spew less than 1.1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the first half of this century. That’s a pretty impressive number, no? I mean, that’s a huge freaking number. Well, here’s the rest of the story: the world has already emitted one third of that in just nine years, according to studies published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature. We’ve emitted 367 billion tons of CO2 in 9 years. Which means at maintaining current levels only, we have at most 18 more years before a potential tipping point is reached as we’re locking into >2C warming by 2100. Ah, but how will we maintain current levels? Nearly every nation on Earth is dead set on increasing their emissions. Perhaps only European countries can say they’re serious about trying to emit less. Their efforts to date may not satisfy every critic, but they’ve tried to do far more than America has. The scale at which we must act is large, indeed. Not impossible – just large.
The important message to take from these studies is the following:
President Barack Obama said he wants to cut U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by 80 percent. That is a “good start but it’s not enough to limit warming,” said Bill Hare, a study co-author who is also at the Potsdam Institute. Assuming that other countries cut their per-person emission levels to match the United States, the United States has to cut its overall pollution by 90 to 95 percent to keep the world from exceeding the 1.1 trillion ton mark, Hare said.
My worry is that given Obama’s 80% goal, the Cons and CorporateDems in Congress will water down any climate change legislation to come in well below that goal. All the while, they’re missing the big picture: 80% isn’t enough; the problem is the opposite of the way the fossil fuel industry and climate change deniers present it.
On a slightly different note, the article mentions something else that is very, very important:
Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who paints a worst case scenario for global warming in a commentary in the journal, said the studies make it seem like scientists know where there’s a solid danger line for emissions, when they don’t. The papers acknowledge there is a 25 percent chance the limit should be lower. Schneider said that’s a pretty big risk when the consequences of being wrong are severe.
Indeed, that is a big risk. It’s the biggest risk anyone and everyone on the planet is facing. How many years of inaction, weak action, or even moderate action do we have? There is a 25% chance it’s less than 18. If there were a 1-in-4 chance of something catastrophic occurring in people’s everyday lives unless they took action, most of us wouldn’t sit idly by. Is a 25% chance too small to bet a multi-trillion dollar world economy on? Is a 25% chance too small to bet the world’s ecosystems on? It is critical that these kinds of questions need to be presented to policy makers by scientists. It is critical that elected officials discuss these and many other questions. We can’t afford not to act this year. The costs only skyrocket with time as needed measures become more drastic.
Cross-posted at SquareState.
A few news items dealing with the climate caught my eye recently. The first, which I subsequently did more investigation into, was a study conducted by a climate research group at NCAR. They ran a climate model in ensemble for two scenarios: a business-as-usual GHG emissions scenario and a emissions reduction scenario. The results confirm what most climatologists are saying: act now and reduce the worst effects of future climate change by a substantial margin. Warming was largely held in check in the mitigation scenario: 0.6C compared to 2.2C for the non-mitigation case. Sea level rise due only to thermal expansion is held to 14cm in the mitigation case (22cm in the non-mitigation case). This study didn’t consider melting poles or mid-latitude glaciers. Importantly, the warming wasn’t constant over the globe, something deniers have a hard time grasping. The poles would continue to experience the majority of the globe’s warming. A big lesson derived from this paper is the following: a 70% reduction in emissions results in virtually no cooling anywhere on the globe by the year 2100. In fact, similar studies indicate that warming is likely to be locked in for the next 1000 years. Forcing already in the system is likely to manifest as continued warming far into the future. The thing we’re in control of at this point is just how much warming we allow to occur. I’ll have a more in-depth look at this and other articles in a future post.
Researchers are warning that Western Africa could experience more severe droughts in the future. Along with other portions of the globe, including the southwestern U.S., future droughts in western Africa could become more severe and long-lasting, exacerbating otherwise normal drought conditions. Other research has indicated that multi-decadal to century-scale droughts could become more prevalent, affecting millions of people worldwide.
Technology-wise, this article reported on fake “trees” – towers filled with materials that could absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Which sounded like a really cool technology until I continued reading and found the following:
GRT plans to sell the purified CO2 to a range of buyers. Oil and natural gas companies are probably the biggest customers for the artificial trees. Petroleum companies pump CO2 underground to raise the pressure and force oil to the surface. Greenhouses could pump in extra C02 to help plants grow. Fizzy soda drinks and sanding auto parts also require concentrated CO2.
All of these customers currently get CO2 by truck or by pipeline, most of which originates in Texas. The advantage of the artificial trees is that they can be placed next to whatever factory needs CO2 without having to ship it in.
Another use for the artificial trees would be in the cap-and-trade carbon credit system. The idea is that companies that produce CO2 would pay another company, like GRT, to get rid of it. The most likely place to put the C02 is in the salt-lined caverns that once held oil, a process known as carbon sequestration.
This technology is more pie-in-the-sky than not. Nobody has any idea whether pumping CO2 (in any form) underground is a good long-term solution or not. Massive releases of CO2 by geologic activity (over the short- or long-term) would undo every bit of work done to collect the CO2 in the first place. If plants use “extra” CO2 to grow, how is it kept out of the carbon system? Decomposing plants re-release the absorbed CO2 back into the atmosphere. Soda drinks re-release their CO2 to the atmosphere. Sanding auto parts using CO2 re-releases CO2 back to the atmosphere. None of these ideas would reduce CO2 concentrations from the atmosphere in the long-term (perhaps the sequestration, but it’s still unproven).
Using in the cap-and-trade credit system sounds good. But again, what will GRT do to “get rid of it”? GRT needs to demonstrate a viable technology and business plan to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for millenia. Has anyone seriously addressed responsibility for ensuring permanent storage? What happens if it leaks? Who is responsible? What will the potential penalties be?
Last, indigenous groups held a climate summit this week in Anchorage, Alaska. Groups around the world that are on the front lines of being affected by climate change met to create a plan and demand that countries around the world include indigenous people as they respond to climate change. They have a very valid point: they are some of the least responsible parties for forcing they climate, yet to date they are disproportionally suffering from its effects. Moreover, they have been largely left out of the climate change action debate. They have little influence individually to encourage larger, richer groups to pay attention to their needs. Erosion and rising sea levels are displacing entire communities and island populations today. They’re planning on presenting recommendations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009, designed to put forth post-Kyoto Protocol climate actions.
House Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey released their draft energy and climate bill last Tuesday. It’s very comprehensive. It’s also far from perfect. It’s also, for now, just a draft, sure to change and be amended. For those of you who just want a quick peek at what this bill is about, here is the bill’s 5-page summary (pdf) and here is a portion of the introduction:
The legislation has four titles: (1) a “clean energy” title that promotes renewable sources of energy and carbon capture and sequestration technologies, low-carbon transportation fuels, clean electric vehicles, and the smart grid and electricity transmission; (2) an “energy efficiency” title that increases energy efficiency across all sectors of the economy, including buildings, appliances, transportation, and industry; (3) a “global warming” title that places limits on the emissions of heat-trapping pollutants; and (4) a “transitioning” title that protects U.S. consumers and industry and promotes green jobs during the transition to a clean energy economy.
Overall, the bill is pretty decent. It’s not as strong as I think it should be. Knowing that it will be amended and changed in subcommittees, committees and during Senate-House negotiations, I’m afraid I see too much room for major weakening to be done. There is no time left for weakening. The U.S. needs to take an aggressive stance on greenhouse forcing. We’ve caused plenty of change to the climate system already with even more to come that’s “in the pipeline”. Whatever this legislation ends up doing, it will take time to implement and then more time to take effect. Then there will be interactions with the international community. As the world’s largest greenhouse forcer, it is up to us to take responsibility for our actions and start leading the world on the most critical 21st century issue we’ll face.
Below, I go through most of the 5-page summary items. The items stack up to a pretty big list. Having this draft summary is important as we’ll see what changes are implemented in the next couple of months and what the final legislation ends up containing. Oh, and if you’re feeling really adventurous, here is the entire draft bill (Big pdf!).