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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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You’re Going To Hear A Lot About The Upcoming EPA’s Pollution Actions

Greenhouse pollution will come under stricter controls by the EPA in the future.  The agency’s actions will be dictated by a 2007 Supreme Court decision saying the EPA can and should regulate CO2 in the same way it has regulated other sources of pollution in the past.  The new regulations are slated to be implemented starting Sunday, the 2nd of January, 2011.

Of course, the Republican Teabaggers in both chambers of Congress, at the command of the dirty energy industry, will raise absolute hell about any action the EPA takes, Supreme Court decisions they don’t agree with be damned.  Republican Teabaggers have already threatened that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will likely spend more time answering their witch-hunt-driven questions in Congress than in her office.  Imagine what they outcry would be if the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent more of their time responding to subpoenas than in their Pentagon offices.  Of course, this country has a serious warrior-worship problem.  Such concern doesn’t extend to keeping the environment livable for us.

I wanted to share a part of an article from a New York Times writer, John M. Broder.

For the moment, administration officials are treading lightly, fearful of inflaming an already overheated atmosphere on the issue and mindful that its stated priorities are job creation and economic recovery.
No doubt, John or his editor thought it was pretty clever to insert something like “inflaming an already overheated atmosphere” in an article about regulating greenhouse gas pollution.  Unfortunately, the climate system doesn’t take things like irony into account in responding to that pollution.  It can only respond to physical forcing, which it is already doing.
Without being an activist about the issue, John could have noted a few simple facts: while the EPA’s critics are making the same arguments they’ve made for decades, the globe experienced the warmest November on record just one month ago.  It experienced the warmest December-November on record in the past year.  The 2000s were considerably warmer than the 1990s, which was warmer than the 1980s.  Global warming affects are taking place faster and in more locations than the state of the science said it would just a few short years ago.  But I suppose all those things don’t make for clever writing that “journalists” aim for these days.  Cleverness is better received than accuracy.


Mike Rosen’s Hatred Is Overwhelming – Case Example

Occasionally, I will read Mike Rosen’s editorials in the Denver Post. Mostly, it’s just to keep the latest right-wing hate messages fresh in my mind. His column always includes lies and innuendo. He usually resorts to name-calling. Like most Teabaggers, he can’t seem to help himself. It is rare, however, that he achieves what he achieved today: multiple groups got lumped into the same hate speech.

The supposed topic is the repeal of the odious, unconstitutional “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy keeping certain Americans from serving their country as proudly as Americans who more neatly fit the idyllic vision of an imaginary America that Rosen and other scared, angry white males hold dear.

First, hatred of women,

When she [former Rep. Pat Schroeder] advocated the removal of restrictions on women in combat, it was to advance the cause of radical feminism.

then the real purpose of this diatribe, Rosen’s hatred of homosexuals:

The same can be said for those gay activists whose main objective was to score a symbolic equal rights victory regardless of its toll on the military.

followed by those durned lib’ruls

Public opinion polls showing support for gays in the military include the views of a majority of people with no military experience and no desire to join — liberal sociology professors, for example, who might make lousy leathernecks.

But don’t worry, Rosen’s warrior-worship tendencies come out shining:

Far more significant will be the damage to careers of soldiers and their officers accused of insensitivity, and retention and recruitment losses of those with a warrior disposition — people we can least afford to lose — who will spurn military careers because of religious, moral or cultural objections to open homosexuality.

Heaven forbid a few bigots don’t join or stay in the military. It would be far better, according to Rosen, if the bigots are allowed to openly display their hatred than allowing Americans who want to volunteer to actually do so. There will be no law preventing bigots from being openly bigoted, although that might do more to improve overall morale.

I have a better idea. Let’s pass a law that keeps white, warrior worshipping, others-hating males from displaying those characteristics in public if they want the privilege of serving their country. Then maybe Rosen will want to seriously address civil rights issues.

This is no longer the 1750s, Mr. Rosen. Most of us are thankful that this country has moved beyond the ownership of certain human beings and the open denigration of one of the sexes. Advocating for the outright discrimination of a demographic is morally repugnant.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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California Air Resources Board Takes Further Steps Toward Cap-and-Trade

The news is mostly good out of California, where the Air Resources Board voted earlier this month to approve a resolution to initiate a statewide cap-and-trade system by the beginning of 2012.

I say “mostly good” because while a program of this type is finally being constructed so that more than just the energy sector is affected (as is the case in the northeast U.S.), there will initially be too many free allowances available to polluters.  That is the same complaint that I had about the climate legislation being considered by the U.S. Congress last year.

Ninety percent of the allowances would be free in the first years of the program to give industry time to upgrade to cleaner equipment or account for increased future costs as the cap tightens.

Over time, as the cap gets lower and fewer allowances are available, costs would rise.

I understand that systems like cap-and-trade have to spin up before they achieve useful levels of efficiency and actually affect larger systems like statewide or countrywide economies.  I understand that industry wants more time before being forced to clean up their act.

I also understand that the climate system doesn’t care about any of these things.  As a physical system, it responds only to real forces, not imaginary human markets.  Quite simply, we are out of time.  The time to phase things in nicely and neatly was the past 40 years and industry chose not to pay attention.

There will be nothing orderly about the effects of global warming becoming apparent.  In too many cases, those effects will take place too quickly for us to adapt to them in ways which we might prefer.

My criticisms aside, I am glad the CARB realizes that a price must be placed on carbon and that the federal government has largely failed at creating appropriate systems for doing so.  I fear that the true price of carbon on the globe is much higher than most people involved in climate activism are willing to admit.  The sooner carbon is honestly priced, the better for everybody.

I’ll finish with a little more good news:

California’s system, however, could end up being linked to ones being developed in other countries. State officials are talking with the European Union as well as provinces in China and Canada to link systems.

In the U.S., New Mexico narrowly approved its own cap-and-trade program last month and OK’d the state’s participation in a regional market.

h/t Itgetsbetter2012 @ dKos


Will Republicans Stop Reforms By Not Funding Them? Probably.

One of the little details lost among the health care reform, financial reform and every other reform since President Obama took office was when those so-called reforms were going to take effect.  It turns out that little detail might just come back and bite Obama and the Democrats in the butt.

None of the reforms were scheduled to take effect right away.  That’s because they had to be funded by Congress to take effect.  And since the Congressional Democratic leadership and President Obama’s staff couldn’t take the time to organize themselves and get their business done as quickly as possible, there wasn’t enough time left in this session to pass the 2011 fiscal year budget.  Even though the fiscal year started on October 1st (yes, 2.5 months ago).  So what Congress has done instead is pass funding through continuing resolutions.

Unfortunately, they mean what they sound like: they continue current funding.  They don’t allocate new funding.  They don’t change funding levels for anything.  They continue funding.  The latest continuing resolution that passed Congress today funds the government through March 2011.  That’s after Republican Teabaggers take control of the House of Representatives, where all spending bills must originate.  There will be fewer Democratic Senators in March 2011 than there are now.  The President has displayed an obsessive desire to negotiate with right-wing extremists and beat up on his base.  Guess what’s going to happen the next time the budget comes up for debate and votes?

I’m betting Republican Teabaggers take the budget and de-fund all of President Obama’s and the Democrats’ absurdly over-negotiated reforms. Furthermore, I’m betting President Obama doesn’t fight the Republican Teabaggers on not funding his “victories”.  He’s shown himself to care more that nobody is fighting than in passing good policies.  Too few Democrats realized this political weakness prior to putting him into office.  Now they have no choice.  Democrats got frustrated in 2009 and 2010 when Obama didn’t push for the most he could get even when perfect situations screamed for him to do so.  Just wait until he rolls over on issue after issue as Republican Teabaggers warm up their “spending is too high” talking points and begin investigating his administration for every silly, petty thing Teabaggers can dream up.

Which leads me again to address all the incrementalists that told liberal activists that we had to take what we could get and not expect a centimeter more: if your so-called reforms aren’t funded, what good are they?  How much time, energy and money was wasted moving a pathetic distance toward solving some of this nation’s crises but won’t be enacted because of your overwhelming pragmatism?

How willing will Democrats be to donate to President Obama’s re-election campaign when these things happen?  How many doors will they knock on?  How many phone calls will they make?  When the reforms go down in flames and unemployment stays high (because Obama never seriously addressed the Great Recession), will there be a 2012 “enthusiasm gap” that outshines the 2010 version?  Only time will tell.


Antarctic Ice Shelves Melting Due To Deep Warm Ocean Water

Until just a few years ago, scientists were unsure why the global energy budget seemed to indicate that an enormous amount of energy couldn’t be accounted for.  Incoming and outgoing radiation is fairly straightforward to measure and a simple energy budget is easy to calculate.  Accounting for all of the movement of energy within Earth’s climate system imposes a great deal of complexity into the process.  Still, numerous attempts were made to try to track down what was growing into a very large amount of energy: was it erroneous measurements or calculations, or did we remain woefully ignorant of significant physical processes?

Then in 2009, two major papers were published that closed the majority of the unaccounted for energy in the climate system.  The excess energy was being stored as heat in the ocean, specifically the deep ocean.    The volume of the Earth’s oceans is estimated to be 1.332×109 km3.  That is obviously a very large volume within which energy can be stored.  What has happened over the course of the past century or so is warmer and warmer water has been forced down to the bottom of the world’s oceans.  Usually, warm water rises, but the water in question is just above the freezing point of fresh water.  At those temperatures, salinity has an increased role in controlling density.  Water sinks when sea ice forms because sea ice is made up of only pure water, leaving excess salt in the remaining ocean water.  As the salinity increases, the density also increases.  Water with higher density than what is surrounding it sinks and then is transported by ocean currents around the world.

It might surprise you to learn that ocean currents can take decades to centuries to complete one cycle around the entire globe.  That means that water that was warmed decades ago is now coming back to the places where it originally picked up that warmth.  In this case, water is upwelling off the Antarctic peninsula and it is having a very real physical effect on the region.  While localized now, that effect will soon cause additional effects across the globe.

One of the 2009 studies had this graph, showing where the excess energy was being stored:

Total Earth Heat Content from 1950 to 2003 (Murphy 2009).

This graph is troubling for a number of reasons.  One of the first things to notice is the land and atmosphere haven’t warmed up all that much, since 1950, compared to the ocean.  Next, it should be startlingly clear that a great deal of energy wasn’t being properly accounted. Third, if the ocean really is holding all this heat, shouldn’t someone have noticed before last year?  Indeed, a number of scientists speculated that the sea level rise recorded in the past 100 years was likely due to this phenomenon occurring.  Scientists being the careful people they are didn’t make pronouncements that they knew this was going on because … they didn’t have empirical proof of it.

By now, I hope a couple of things I’ve written about in this piece are starting to come together.  The ocean upwelling off the coast of Antarctica is carrying some of the energy it absorbed decades ago.  The heat anomaly of the ocean has only increased since then.  What might this mean in the future?  Well, let’s start answering that by looking at what this means in the present.  Here is a graphic put together by Douglas Martinson, a polar scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who gave a talk at this year’s American Geophysical Union meeting.

Antarctic Ocean Heat

The warm upwelled water is being transported around the Antarctic continent by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, as you can see on the right side of the graphic.  Over the past 18 years, Martinson and his colleagues have measured the physical properties of the ocean around Antarctica and came to the startling conclusion that the majority of the heat anomalies they have measured have occurred since 1960.  Unfortunately, those anomalies have been growing exponentially ever since.  While the rise was tiny at first, exponential growth for 50 years means that now ocean water is a few degrees above freezing.  This warm water is coming up and running into ice sheets that are slowly being discharged from the Antarctic interior.  Not only do the ice sheets have to contend with anomalously warm air temperatures from above, they also are facing warm water temperatures from below.  And since water holds much more energy than air per unit volume, the warmer waters rising from the ocean depths will have a much greater impact, much sooner, on the ice sheets than the warmer air will.

Okay, so what about the future?

As for how fast the ice will melt and in what locations, that depends largely on whether the upwelling warm water comes in contact with the thick ice shelf that crowds the coast and holds the block the glaciers from reaching the sea.

That, in turn, depends on the winds which drive away the surface waters and make it possible for the deeper waters to rise to the surface, said senior researcher Robert Bindschadler of NASA’s Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Now that the upwelling deep sea water is the clear cause of the melting ice shelf, rather than summer melt water, as had been thought in the past, it’s a question of how winds will change in a warming world and whether they will drive more warm water into the ice shelves.

For a short while longer, large-scale effects will remain muted.  Warmer waters will likely attack the ice shelves, but since the shelves’ ends are already floating in the ocean, this won’t affect global sea levels.  If the ice shelves are melted all the way back to their grounding zones on the Antarctic continent, then larger problems are at hand.  If the land-based ice sheets flow toward the ocean faster and faster, and if they come into contact with warmer ocean water, their melting will cause much faster global sea level rise.

As far as the 21st century is concerned, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is less stable than the Greenland ice sheet.  Why?  Because its grounding line is actually below sea level.  Imagine if the U.S. gulf coast was much colder than it is today, cold enough for ice sheets to be piled up on it.  The WAIS is like a hypothetical ice sheet sitting on the New Orleans area.  The real-world difference is the WAIS rests on bedrock that is an amazing 2km below sea level!  That bedrock is further below sea level than Denver, CO is above it.  If warm water ever gets to this area, a vicious cycle will begin.  That cycle wouldn’t stop until most or all of the WAIS melted, which could raise global sea levels by 10ft.  Moreover, the bedrock also slopes downward inland.

Now I want to tie a number of points raised all together.  The WAIS is an unstable ice sheet.  Outflow ice shelves extend into the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere.  Water is rising from the bottom of those oceans that is warmer than the water already there.  If predominant wind currents cause additional warm water to rise faster, the ice shelves floating in the oceans will melt from below.  They will melt faster than climate model projections made over the past 20 years have indicated because of the relative lack of understanding of polar weather and climate.

I want to ask you to recall the first graph in this post, the one that shows an increasing amount of heat energy that has been stored in the world’s oceans since 1950.  All that anomalous warmth hasn’t had a chance to be transported to the Antarctic yet.  Therein lies the scary part to this: Antarctica faces decades of increasingly warm waters rising off its shores.  That would be true if we stopped all of our greenhouse forcing tomorrow.  We won’t, of course, which means the Antarctic ice sheets face more and more of a threat every year.  The world at the end of the 21st century will look quite different than it did at the end of the 20th.  How different is up to us.

h/t ClimateProgress.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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November CO2 Concentrations: Continuing To Rise

November 2010’s CO2 concentration measured at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i was 388.59ppm.

That constitutes a rise of 1.41ppm since October, which is “normal” in contemporary times.  It also means that the yearly average value is going to be very nearly 390ppm for the first time in recorded history.  Through November, this year’s average is 389.78ppm.  If December 2010’s reading rises over December 2009’s at a rate seen in recent years, the yearly average will fall just short of the 390ppm threshold.

2010 is going to be the last year the yearly average is 390ppm or below for a long time.  The average needs to get back below 350ppm and stay there if catastrophic global warming is going to be classified as fiction rather than fact.  The last time the yearly average was below 350ppm was back in 1987.  That’s 23 years of slowly inexorable rising CO2 concentrations that we need to reverse.

Of course, the only way to reduce the CO2 concentrations in time to prevent large-scale global warming disruptions is to reduce our yearly emissions.  As this pdf from NASA researchers shows, emissions (the red line) will have to be greatly reduced in order to bring atmospheric concentrations back down.

If the rate of CO2 concentration increase average over the past 10 years continues, the yearly average will pass 400ppm in 7 years.  Countries are talking about reducing their emissions by significant margins by 2020.  That has to happen if 400ppm and higher CO2 concentrations are to be avoided.