Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Water efficiency

I saw a tweet last night that I found interesting.

“The only thing that can.”  I hope Peter means water-use efficiency for all users.  The graphic he includes with this tweet suggests he’s focused on household toilet usage in California.  I’ll round the numbers used in the graphic: 1980 usage was 800,000 acre-feet per year; current use (no efficiency) is 1,200,000 acre-feet per year.  Current savings from efficiency improvements: 640,000 acre-feet per year.  Additional potential savings: 290,000 acre-feet per year.

The 640,000 AFY is laudable.  That’s a lot of water that Californians don’t have to use and thankfully aren’t.  That is a real accomplishment.  An additional 290,000 AFY is a good goal to work on – why waste a resource when you don’t have to.

But toilet water usage isn’t the primary usage of California water – and it’s that small point that troubled me when I saw the tweet.  Total water usage in California is 40,00,000 AFY.  That 640,000 efficiency represents just 1.6% of the total usage.  It also represents >50% reduction from what water usage could be without any efficiency measures.  What I want to know is what efficiencies water-thirsty California agriculture implements.  Agriculture is by far the dominant user of water – if we achieved just 1% sector efficiency, how much more water could California save because of the scale of industry usage compared to residential usage?

Agriculture is a sizable part of the California economy – $43 billion industry that generates $100 billion in overall economic activity.  Because of that, agriculture wields political clout in Sacramento.  This means that while physical scientists can inform policymakers on the ongoing drought, we need the social sciences to inform policymakers how to deal with it.  I would also like to see quantitative results of efficiency gains by sector.


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U.S. Energy Information Administration: Reference Projection

EIA released its 2015 reference case for electricity generation between 2000 and 2040.  The upshot: while they expect natural gas and renewables to continue their growth in the U.S.’s overall energy portfolio, coal is still very much in the mix in 2040.  From a climate perspective, if their reference projection becomes reality, we easily pass 2C warming by 2100.

Their reference projection “reflects current laws and regulations—but not pending rules, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan“.  So it is no surprise that current laws and regulations result in passing the 2C threshold (or the GHG emissions which would actually lead to passing the 2C threshold).  The EPA’s Clean Power Plan isn’t in effect yet – and it will take time to analyze changes to actual generation once its final form does take effect.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 1_zpsuiinhtg0.png

Figure 1. EIA’s Reference Case analysis and projection of U.S. electricity generation (2000-2040).

The good news is renewables’ share grows during the next 25 years.  Again, there’s no surprise there.  Nor is it surprising to see natural gas’ share also grow.  If you look at the left y-axis, the absolute share of renewables exceeds that of natural gas.  The bad news (from a 20th-century climate perspective) is that coal remains 34% of the electricity generation in this scenario.  That news is tempered by the fact that in both absolute and percentage terms, coal use is lower during the next 25 years than the last 15 years.  The absolute numbers are most frustrating from a climate perspective.  In 2040, this scenario projects >1.5 trillion kilowatt hours of coal generation.  Absent additional policy measures, that value remains largely unchanged during the next 25 years.  How do we address that?  Well, beating people over the head with scientific consensus claims hasn’t worked (and won’t in the future either): the American public know what causes global warming, once you get past self-identity question framing.  Once you interact with Americans on familiar terms, they’re much more willing to support global warming-related policies than many climate activists want you to believe.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 2_zpsxotnkmbd.png

Figure 2. EIA’s renewable generation by type.

The EIA projects wind penetration to continue as it has for the last decade – almost doubling in absolute terms in the next 25 years.  We need that deployment and more to make a serious dent in GHG emissions.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 3_zpsvigp121n.png

Figure 3. EIA’s six cases in their 2015 annual report.

You can see how different assumptions impacts EIA’s 2040 projections of electricity generation in 2040 compared to the 2013 historical case.  Don’t hope for high oil prices: renewables constitute more than 1 trillion kilowatt hours in that case, but coal also grows to nearly 2 trillion kWh!  Putting dreams aside, I don’t think those coal plants will all be running highly efficient carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

We still need RD&D for multiple technologies.  To do that, we need policies that prioritize innovative – and yes, risky – programs and projects.  The government is the only institution that can reliably assume that level of risk.  If we want to avoid 4C or 6C, we can; we need innovative policies and technologies today to stay below those thresholds.


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Some Short Notes on the US-China Climate Deal

The US-China climate deal announced in December 2014 generated big news.  It was yet another diplomatic success for the Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department.  Nothing I say below takes away from that success.  In terms of climate action success, the deal ranks pretty low to me.  I’ll quickly summarize what I understand of the deal and then share why I think it isn’t a significant climate deal.

The Deal

Here is a quick summary (emphasis mine):

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged in the far-reaching agreement to cap its rapidly growing carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible. It also set an ambitious goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of its energy mix by 2030.

Obama announced a target to cut U.S. emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – eight years after he leaves office — the first time the president has set a goal beyond the existing 17 percent target by 2020.

The bolded portions highlight the agreement’s big news.  China agreed to a carbon emissions cap and the U.S. pushed its emissions reduction target out 5 years and increased the target by ~11% below 2005 levels.

Those are good goals.  Are they sufficient goals?  It depends on what you consider sufficient.  I consider goals that will actually achieve the stated climate target of <2C warming by 2100 as sufficient.  These goals won’t achieve that target.  But then, as I’ve written for some time now, I don’t think we can set goals that achieve the <2C by 2100 target.  There are technical and political hurdles that we chose not to surmount during the past 30+ years.  Why won’t this agreement achieve that target?  Let’s take a quick look from the same International Business Times article:

China completes a new coal plant every eight to 10 days, and while its economic growth has slowed, it is still expanding at a brisk rate exceeding 7 percent.

The scale of construction for China to meet its goals is huge even by Chinese standards. It must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generation capacity in the United States.

And to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025.

Who out there truly believes that China can deploy 800 GW of zero-emission generation capacity in less than 15 years?  Remember before you answer in the affirmative that China’s deployment of coal-fired plants exceeded anything in history and that coal remains an extremely cheap energy resource.  All the other technologies currently cost more in terms of deployment.  What incentives does China, as a developing nation, have to spend more money for intermittent power sources?  They’re more interested in growing their economy, as the U.S. is.  Speaking of the U.S. – I emphasized part of that quote quite purposefully to highlight the scale of the issue.  China must, in 15 years, deploy as much generation infrastructure as exists in the entire U.S. today.  Our infrastructure took decades and decades to build out.  China needs to do the same thing, with more expensive infrastructure, in 15 short years!?  I will be among the first to congratulate China if they accomplish this daunting task and I don’t think China should shy away from working towards it.  I just don’t think they have a realistic chance of actually accomplishing it.

What about the U.S.?  We need to more than double the decarbonization rate of our economy to achieve our emissions goals.  Remember that most of the decarbonization achieved since 2005 was due first to the Great Recession and second to the natural gas boom.  The Great Recession is finally behind us, though effects linger.  The natural gas boom?  It’s currently experiencing strong headwinds as OPEC pushes the cost of oil down to the $50 range from the $100-110 range last year.  It’s economically unfeasible to frack for natural gas with $50 per barrel of oil.  While the natural gas industry won’t collapse (at least I hope it doesn’t), it won’t support additional decarbonization for the foreseeable future either.

I believe we are well on our way toward 3-4C warming by 2100 and must plan and act accordingly.  This deal, while diplomatically ambitious, is not climate ambitious enough to drive us away from those thresholds.


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“Arctic Sea Ice More Resilient Than Previously Thought”

Welcome back to me.  I took a break due to heavy class load and studying for qualifying exams.  I’m looking forward to a good 2015.  I tagged plenty of material while I was short on writing time, so stay tuned for lots of climate and energy science and policy discussions.

File this in the “who’da thunk?” category: research presented at the 2014 American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting showed recent summers over the Arctic were cooler than normal and as a result, Arctic sea ice melt wasn’t as extensive as previous record low years.

I remember all too many climate scientists tripping over one another in their mad rush to a microphone to declare that the Arctic would be ice-free in just a few short years – a claim I thought was silly and dangerous.

Why silly?  Because these same scientists, preaching objectivism and claiming science has an impenetrable hold on truth over all other comers, no more understood the cryosphere then than they do now.  This most result lays bare that type of truth: we don’t know enough about the cryosphere system to accurately or precisely project conditions in the near to medium future.  While it is very likely that summer Arctic sea ice will be missing at some point in the future, the timing of that event is very much in question.  I think it will be sooner than the IPCC AR4 model projections (see quoted statement below), which read: “In some projections, arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.”  Papers written prior to the 2014 AR5 report projected ice-free conditions between 2037 and 2050.  But there is still 35 years in the meantime.  What will Arctic sea ice be like during those 35 years?  Like good scientists, we should collect data as well as run and test models during that time to more fully understand the system.  But good scientists do not claim knowledge they do not have.

The 2007 IPCC report made clear the level of uncertainty that exists:

A systematic analysis of future projections for the Arctic Ocean circulation is still lacking. Coarse resolution in global models prevents the proper representation of local processes that are of global importance (such as the convection in the Greenland Sea that affects the deep waters in the Arctic Ocean and the intermediate waters that form overflow waters).

Which leads to the dangerous part of scientists’ misguided efforts to “educate” the public at every turn, a strategy motivated by perceived successes by fossil fuel corporations and their backers.  Moreover, the perceived extreme position of those corporations elicited a corresponding response from scientist-activists.  One problem with this is the potential to appear foolish to the very people scientists are trying to convince of real climate risks when dire projections end up wrong.  Scientists historically and currently enjoy wide-spread and deep respect by the public.  I can’t believe that will continue if, for instance, grandiose claims of significant events end up wrong.  How often do you and your friends make fun of the local weatherman after a busted forecast?  I think scientists should instead tap into that deep reservoir of trust and leverage it intelligently.  If the best science indicates an ice-free Arctic by 2035-2050, then say that.  If conditions change radically, there will of course be a ready explanation that the public will gladly receive.


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2 °C Warming Goal: Zombie Myths Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Language surrounding ozone depletion

As a physical scientist who has also studied social aspects of science and technology, language – specifically word choice – is important.  That is why when “ozone hole healing” jumped out from my Twitter feed today, it disappointed me.  Why?

Is the ozone layer alive?  Is it currently wounded?  Can it heal?

I know environmental activists like to use the frame of Earth as a living thing.  It’s not.  It is a celestial body with multiple interacting physical systems.  The Earth neither grows nor reproduces within its environment.  There are things that are alive (obviously) on Earth.  Phenomena occur within Earth systems, but that doesn’t qualify as life.  Thus it cannot heal because it is not diseased or injured.

There is ozone depletion in the stratosphere that is exclusively caused by on life form on the planet – people.  In news today, ozone depletion has for the first time since being discovered in the 1980s slowed and even reversed.  That is very good news, as ozone depletion impacted some of Earth’s physical systems as well as actual life on the planet.

Metaphors are powerful tools in our language.  We must take care to use them appropriately.  There is nothing wrong with using scientific language to describe scientific processes.  We can make explanations as simple as necessary, which should promote wider understanding of complex phenomena.

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