Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


Call for Climate Change-Policy Paradigm Shift

Nature Climate Change‘s most recent issue included a paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows entitled, “A new paradigm for climate change” [subs. req’d].   Kevin works at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering and Alice works at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering, University of Manchester.  The discussion and arguments in the paper aren’t exactly novel if you’ve paid attention to the policy side of the climate change topic but bears examination as much as other works on the climate-policy interface, in which I am very interested.

I think the paper has some serious flaws in its assumptions, which detracts from the policy prescriptions offered.  Prime among the flaws is this:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions

The latter part of this statement simply will not happen, barring additional severe economic distress.  The first part represents progress from the scientific community: developing nations want and deserve higher living standards, of which energy is a primary input.  But developed nations cannot and will not “immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions”.  There is a choice that these nations make every day: their own economies will grow and they will do so with the cheapest energy possible.

The U.S. recently achieved something through price signals that scientists and environmentalists have failed to achieve via policy for a generation: a significant reduction in overall CO2 emissions: 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.  This is after Congress failed to get a climate-energy bill passed in 2010.  Why did the decrease occur?  Because old coal-fired plants (the most polluting type) grew much more uneconomical to operate in the past few years compared to natural gas-fired plants.  There is a problem moving forward and that is there is nothing substantially cheaper than natural gas on the scale necessary to further reduce U.S. emissions.  Effectively, there is a new baseline from which the U.S. will operate for the next generation.  But natural gas, as most readers are familiar, still pollutes far more than renewable energy sources.  So U.S. emissions will continue to be quite high and more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere.

Despite the early flawed assumption, the papers’ authors quite correctly state the following:

[…]any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C [increase in average global temperatures] is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints.  Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low-carbon futures and underplaying high-emission scenarios.

I have written many times on the false hope that low- and moderate-emission pathways represent (given the unfortunate reality that our actual emissions are on a substantially different orientation) and lamented that even climate scientists misdirected their energies by rarely analyzing high-emission scenarios, thereby depriving policymakers with the required scope of potential futures from which we choose.

The authors do present this somewhat accurate portrayal:

At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.

Rather than demonizing neoclassical economics, the authors should look for opportunities within such a framework that would actually result in emissions reductions.  But the authors’ do identify issues that really do lie at the heart of climate policy: the values of contemporary society.  If those values were more robustly analyzed and respected for what they were as a foundation to climate policy, we would have made meaningful progress on the issue.

The lack of such effort is evident in one of the authors’ concluding paragraphs:

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

This thrown gauntlet is full of high-minded rhetoric but short on grasping the realities of the world.  I don’t know of any climate scientist who is afraid of making academic judgements.  But it is folly to accuse skeptics of unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice when advocates for climate activism also display their own set of opinions and prejudice – those opinion and prejudices arise through psychological lenses which themselves are rooted in biological constructs.  Insulting one another has done and will continue to not to anything to solve this problem.  Nobody has the “truth” market cornered.  The “new” paradigm championed by the authors bears remarkable resemblance to other recommendations from legions of climate activists before them.  What has such a stance accomplished?  Emissions continue to grow, concentrations continue to accumulate, temperatures continue to rise, etc.

Many of the same people who rail against unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice also vehemently dismiss new articulated paradigms.  I see nothing in this paper, or many others like it, that advocate for the rapid growth of developing economies based on 21st century technologies and innovations, even though such an effort is clearly needed while developed nations work at finding ways to decarbonize their own economies.  Quite simply, this is the least expensive path forward – it leverages opportunity within the economic framework in which we operate.  It strikes me as senseless to continue the same fight that has not achieved meaningful decarbonization in the last two generations.


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2009 Climate Change/Energy Bill – 2nd Update

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was introduced about six weeks ago in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  I wrote a follow-up post last week about some of the negotiations that were on-going about the bill in subcommittee.  The same day, another blogger presented some information in a way I found very useful.  Some of the key information was as follows.

20% lower emissions in 2020 than 2005 levels was a key point in the legislation.  As of the 12th of May, the bill’s provision was for 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  Then-candidate Obama campaigned on a 80% reduction of 1990 levels by 2050.  Put simply, an 80% reduction by 2050 isn’t possible to achieve if 2020 levels are only set at 17% below 2005 levels.  And we need to achieve the 80% of 1990 levels reduction.  That was one big reason I supported Obama in the 2008 election.  This slide occurred due to the inherent weakness of the levels proposed in the bill’s introduction, as I discussed in my 1st follow-up post.

A nationwide 25% renewable energy portfolio goal by 2025.  This is imminently do-able – it’s well within our current technological capabilities, to say nothing of developments that will help achieve this goal to be developed in the next 10-15 years, especially with aggressive legislation pushing for it.  After the May 12th “compromise”, conditions were set to 15% renewable and 5% efficiency gain (efficiency has the potential to really eat up a lot of slack in the energy system – far more than 5%, by the way).  The current language would allow governors of states to adjust those numbers to 12% renewable and 8% efficiency.  They shouldn’t have to be traded like this.  Efficiency can easily be doubled to 10% while still attaining 25% renewable energy nationwide.  That would put us much further down the path of needed action.

The worst “compromise” thus far has to be pollution allowances.  President Obama wanted all of them auctioned and then use the money to assist lower- and middle-income consumers pay for efficiency and clean energy projects around their houses.  Assistance for energy bills would also have been made available.  That way, as the government mandated renewable energy come online in a massive way, any increased building and operating costs that utilities would have passed along to consumers would have been largely nullified.  We all would have been using clean energy and our bills wouldn’t have increased (at least not by much).  Instead, House Cons, who have no interest in voting for the bill anyway, managed to convince enough ConservaDems that the poor old energy industry shouldn’t be made to incur greater operating costs, despite all the greenhouse pollution they’re emitting because they’ve decided for decades to not invest in clean technologies (just cheap ones).  So the pollution permits will be given away to polluting corporations – for free.  They will be allowed to pollute for years to come because they’re spending millions of dollars on lobbyists to convince Representatives to give them a huge financial break.  The return on that money will be large, indeed, as it usually is.  In the meantime, greenhouse pollution won’t be effectively curtailed for a long time, ensuring that we lock in ever-increasing cliamte change effects for the next 1,000-10,000 years.

Perhaps the worst news of all is that these compromises giveaways to industry will only continue as this legislation continues to make its way through Congress.  Enough could be done to the bill to make it as Orwellian in name as much of the legislation passed under the Con Congress of the early 2000’s.  Case in point, I heard about the 450 Con amendments to this bill that could be introduced this week.  Instead of working with Democrats in good faith, the Cons are putting forward amendments that would do the opposite of the language already in the bill and/or are geared towards making sure ConservaDems vote for the amendment so that they won’t be called names back in their home districts in the 2010 campaigns.  Or so the theory goes – I’m willing to be they’ll still be called names, even if they do vote the way the Cons want them to.  One amendment in particular is typical of Con posturing – if 1,000 jobs are lost in one state, the entire law’s provisions would be suspended.  If Cons cared that much about employment, they would have offered similar solutions to other important pieces of legislation.  They didn’t, which makes this hypocritical action all the more immoral.

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2009 Climate Change/Energy Bill Negotiations Update

Since it’s introduction last month, the Waxman-Markey climate change/energy bill has been in committee.  To most people, the bill is being negotiated prior to vote by the Energy and Commerce Committee.  To those who are closely following the bill’s progress, the process strikes us as less negotiation and more like watering down a few key details.  Unfortunately, that was what I expected would happen after reading the bill’s summary.  It didn’t start from what I consider the most appropriate positions (yearly emission levels, among others).  Now it appears as though key provisions of the bill are suffering substantial hits in order to garner one additional vote here or there from House ConservaDems.  Here are a few of the details:

Negotiations on the climate bill continue to focus on four key issues: the stringency and timetable of the cap-and-trade program’s emission limits, the use of offsets to ease industrial compliance costs, allocation of valuable allowances and the structure of a nationwide renewable electricity standard.

A deal is close to being made on the distribution of emission allowances that begins by giving away as much as 55% of the credits for free.  That means industry would receive credits for free for 10-15 years before an auction system is fully brought online.  Um, what’s the point then?  If industry is allowed to continue polluting and using credits to count against that pollution for 10-15 years, it won’t matter how good that auction system would be – the climate system will likely have already passed several important tipping points.  The worst effects of climate change would be locked into the system for hundreds to thousands of years – well beyond the insignificant time-frame that industry would be allowed to profit off of their polluting ways.  Rep. Waxman is taking the role of good negotiator with the following:

While the final details remain to be worked out, Waxman acknowledged that he is comfortable with distributing credits for free as a way to help industries transition into a low-carbon economy and during the period when an international climate agreement takes shape.

As Joseph Romm points out at the post I linked to above, this might be alright if the allocations are required to sunset.  I probably shouldn’t hold my breath expecting future Congresses not to tinker with that provision, however.  Although, realistically, such a statement holds true for the legislation as a whole.  Future Congresses can alter and update this legislation as they see fit.

More negotiation details:

Lawmakers are also narrowing in on a 2020 emissions limit, another central piece of a final agreement. Obama’s budget request suggested a 14 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2020, while Waxman had pressed for a 20 percent cut. Several of the Democratic moderates had initially suggested a 6 percent target for 2020, but Waxman balked at that proposal.

Butterfield [Rep. G.K. Butterfield, N.C.-01] said yesterday that he would be willing to accept Obama’s targets. “Let’s shoot for 14 percent,” he said. “I can live with 14 percent.”

This is an extremely poor decision, brought about by the initial weak proposal put forth by Reps. Waxman and Markey as well as the proposed number proposed by President Obama.  14% below 2005 levels almost gets us to 1990 GHG emission levels.  Not concentrations, emission levels.  Given the current state of climate research that I’ve read about in the past couple of months, this simply will not fix the crisis that is devleoping.  We need at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020.  That might not be viewed as politically viable today, but when large portions of Rep. Butterfield’s district is covered by rising sea levels, perhaps he and other politicians will have a different opinion.  The same goes for other Dems acting in the interests of the fossil fuel industry: when your districts bear the brunt of whatever changes you lock us into, will your constituents will be kind enough to thank you for looking out for industry and not them?  The politics of the 20th century are not equipped to deal with the emerging crises of the 21st, that much is clear.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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Climate Change News: New Coral; Methane; GHG Reporting

I’m catching up on a few more news items.  First, a new genus of coral might have been found.  This finding is somewhat less impressive when you realize how little we know about what is in the oceans.  The oceans remain the least explored region on Earth.  Six of seven species discovered recently could qualify for a new genus, once additional examination is conducted.  Just as importantly, researchers were able to secure 4,000 years’ worth of history from some long-lived coral species.  Their growth rings can be “read” like tree growth rings to tease out clues of past climatic conditions.  What will coral tell us about the climate?  As CO2 is slowly absorbed by the oceans, they become more acidic.  Coral can’t grow when the water is highly acidic.  Lots of marine organisms have the same limitation.  These corals are deep-water coral.  If they start dying off due to increased acidity (and temperature) due to manmade greenhouse forcing, it will be a strong signal that the 21st century climate will indeed be quite different than anything we’re familiar with.

Methane levels in the Norweigan Arctic are rising.  Vast beds of methane have been locked up in the northern tundra due to the perpetual cold temperatures.  Global warming has warmed the poles much more than the mid-latitudes or tropical regions.  As they’ve warmed, the tundra is thawing.  As a result, those vast methane beds are releasing the gas back into the atmosphere.  Methane is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas than is CO2.  Therefore, it doesn’t take nearly as much methane to amplify the polar warming already underway (that’s called a positive feedback loop).  One of the problems climatologists face is the arctic region is less well sampled than are the mid-latitudes.  Not even close to the degree that the oceans are under- or non-sampled.  But enough to be a big missing piece of the puzzle.

Yet another missing puzzle piece might come into focus.  The EPA is looking to introduce mandantory greenhouse gas tracking on approximately 13,000 facilities nationwide.  I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of outrage from Cons who will insist its an unfair tax that businesses shouldn’t be made to shoulder.  Ah what a difference an election makes:

“Our efforts to confront climate change must be guided by the best possible information,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement announcing the proposed regulation.

Well said.  Climate change is already impacting businesses and societies.  How much it will continue to do so will only be made more clear once we know how much pollution we’re emitting.  Oh – an easy way to get out of this requirement?  Quit producing the greenhouse gases.  Support renewable energy development – it greatly reduces emissions.  Or continue with the old, polluting ways and finally pony up the costs to society.  Smart, bottom-line watching companies will see which path is cheaper, I’m sure.

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News Survery 2/17/09: Oil, Afghanistan & Antarctic Station

Some recent articles caught my eye.  Here are three of them:

Crude oil is getting cheaper – so why isn’t gas?  Short answer first: greed.  Longer answer: the oil price reported in the media is West Texas crude.  It’s currently selling for less than other oil grades around the world.  The gas we fuel our vehicles with?  It’s processsed from that foreign oil.  The article actually mentions that refining capacity for West Texas crude is less than for other types of crude.  Why aren’t more refineries built?  Well, that would cost oil corporations money – money they’d rather see in executive bonuses and stock dividends.  Don’t think this benefits your retirement account.  As most of us are now aware, the only people who benefited from stock payouts were the already mega-rich.  That won’t change anytime soon.  So when you’re paying more than $2 per gallon again this year, keep in mind all the record profits the oil corporations posted last year.  The money that we’re all paying at the pump every day could go to building refineries and lowering the price at the pump, but it’s not.

Escalation of troops in Afghanistan.  I’d be happier to read news reports of large-scale, detailed plans to revitalize the infrastructure of Afghanistan.  At this point, I think troops are necessary.  But they’ll be worth less in the long-term if fundamental issues aren’t addressed at the same time.

New Antarctic research station is carbon-free.  It won’t stop deniers/delayers from further beating their dead talking-point horses, but this article is good news for realists.  The station uses wind mills, solar panels and water recycling … in Antarctica.  If buildings in Antarctica can be built as zero-emitters, do you think they can be built on the rest of the continents?  Darn right.

The only beef I have with the last article is its treatment of two separate facts.  Both are important (and correct) alone, but the writer did nothing to merge them coherently.  They are:

Scientists monitoring global warming predict higher temperatures could hasten melting at Antarctica, the world’s largest repository of fresh water, raising sea levels and altering shorelines. If Antarctica ever melted, world sea levels would rise by about 180 feet.

That would impact some 146 million people living in low-lying coastal regions less than three feet above current sea levels, researchers said.

On the path toward total Antarctic ice sheet melt (the continent itself can’t melt, by the way), sea levels would obviously rise 3 feet before they rose 180 feet.  So if a 3 foot sea level rise would impact 146 million people, what kind of an impact would sea level rises between three and 180 feet have?  More than the number indicated in the article.

A two-year old paper indicated over 400 million people for selected parts of the globe.  That’s bad enough.  When you factor in recorded sea-level rise amounts have already exceeded earlier estimates, that number is likely to be higher.  And what about the rest of the globe that the study didn’t examine, such as the west coast of the U.S. and most of Africa?

While the article could have benefited from some additional context, I was glad to see the information that did make it in.  We must rein in greenhouse gas emissions.  Millions of peoples’ livelihoods and untold numbers of plants and animals depend on it.

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Obama, Emissions & The Auto Industry

President Barack Obama made his first series of important moves on energy policy yesterday.  He directed regulators to quickly determine whether California and 18 other states can impose stricter car emissions and fuel efficiency than the EPA mandates nationally.  He also ordered the Transportation Department to enact short-term rules on how automakers can improve fuel efficiency of their new models based on a 2007 law. The law requires that by 2020, new cars and trucks meet a standard of 35 miles per gallon, a 40 percent increase over the previous standard.

The auto companies have nashed their teeth very forcefully throughout the 2007 law passage and now its enactment.  They have done so while driving themselves into near-obsoletion.  Their sales have plummeted in the past couple of years, but especially in 2008.  Why?  Because they bet the market would do one thing and it did the other.  What has their main complaint been with these potential regulations?  That they would force the corporations to sell one kind of car in California and another in the rest of the country.  How ridiculous is this claim?  Very, when you realize that these same corporations are already selling vehicles that produce fewer emissions and get much better gas mileage in other countries.

GM, until last month, had been the world’s number one autoseller for decades.  Were all those cars sold exclusively in America?  Of course not.  They sold cars in Europe and Asia; in countries who have mandated much higher fuel efficiency standards than did the U.S.  GM and Ford built plants overseas that manufactured cars that met those standards.  They did so and they remained profitable.  What has destroyed their bottom line was spending millions of dollars to lobby the U.S. government to not impose those same standards here.  So the car corporations forced themselves to make one kind of car to sell in the U.S. and another in the rest of the world.  That led to their current financial struggles.

Cons and pro-corproate Democrats often cite the virtues of the mythological “free-market”.  Here is an opportunity for them to do so again.  If GM, Ford and Chrysler can’t read the market’s signals, don’t they deserve to go under?  Won’t some other entrepreneurial entity come forward to fill the needs of the market?  Darn right, it will.  So what President Obama is doing is allowing our government to help out our mature industries.  GM, Ford and Chrysler are on the brink of collapse.  Obama is extending a helping hand to them, allowing them to continue their existence when they did everything in their power to end it by their own hands.

As usual, corporate media types misread the middle America realities before their eyes.  A “senior editor” (isn’t that impressive?) at CNN writes that

There is an idea afoot in the land that automakers are holding back on small cars because they would rather sell high-margin pickups and SUVs.

It isn’t true. They hold back on small cars because nobody wants to buy them. And since they are hard to sell, automakers can’t make any money on them. If there was steady, predictable demand, you would see waves of good, small cars.

The history of auto sales in 2008 provides a case in point. When gas prices spiked, sales of small and hybrid cars shot through the roof. After prices came back down, dealers couldn’t give them away.

How badly can one person misread the market?  Auto corporations definitely held back on small cars in their pursuit of the more profitable SUBs and pickups.  How many small car advertisements do you see?  Now think of how many truck & SUV ads you see.  Millions of dollars of marketing spent every year by every automaker is the cost of all that advertising.  Small car profits can’t justify themselves in the face of large vehicle profits.  It is a pretty simple business decision.  The problem is not every potential cost is adequately accounted for by the auto corporations.  Well over 1 million Toyota Priuses have been sold in America.  The technology in the Prius?  GM and Ford said Americans wouldn’t want it.  Why then do people remain on waiting lists for the car?  The manufacturing hasn’t caught up to the demand, just the opposite of what the CNN editor wrote.

The last sentence I quoted?  An even worse misread of the economy, if that’s possible.  When did gas prices start coming down in 2008?  In September, when the economy started to collapse.  Dealers can’t give any vehicle away right now.  There are thousands upon thousands of vehicles sitting around in port cities like Los Angeles.  That has never happened until last year.  American’s credit has been cut, and that was the only thing that allowed for our recent economic activity to occur.  Without that credit, people are starting to realize their post-inflation wages haven’t increased in years.  They have no money to buy cars.  Or appliances.  Or houses.  That’s why 500,000 people are losing their jobs every month.  It’s not because gas prices are $1.75 instead of $4.25, despite what the CNN editor wants you to believe.

I haven’t even touched on the environmental benefit of regulating emissions standards.  That has to be done, and done today.  Our climate forcing is making itself felt in an increasing number of ways.  We have the opportunity to try to alleviate the worst of climate change.  The American people spoke in November: they want to make the best of that opportunity.  Dinosaurs like the CNN editor just haven’t caught up to that reality yet.


Hansen Sets CO2 Target; California Sets Aggressive Renewable Target

James Hansen was the lead author of a paper recently, “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?“.  It appears in the latest edition of the Open Atmosphere Science Journal.  I just finished reading the paper when an article on it appeared on CNN’s website.  I will have much more on this paper, and others I’ve read recently, in the future.  In short, the article makes the argument that CO2 concentrations are already too high.  To avoid a return to the early Cenozoic Period climate, humanity must act immediately.  350ppm is the target.  We’re currently at 385ppm, and that’s currently going up by 2-3ppm per year.

In related news, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has issued an executive order calling for a 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard by 2020.  That is significant.  If California were it’s own country, it would have the 7th largest economy in the world.  An aggressive goal like this will lead the way for the remainder of the country to establish and improve upon renewable energy sources.  California is looking at a greenhouse gas reduction goal of 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2050 pretty seriously.  Will it be enough?  Certainly not if California acts alone or nearly alone.  The U.S. needs to adopt a similarly aggressive stance.  As Hansen’t paper points out, CO2 concentrations are too high already.  Everything we do today to bring that concentration down is less we have to do tomorrow.