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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Climate and Energy Topics – 21 May 2014

The New York Times’ Andy Revkin had this very interesting post last week: “Three Long Views of Life With Rising Seas“.  He asked three folks for their long-term view on how human might deal with the centennial-scale effects of Antarctic glacier melt.  Some of their (partial) responses merit further thought:

Curt Stager, Paul Smith: Imagine the stink we would all raise if another nation tried to take even one inch of our coastline away from us – and yet here is a slow taking of countless square miles from our shores by a carbon-driven ocean-turned-invader.

David Grinspoon: But I think if our society is around for several more centuries we will have to have found different ways to deal collectively with our world-changing technologies. If we’ve made it that far, we’ll find ways to adapt.

Kim Stanley Robinson: It was when the ice core data in Greenland established the three-year onset of the Younger Dryas that the geologists had to invent the term “abrupt climate change” because they had so frequently abused the word “quick” sometimes meaning several thousand years when they said that. Thus the appearance of “Abrupt Climate Change” as a term (and a National Research Council book in 2002).

Andy Revkin finished with: The realities of sea-level rise and Antarctic trends and China’s emissions, etc., make me feel ever more confident that the [bend, stretch, reach, teach] shift I charted for my goals in my TEDx talk (away from numbers and toward qualities) is the right path.

Chinese coal use almost equals that of the rest of the world combined, according to the EIA:

 photo ChineseCoalUsage20140521_zpsac73e973.png

This is but one reason I believe <2C warming is already a historical consideration.  All of this coal production and consumption would have to stop immediately if we have any hope of meeting this political goal.  That will not happen – absent coal generated power, which constitutes the majority generated, the global economy would spin into a depression.

On the good news front, U.S. consumers are expanding home energy efficiency and distributed power generation, according to Deloitte.  These practices started with the Great Recession, but for the first time are continuing after the economy “recovers”.  In 2013, new solar growth occurred among families making between $40,000 and $90,000.  The most engaged demographic could be Generation Y: “1/3 said they “definitely/probably” will buy a smart energy application, which is up from 28 percent in 2011.”

I’ve let my drought series lapse, but have kept watching conditions evolve across the country.  California has obviously been in the news due its drought and wildfires.  All of California is currently in a “severe” drought for the first time since the mid-1970s (see picture below).  So the quick science point: this has happened before (many times; some worse than this) and isn’t primarily caused by anthropogenic forcing.  The quick impacts point: California’s population is double today what it was in the mid-1970s.  Therefore, the same type of drought will have more impact.  Wrapping these points together: drought impacts could be greater in the 2010s than the 1970s due to sociological and not physical factors.  An important caveat: Californians are more adept now at planning for and responding to drought.  They recognize how dry normal conditions can get and have adapted more so than other places in the U.S.  Drought conditions likely won’t improve until this winter during the next rainy season since last winter was a bust for them.

 photo CAdrought20140521_zpsd403ee59.jpg

An incredible story comes from the New York Times about what it takes to engage communities on climate and energy issues.  Nebraska farmers and ranchers are fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline.  Why, you might ask?  Well, they’re certainly not a bunch of hippie greens.  No, they’re responding to their lifestyle and value system.  If KXL is built, it will be built on their land.  That means someone will take away small pieces of a bunch of farmers land, because the locals have already refused $250,000 payments for them.  If KXL is built, it will risk locals’ cattle.  Who do you think will suffer if the pipeline leaks?  The cows, the ranchers, and the Ogallala Aquifer of course.  A critical piece of the paper is this:

Here was one of the best stories she’d ever seen: Conservative American farmers rise up to protect their land. She could use the image of the family farm to reframe the way Nebraskans thought about environmentalism. It wasn’t going to be Save the Sandhill Cranes. It was going to be Save the Neighbors.

To get Nebraskans to respond to environmental issues, you have to engage them on their values, not yours (unless of course you share them).  This is the key that environmentalists have missed for decades and its part of the reason why environmentalism is so politicized.  It’s why conservatives tend not to respond to climate activism framing.

There’s plenty more where this came from.  Stay tuned.

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Climate & Energy Articles – Aug. 17, 2013

Since I can’t devote as much time to everything I read, here is a quick roundup of things I thought were interesting recently:

A Nature article (subs. req’d) describes some of the problems with a trending climate effort: decadal predictions.  In the past, agencies just made climate projections for a couple of centuries into the future.  In addition to that, interest in projections over the next 10 or 20 years grew.  Unfortunately, climate models aren’t well designed for these short time frames.  Thus, they miss high-frequency climate events made just after agencies issue them.  Of particular concern are the high impact events, as we tend to focus on them.  I would remind critics that point out these “misses” that very few financial models indicated the biggest economic disruption of our lifetime: the Great Recession, yet we continue to ascribe great status to the same financial titans that universally missed that high impact event.  That means, of course, that critics remain within their tribal identities and look for any evidence to support their position, even as they ignore similar evidence for analogous cases.

A group made an interesting counter argument regarding the cause behind the US’s recent drop in CO2 emissions.  Instead of the switch from carbon-intensive coal to slightly less intensive natural gas, as many analysts described, this group claims the drop occurred due to widespread, massive efficiency gains.  I characterize this as interesting because the group is countering the International Energy Agency, among others.  While not prescient, the IEA is the leading authority in these types of analyses.  We shouldn’t take their analyses without a grain of salt, of course, as their methodologies are likely imperfect.  Instead, this new argument should encourage further research and analysis.  Was the coal-to-gas switch primarily responsible or was efficiency?  Additional years’ data will help to clarify the respective roles.  In the long-term, efficiency can play as big or a bigger role than the coal-to-gas switch that occurred to date.  That’s where innovation funded from a carbon price comes into play.

Grist ran an informative series recently that included a short video of how much energy the US uses – the primary generators and consumers by type and sector.  The upshot is this: the US uses 100 quads (an energy measurement), which makes further discussion quite simple.  The US generates 81-83 quads (81-83%) via fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas).  That leaves only 17-19% of US generation by non-fossil sources.  Most non-fossil energy generation is nuclear, which means renewables account for the smallest share of energy generation.  Most of that is hydropower from dams that we built in the first half of the 20th century.  This data will form the basis of my next post, which will examine the implications of this energy breakdown for climate policy.  What will it take to replace 83 quads of fossil fuel energy generation with renewable energy generation?


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The American Power Act – First Reactions

The Senate’s version of climate and energy legislation was formally introduced yesterday.  Titled “The American Power Act”, the draft is 987 pages long and includes darn near everything.  Reading any substantial amount of the bill is going to take a while; understanding it will take even longer.  Of course, by the time activists read and understand it, it will probably be in the process of being modified.  Regardless, here are two links that I’m looking at.  The first is the full bill; the second is a section by section summary.

S1733- The American Power Act (pdf)

21 page Section by Section summary (pdf)

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Climate and Energy Tidbits 8/31/08

So far this year, the oil and coal corporations spent $427 million on lobbying Congress and advertising. Every one of those dollars could have gone to building oil refineries, which would increase the supply of oil and gas. Or they could have gone to carbon sequestration research. Instead, they went to ensuring our addiction to oil and coal would continue for years to come. Solutions to this problem are available.

Xcel Energy will relay potential costs of doing business once legislation is passed that accounts for climate change to shareholders.


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Global Warming Pollution’s Price Tag

Climate change denyers have in recent months put forth a conspiracy theory that discussion surrounding climate change exists only to undermine the framework of “free-market” economies. Their efforts to continue delaying decisions in the sphere of government is being undermined by decisions from corporations to begin taking risks of global warming pollution into account when lending:

Banks, investment firms, corporations and utilities have begun to price out carbon emissions at $20 per ton. Bank of America, the nation’s second-largest bank, is the latest addition to this list. In a February speech, CEO Ken Lewis stated, “We need a stable and predictable regulatory environment with a bias toward clean energy and the green economy. When innovators and financial backers are confident of government support, risk calculations change and good things happen.”

To help realize that stable market, he announced the bank’s decision to price global warming pollution at $20 to $40 per ton in assessing risks for lending.

This announcement follows an earlier call to action by more than 60 leading investors, asset managers and companies with assets totaling $4 trillion. This group, which includes ALCOA, Sun Microsystems, and Dupont, called on the federal government to tackle global warming and included a call for pricing of global warming pollution.

Denyers arguments were incredibly weak to begin with, but these developments should clarify just how far into the fringe they really are. If the nation’s 2nd largest bank and groups with $4 trillion in assets are pricing in greenhouse gas emissions into risk analyses, it means they can’t seriously want to undermine their own economic foundations. Further, those investors and asset managers aren’t rabid environmentalists, a favorite boogeyman of the radical right.

So what would this mean in the real world? The cost of coal has jumped by 50% in the past seven years and additional coal plants are being considered for construction. Some math from the op-ed:

With an added charge of just $30 per ton, the mid-range of what banks and businesses are already planning for, the cost of power for Coloradans would skyrocket. As a typical coal plant generates 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, this charge would add $111 million per year to the operating cost of a single plant. Multiply that by the 50 years that a typical plant will run and those additional costs run into the billions.

With businesses on board, it is time to ignore the denyers and deal with reality in a responsible fashion. If denyers can see beyond their radical ideology, they’re welcome to join the discussion.