SciBlogs

Archive August 2011

Scientist prepared to risk arrest Bryan Walker Aug 19

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Climatologist Jason Box, interviewed earlier this year by Gareth on The Climate Show #7 (interview begins 21 minutes in), is preparing to take part in an act of civil disobedience in coming days. The purpose is to try to convince President Obama that approving the extension of a controversial oil sands pipeline – the proposed $7 billion, 1,702-mile Keystone XL from Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and further to the Gulf Coast– would be the equivalent of what is described as lighting a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.  Box is among the 2000 so far signed up to line the fences of the White House, where peaceful arrests are not uncommon.  They’ll begin gathering on Saturday and rotate through in waves of 75 to 100 daily for two weeks.  Box is booked for a three-day stint at the tail end.

Earlier this month, Box joined 19 other prominent U.S. scientists in writing a letter to the President, adding their voices to those urging him to reject plans to construct the pipeline.

’The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit…Adding this on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control.

’When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the Earth’s climate system and to its oceans. Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy–and that we leave the tar sands in the ground.’

The step from letter writing to civil disobedience is a big one, and Box has thought about it seriously, as is explained in a good article in SolveClimate News:

’OK, so what’s next is what I keep asking myself,” Box said about his evolution as a scientist. “I’ve achieved what I set out to do with climatology. Am I just going to just keep studying the melting ice in Greenland? Then I’d just be treading water instead of swimming.”

By participating in the protest, he might liberate other climate scientists to take a stand, he said. If Hansen, who has fashioned a distinguished career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, can lead such a charge among the older guard, Box figures he might be an inspiration for mid-career scientists with potentially more to lose.

Still, Box struggles with that longtime inner voice that tells scientists not to take sides, utter opinions or wave around signs with pithy messages as activists do at rallies.

Yes, he admits to being a bit apprehensive about being confronted by climate deniers who might accuse him of being part of a vast Al Gore conspiracy. But he’s not worried enough to cancel his September flight.

In his own words:

“If our elected leaders aren’t acting, then we’re going to have to get more involved with our democracy. This is about motivating decision-makers to do their job. I’d like to think that scientists engaging skilfully with words and reason could start to change this problem … This is a moral movement and a moral issue. It’s unethical for us to stand by while the greed of others results in the destruction of our biosphere.

“I feel I’m on the high ground defending this position and that I have reason on my side. The question is, will anybody listen?”

Heaven knows what the answer to that question will finally be. And heaven knows whether reason has any power to influence human activity in the fevered world of American politics. But we applaud Box and the other 2000 demonstrators for their willingness to ensure that the warning of the consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels is sounded loud and clear.

Biochar remains promising Bryan Walker Aug 18

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A recent commenter on Hot Topic made critical reference to biochar, providing links to publications from Biofuelwatch. Since I have written posts in the past highlighting the favourable possibilities which biochar may offer I thought it was perhaps time to revisit the matter. Biofuelwatch is an organisation which works ’to raise awareness of the negative impacts of industrial biofuels and bioenergy on biodiversity, human rights, food sovereignty and climate change’.  It has recently published a report Biochar: A Critical Review of Science and Policy which sets out its disagreement with the claims of biochar advocates.

First, on the claim that biochar can act as a means of sequestering carbon over a long period, the review agrees that it is clear that charcoal can in some cases be stable over long periods, but adds that it is also clear that this is not always the case, and that the reasons for this variability are not well understood or controllable.

To the claim that biochar increases soil fertility the review responds that studies of soil fertility effects to date are all short term and therefore do not represent the impacts over time. It therefore objects to the promotion of biochar as a technology for improving the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in the developing world.

Overall the review accuses the biochar advocates of hype unsupported by scientific research or experience on the ground.

Biofuelwatch is clearly concerned that looming behind the advocacy of biochar on a large scale may be the spectre of forest monocultures and corresponding threats to biodiversity. That’s a proper concern, and it has already become apparent in the area of biofuels and bioenergy that some practices and proposals are unsustainable.

I certainly felt dismay when I read in the review that the only multinational so far lending support to biochar is ConocoPhillips and their main interest appears to be in a new source of carbon offsets for their tar sands investments in Canada. That’s not my interest. The attraction of carbon capture through biochar is that it might be a technology which enables us to pull down the current level of atmospheric CO2, not one that seemingly allows exploitation of fossil fuels to continue unabated.

However, it was difficult to understand why Biofuelwatch was so insistently negative about biochar’s possibilities, and there was a notable lack of specific reference to back up their objections. Even a company like World Stove, which makes pyrolysis stoves for the developing world, producing gas and leaving a residue of biochar, is criticised.

I had a look at World Stove’s response to the Biofuelwatch review and, seeking somewhere to start in a single post on a complex and contentious issue, thought I’d report some of what they have to say in their very reasonable eight-page statement.  They are somewhat bemused at the criticisms handed out by Biofuelwatch since they consider their stoves are intended ’to empower small farmers, increase food sovereignty, and decrease forestation, thereby preserving ecosystems and mitigating climate change’, aims very much in sympathy with what Biofuelwatch stands for.

Some 20 percent of the small waste biomass used to power the pyrolytic stoves is converted to biochar, and in this respect World Stove claims their process is actually carbon negative in leaving a residue which can be sequestered in the soil.

One of the criticisms levelled at them is that the amount of biochar produced is inadequate for the purpose of increasing crop yields, which needs to be at the rate of 20 tonnes per hectare to be effective. World Stove’s reply is that the common agricultural practice of side dressing allows even small amounts of char to achieve the high concentrations that are acknowledged as being beneficial to plants and soil.

The question of whether there is sufficient waste matter to supply biochar manufacture on a large scale is frequently raised, and it appears in Biofuelwatch’s criticism. World Stove has an impressive array of figures in response, of which I’ll mention only a few here. They quote one study which estimates that just 30 percent of crop waste from five major crops would provide 600 million tons of residue safely available for charring without reducing soil fertility or increasing danger of erosion.  Another study reports that in Egypt alone 20 million tons of rice straw are burned annually for disposal. Food waste is of enormous proportions; in the US alone it has been calculated to be the energetic equivalent of annual extraction from oil and gas reserves off the nation’s coastlines. All this is part of the biomass resource which can be accessed immediately, and World Stove repeats that biomass processing with a balance of energy and char products is the only method of producing energy that is potentially carbon negative.

Finally, World Stove offers some explanations to those presuming that small stoves in developing countries can hardly make much difference to the climate challenge the world is facing. The figures surprised me. People in developing nations have been calculated to use between 0.36 and 1.4 metric tons of wood, per capita, per year, for cooking and heating. The lower of these equates to emissions of 1,650,150,000 metric tons of CO2 per year from all traditional cooking stoves and open cook fires. Changing open burning to pyrolysis stoves would save that carbon already sequestered in trees. Using waste biomass for pyrolysis stove fuel would sequester another 265,530,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. A combination of the two values gives a total of 1,917,680,000 metric tons of CO2 saved per year by not harvesting trees and by creating biochar from waste biomass. That’s the equivalent of nearly two Pacala/Socolow wedges. For comparison, this would be similar to adding four times the current nuclear capacity to replace coal-burning power plants worldwide.  Of course, changing open burning to pyrolizing stoves throughout the developing world would be difficult, but on these figures it’s well worth attempting.

No doubt biochar can be over-hyped.  But I wouldn’t have thought that was the case with World Stove. Nor is it the case with the painstaking research being conducted in many centres in many countries. One of those is the New Zealand Biochar Research Centre at Massey University. An excellent Our Changing World programme on radio NZ gives a good idea of the range of the detailed research being undertaken there, and along the way outlines the issues associated with both the carbon sequestration and the soil enrichment aspects of biochar.  Well worth half an hour of listening time. It still looks a promising technology to me.

Another wind farm approved. Bryan Walker Aug 16

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Bit by bit wind energy in New Zealand continues to make progress. It was announced today that the Environment Court has upheld resource consent for Meridian’s proposed Mill Creek wind farm in the Ohariu Valley north-west of Wellington.

The decision grants approval for 26 of the 31 turbines applied for, resulting in a combined capacity of 60MW. The five turbines were excluded due to adverse effects on nearby rural lifestyle properties. It’s over three years since the resource consent application was lodged, so it certainly hasn’t happened in a hurry.

The farm grew out of a decision by a group of farmers to form a company over a decade ago. They sought tenders to develop the wind farm to maximise the value of farming their land for wind as well as through traditional pastoral methods. Meridian was chosen.

Consistent wind speeds mean that the project at Mill Creek can generate electricity over 90% of the time. The 31 turbines originally applied for were estimated to be able to generate enough to power the equivalent of 35,000 average homes.

The new CEO of the NZ Wind Energy Association Eric Pyle has, understandably, welcomed the decision as another positive step forward. He comments on a couple of aspects of the court’s decision. One is that they adopted the new NZS:6808 wind farm noise standard published last year to update the 1998 version. ’This validates the hard work the industry has put in to help develop this standard.’

The other pleasing feature he mentioned was that the Court decision focused on the environmental effects of the wind farm and strongly supported the view that debates about economic viability of a wind farm belong in the board room, not the court room.

No doubt economic viability will determine when (though hopefully not if) Meridian proceeds with the project. But at least the way is now open. I look forward to the day when estimates for New Zealand wind farms’ contribution will not be expressed only in how many homes they can supply, but also how many electric vehicles they can power — in the process, as I wrote in an earlier post,  smoothing the peaks and troughs of electricity supply so efficiently they could triple the country’s capacity to use wind power. A much more interesting prospect than the pursuit of fossil fuel mining that the government is so fixated on.

This Is Not Cool Bryan Walker Aug 16

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“Everywhere we look, impacts are coming faster and harder than we would have predicted just a few years ago.”

Peter Sinclair’s recent Crock of the Week video .

The God Species Bryan Walker Aug 14

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It’s an arresting title, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. For author Mark Lynas the Holocene, the 10,000 year post-ice age era during which human civilisation evolved and flourished, has given way in industrial times to the Anthropocene, an age in which the human population has undergone extraordinary growth, and become totally dominant on the planet. In the process we have interfered in the planet’s great bio-geochemical processes to the extent that we are threatening to endanger the Earth system itself and our own survival. Things are badly askew and we must help Earth to regain stability. It cannot do so alone. ’Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.’

Not that Lynas proposes to shoulder nature aside. Far from it. It’s a question of restoring nature’s balance and working within its limits. His book is about the planetary boundaries which must be respected if we are to avoid very serious environmental damage. He aims to communicate to a wide audience the findings of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who a couple of years ago identified nine such boundaries and wrote about them in a notable feature in Nature. Along the way he has his own suggestions for tackling the challenges involved and takes issue with other environmentalists over what he considers wrong-headed stances on many issues, including nuclear power and genetic engineering. This aspect of the book is often argumentative, but the central exposition of the planetary boundaries is straight science, set out with the lucidity apparent in his earlier book Six Degrees.

He begins with the biodiversity boundary. We’re well beyond the expert group’s proposed boundary of a maximum of ten species lost to life per million species per year. An estimated 100 to 1000 species per million are currently wiped out annually. The Anthropocene Mass Extinction is well advanced, and the death toll will soon rival that at the end of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs and half of the rest of life on Earth disappeared.  It is now understood how important a diversity of species is to the resilience and stability of an ecosystem. This applies to the biosphere as a whole: if the current mass extinction is allowed to continue or, worse, to accelerate, the chance of a global-scale ecosystem collapse can only become more ominous. Lynas sees biodiversity loss as fundamentally an enormous market failure. We need to design systems that value nature in a direct and marketable sense and get hard cash to those in a position to protect ecosystems. ’What is needed is not more moralising, but more money.’

The climate change boundary is next on the list. Where once, along with others, Lynas would have endorsed a maximum 450 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and not more than a 2 degree rise in temperature as a safe boundary to avoid dangerous tipping points, he now regards that as wrong and accepts that a fair reading of the science today points to 350 ppm maximum. It’s a boundary we’ve already transgressed, but one we can pull back to if we start on reductions very soon.  We need to be carbon-neutral by mid-century and carbon-negative thereafter. The technologies required are available and can be employed within the prevailing economic system. Notions that we can restrain economic growth won’t work. He is insistent that nuclear power must be a significant part of the solution, considering that there is not time to develop renewable energy to an adequate level. The book provides a spirited defence of nuclear energy as a centralised form of baseload generation, taking both Fukushima and Chernobyl into account. To oppose nuclear is to leave the door open for coal, a far more dangerous source.

The third boundary in which we’re well over the limit is nitrogen. The production of artificial fertiliser, while it has clearly been good for the feeding of the greatly increased human population, is causing serious environmental problems. The expert opinion is that we need to reduce the flow of human-fixed nitrogen to slightly more than a third of its current value.  Lynas looks at various ways in which our use of nitrogen can be reduced. Organic farming isn’t one of them since he considers widespread organic farming couldn’t produce enough food for the world’s present population.  One possibility he canvasses is genetic engineering to produce a more nitrogen-efficient and higher-yielding crop. Here and elsewhere he refers to Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline, in which Brand advances the causes of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and urbanisation as ways of facing up to the challenge of climate change.

The land use boundary is the next Lynas considers, urging the need for cash to make the protection of forests and other important ecosystems more attractive than their destruction. The movement of populations to cities he sees as overall a positive for sustainability because it leads to a reduction in population growth and concentrates the human impact on the land in a smaller area.  As is becoming usual in the book Greens are chided for failing to see the positives in such developments.

Other boundaries discussed are freshwater, toxics, and aerosols before he arrives at ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change. We’re in a danger zone already, with the world’s oceans more acidic than has probably been the case in at least 20 million years. Future predictions are uncertain, but educated guesses provided by models and evidence from the Earth’s deep geological past lead him to the conclusion that ocean acidification is so serious a threat that even if there were no climate change we would still have to urgently reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. The integrity of the marine biosphere is at stake.

The final boundary Lynas tackles, that of the ozone layer, is a success story in that humanity pulled back from a hellish future by reaching international agreement on regulations to cease the production of CFCs. It was not an easy achievement in the face of industry opposition, but politicians stepped up to leadership and private industry delivered alternative products in consequence. The strong political leadership delivered by the US was crucial, in sad contrast to the way it has politically thwarted progress on climate change negotiations.

As adviser to the president of the Maldives, Lynas witnessed at first hand the debacle of Copenhagen, being among the fifty or so present in the room where the final-hours heads of state negotiations were conducted. He tells the disappointing story of that meeting as an example of what failing to meet a planetary boundary looks and feels like. But he doesn’t regard the failure as necessarily terminal, pointing out that China, a real obstruction to progress at Copenhagen, is now leading the world in investment in low-carbon technologies and showing itself deadly serious about dealing with climate change, reaping great economic benefit along the way. The US is being left well behind.

Lynas is often impatient with Greens and environmentalists. But the arguments he engages in have to do with appropriate technological and economic remedies, not with the shared perception that we are exceeding the boundaries of nature and must pull back. On that common ground he interprets and explains the science with admirable clarity. And he remains confident we can solve the problems, given sufficient pragmatism on the means employed.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates: The Book Depository (UK, free shipping worldwide), Fishpond (NZ), Amazon.com.]

Horn of Africa Drought: is it climate change? Bryan Walker Aug 12

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The horrifying pictures of famine in the Horn of Africa haunt us as human tragedy, and the more because they carry with them the question of whether this has something to do with climate change. Are we going to see more and more of this kind of suffering as climate change impacts begin to mount? That’s an easier question to muse than to answer with certitude, but it deserves our attention. There is every indication that poor people are going to suffer from the impacts of climate change sooner and more harshly than the rest of us. But is the Horn of Africa famine part of that?

Oxfam has been addressing that question, and recently issued a briefing on the subject. The short answer is that we don’t know.

There are what may be indications:

’Reports from the Kenya Food Security Group and from pastoralist communities show that drought-related shocks used to occur every ten years, and they are now occurring every five years or less. Borana communities in Ethiopia report that whereas droughts were recorded every 6-8 years in the past, they now occur every 1-2 years.’

Meteorological data shows mean annual temperatures from 1960-2006 increased by 1 degree in Kenya and 1.3 degrees in Ethiopia, and the frequency of hot days is increasing in both countries.

Rainfall trends are less clear, though recent research suggests that rainfall decreased from 1980 to 2009 during the ‘long rains’ (March to June).

But no conclusion can be drawn:

’[Globally] there are so far only a few cases in which scientists have been able to estimate the extent to which man-made climate change has made a particular extreme weather event more likely, and no such studies as yet exist in the case of the current drought in the Horn of Africa.’

However, the current drought has highlighted the vulnerability of the communities to changes in the climate, as Oxfam on the ground in the refugee camps is only too aware.  Last night I watched on Campbell Live an interview with a New Zealand woman Janna Hamilton working for Oxfam at the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border. Vulnerability sounds like a euphemism alongside what some of the people she described had been through.

So whatever part human-caused climate change may or may not have played in the current drought there can be no doubt that what the future holds for the populations in the Horn of Africa is deeply concerning. Higher temperatures are certain and in the absence of urgent action to slash global emissions they will likely be 3 to 4 degrees higher in the region in 2080-2099 relative to 1980-99. Rainfall patterns are more difficult to predict. Some models suggest more rain for East Africa, others that it will decrease. The briefing notes however that even if rainfall does increase, this will in part be offset by temperature rises which cause greater evapotranspiration, and more rain falling in heavy events will result in increased surface runoff and flooding.

This adds up to major problems for food production and availability — one recent estimate published by The Royal Society suggests much of East Africa could suffer a decline in the length of the growing period for key crops of up to 20 per cent by the end of the century, with the productivity of beans falling by nearly 50 per cent.

In other words, whether the current drought is down to climate change or not, it reminds us that these populations are going to be profoundly affected in the future as climate change begins to bite.

And so the briefing sounds again Oxfam’s oft-repeated recommendations for international action to slash greenhouse gas emissions to a level which keeps global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, for action on mobilising the $100 billion per year that has been committed for climate action in developing countries, and for a dramatic increase in long-term investment towards building the resilience and boosting the productivity of pastoralists and smallholder food producers in the Horn of Africa.

Improved governance has a part to play, as the briefing fully acknowledges: ’It should be noted that whilst the current drought has been caused by lack of rainfall, the disaster is man-made.’ But it would be wrong to shrug off the climate challenges ahead as if they were simply down to inadequate government. We owe the world’s poor, and eventually our own children, the earnest effort Oxfam keeps calling for and that we keep delaying.

Leave fossil fuels undisturbed. Bryan Walker Aug 09

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A recent Forest and Bird Newsletter contrasted the anticipated loss of 100 jobs in the Department of Conservation with the announced doubling of the number of people employed in the Ministry of Economic Development’s unit aimed at expanding the oil and minerals industries. The newsletter comments that some of those who will lose their jobs with DOC are expected to be people with strong scientific and technical experience who know what would be lost if mining or other destructive developments were to take place on conservation land.

Forest and Bird are right to be suspicious. The Minister for Economic Development has given ample evidence that in the thinking of the government the economic gain to be had from fossil fuel exploitation balances any environmental damage it causes. They have had to backtrack from the initial plan to open up some of the most highly protected conservation land for mining, but there’s every indication that they will continue to hover and find other opportunities to prize open land that ought to be left undisturbed, in order to extract fossil fuel from it. The same Forest and Bird newsletter set out the organisation’s hope to save the Denniston Plateau from a proposed new opencast coal mine which would destroy 200 hectares and increase New Zealand’s coal exports by up to 63% per year. And that would only be the beginning. The Australian company holds mining permits across the Plateau, which would generate an estimated 50 million tonnes of coal.

The undervaluing of biodiverse ecosystems is bad enough, but the bland assumption that we can carry on with fossil fuel extraction as if it had no impact on climate change is wilful obstinacy of dangerous proportions. I’d been looking at a proposed paper by James Hansen and a stable of co-authors when the Forest and Bird newsletter arrived. I’ll take the opportunity to draw attention to it here. Hansen gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to read it when he wrote to him during his visit to New Zealand in May of this year, but I haven’t heard any indication that John Key did so. If he did he wasn’t impressed, as his lignite comments in June attest.

The paper is titled The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future. It has not yet been published but has been circulated in draft form for the past three months. It was written as the science basis to suits being filed in various states and countries and follows two recent scientific papers from Hansen  Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change and Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications  both of which, from different perspectives, point to serious impacts ahead, particularly from ice sheet disintegration and consequent sea level rise.

The Case for Young People and Nature has an impressive list of 14 co-authors, some from Columbia University Earth Institute, but others from a wide range of universities and research institutes. They include Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Stefan Rahmstorf and Jeffrey Sachs among others. The emphasis on young people in the title is clarified early in the paper:

’The climate system has great inertia because it contains a 4-kilometer deep ocean and 2-kilometer thick ice sheets. As a result, global climate responds only slowly, at least initially, to natural and human-made forcings of the system. Consequently, today’s changes of atmospheric composition will be felt most by today’s young people and the unborn, in other words, by people who have no possibility of protecting their own rights and their future well-being, and who currently depend on others who make decisions today that have consequences over future decades and centuries.’

Governments have recognized the need to stabilize atmospheric composition at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic climate change, as formalized in the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, but their actions belie their assurances.

 ’The reality is that most governments, strongly influenced by the fossil fuel industry, continue to allow and even subsidize development of fossil fuel deposits. This situation was aptly described in a special energy supplement in the New York Times entitled ‘There Will Be Fuel’ (Krauss, 2010), which described massive efforts to expand fossil fuel extraction. These efforts include expansion of oil drilling to increasing depths of the global ocean, into the Arctic, and onto environmentally fragile public lands; squeezing of oil from tar sands; hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas; and increased mining of coal via mechanized longwall mining and mountain-top removal.’

The New Zealand government fits perfectly into this characterisation.  I imagine that’s one of the reasons they feel so confident about continuing to expand the extraction of fossil fuel. They’re only doing what lots of others are doing. They have long indicated their desire to stay with the pack. But here’s the price, as the Hansen paper sees it:

’Burning all fossil fuels would have a climate impact that literally produces a different planet than the one on which civilization developed. The consequences for young people, future generations, and other species would continue to mount over years and centuries. Ice sheet disintegration would cause continual shoreline adjustments with massive civil engineering cost implications as well as widespread heritage loss in the nearly uncountable number of coastal cities. Shifting of climatic zones and repeated climate disruptions would have enormous economic and social costs, especially in the developing world.’

I often wonder what goes on in the minds of politicians who on the one hand say they accept the need to avoid dangerous climate change yet at the same time vigorously pursue the mining of the fossil fuels which we now know are causing the danger. If pressed I expect ours will say, ’We’ll stop when the others stop’.  The logic of that is that no one in a position to mine stops until the resource is exhausted. And since it will be exhausted they’re interested along the way in seeing that alternatives are developed. The draft New Zealand Energy Strategy certainly envisages something like that, treating both fossil fuels and renewable energy as equal contributors to the growth of the New Zealand economy.

’New Zealand has an abundance of diverse energy resources. The Government aims to harness their potential to deliver a transformation of the economy.’

And first on the list of these diverse sources:

’Our geological history has provided us with rich mineral and petroleum resources, only a small proportion of which have been tapped to date.’

After that come hydro, geo-thermal, wind, solar, biomass. Even efficiency gets a look in. But there is no suggestion that the one topping the list will be dislodged any time soon.

The Case for Young People and Nature is packed with supporting scientific information which there’s no space here to outline. But let one paragraph serve to indicate the seriousness of the future it sees, challenging even the too-easily accepted rise of two degrees in average global temperature as somehow safe:

’The suggestion that 2°C global warming may be a ‘safe’ target is extremely unwise based on critical evidence accumulated over the past three decades. Global warming of this amount would be putting Earth on a path toward Pliocene-like conditions, i.e., a very different world marked by massive and continual disruptions to both society and ecosystems. It would be a world in which the world’s species and ecosystems will have had no recent evolutionary experience, surely with consequences and disruptions to the ecosystem services that maintain human communities today. There are no credible arguments that such rapid change would not have catastrophic circumstances for human well-being.’

Good on Forest and Bird for sounding the alarm. And good on the recent hui in Auckland which declared its determination ’to stop the destructive expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the lands and waters of Aotearoa New Zealand.’ Though I admit to a certain sense of disconnection in writing this on a day when the front page news item in our leading national newspaper is the pricing of All Black jerseys.

Anthropogenic CO2 Far Exceeds Volcanic Bryan Walker Aug 07

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I was a little startled a few weeks back to see in a Waikato Times column written by former National Party MP Michael Cox the extraordinary claim that the 1991 Mt Pinatubo eruption ’shot out more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race had emitted in its entire years on Earth’.  I don’t know where he derived this from — no doubt it’s floating around somewhere in the denial world, though even there it seems possible that he misunderstood what he was reading. Anyway it served to support his view that talk of human-caused warming is a Left-inspired crusade to compensate for the collapse of communism! I was able to say in a letter to the paper how ridiculous the Pinatubo statement was, and pretty much everything else he said as well.

Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth claims that “Volcanoes add far more carbon dioxide to the oceans and atmosphere than humans”. Perhaps that was Cox’s source. Plimer obviously still carries weight with those looking for alternatives to climate science, as a recent Herald piece from cartoonist Peter Bromhead revealed. Bromhead’s denialism survived unscathed a flight to New York sitting next to a climate scientist. It was difficult ’for a bewildered old cartoonist to try to verbally outrun somebody professionally clued up on his subject’. But he did detect that ’my companion’s viewpoint appeared disturbingly contaminated with doctrine that leaned heavily on ideology rather than absolute fact.’ And Bromhead had that ’admirably comprehensive book’ Heaven and Earth as counterweight. ’This volume, with thousands of scientific references on every aspect of climate change – through the history of the planet – is a must-read for those bewildered by climate contradictions.’

All of which is a rather circuitous introduction to my purpose in this post to draw attention to a very worthwhile article on volcanic CO2 emissions. Terry Gerlach, a retired volcanic gas geochemist who worked with the US Geological Survey, has a guest commentary in Real Climate introducing his article Volcanic Versus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide which was published in the American Geophysical Union’s publication Eos, and is now available online. In the article he addresses the widespread misperception that volcanic CO2 emissions greatly exceed anthropogenic CO2 emissions. He presents an overview of the subject, using only published peer-reviewed data with a minimum of technical jargon and aimed at a broad readership. I’ve read it and I can confirm its accessibility for the general reader. A few points from it:

Anthropogenic CO2 emissions were estimated to be responsible for a projected 35 gigatons of CO2 in 2010. This clearly dwarfs all estimates of the annual present-day global volcanic CO2 emission rate of around 0.26 gigaton, which Gerlach points out is comparable to the global CO2 emissions from the flaring of waste gases, or to the CO2 emissions of nations such as Pakistan (0.18 gigaton), Kazakhstan (0.25 gigaton), Poland (0.31 gigaton), and South Africa (0.44 gigaton). Anthropogenic emissions were projected to be 135 times as great as volcanic emissions in 2010.

Occasional volcanic paroxysms such as Mount Pinatuboin 1991  or Mount St. Helen’s in 1980 may for a few hours equal or even exceed the human output during those same few hours, but ’volcanic paroxysms are ephemeral, while anthropogenic CO2 is emitted relentlessly from ubiquitous sources.’ Gerlach considers what would be needed by way of volcanic activity to exceed the CO2 levels due to human activity, and concludes ’… the belief that volcanic CO2 exceeds anthropogenic CO2 implies either unbelievable volumes of magma production or unbelievable concentrations of magmatic CO2’.  It would take 700 Mt Pinatubo-equivalent volcanic paroxysms annually to match the yearly level of anthropogenic emissions.

Even supereruptions don’t compare.  He describes them as extremely rare, with recurrence intervals of 100,000—200,000 years; none have occurred historically, the most recent examples being Indonesia’s Toba volcano, which erupted 74,000 years ago, and the United States’ Yellowstone caldera, which erupted 2 million years ago. ’[Calculations] strongly suggest that present-day annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions may exceed the CO2 output of one or more supereruptions every year.’

The article performs a very useful function in gathering and referencing the work that scientists have done on the issue and spelling out the comparisons. In a quiet and restrained way it underlines just how massive a disruption the human release of fossil fuel CO2 is to the natural processes by which Earth’s vital carbon cycle is maintained. It’s very difficult to believe that the consequences can’t be severe. The author in conclusion stresses the need for educators, climate change policy makers, the media, and the general public to understand that anthropogenic CO2 dwarfs volcanic emissions. ’Discussions about climate policy can only benefit from this recognition,’ is his final sentence. He’d have been justified in using stronger language.

I should also mention a shorter and simpler article by Gerlach published by Earth Magazine last year in which he specifically addressed Plimer’s assertions on the size of volcanic emissions and took them apart.

Imprisoned activist’s moving court statement. Bryan Walker Aug 04

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I have been reading the impressive court statement made by American climate activist Tim DeChristopher before receiving a two-year jail sentence for making fake bids at an oil and gas lease auction of parcels of public land in Utah in December 2008. The sentence was harsh but evidently not because the offence was particularly heinous.  ’The offence itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad,’ said the judge. No, the serious matter was DeChristopher’s ’continuing trail of statements’. The judge pointed to DeChristopher’s subsequent defiance and frequent assertions to reporters that civil disobedience is justified in fighting climate change. Previously the judge had refused to allow the trial defence that DeChristopher had been compelled to act, to prevent the greater evil of climate change. He also ruled out reference to the fact that most of the sales in the auction were later cancelled because of government doubts about the legality of the leasing plan.

However he did allow DeChristopher to make his statement prior to sentencing. It was dignified, restrained and thoughtful. I found it moving. It is well worth reading in full, but I’ll extract some particularly telling sentences from the concluding paragraphs. The first extract places his action in the context of the seriousness of the effects of climate change.

 ’Mr. Huber [the Federal prosecutor] wants you to weigh the loss for the corporations that expected to get public property for pennies on the dollar, but I believe the important factor is the loss to the public which I helped prevent. Again, we come back to this philosophical difference. From any perspective, this is a case about the right of citizens to challenge the government. The U.S. Attorney’s office makes clear that their interest is not only to punish me for doing so, but to discourage others from challenging the government, even when the government is acting inappropriately. Their memorandum states, ‘To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behaviour.’ The certainty of this statement not only ignores the history of political prisoners, it ignores the severity of the present situation. Those who are inspired to follow my actions are those who understand that we are on a path toward catastrophic consequences of climate change. They know their future, and the future of their loved ones, is on the line. And they know we are running out of time to turn things around. The closer we get to that point where it’s too late, the less people have to lose by fighting back.’

He drives home the message that civil disobedience is not going to go away, either as a repeat possibility in his own life or in the lives of others:

’The people who are committed to fighting for a liveable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today. And neither will I. I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future. Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience. Nothing that happens here today will change that. I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority. You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine alone.’

He finally makes it clear that he does not want to go to prison. It’s a nuanced paragraph in which he invites the court to affirm the value of nonviolent civil disobedience but to show their disagreement with this particular exercise of it by sentencing him to community service efforts.

’I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with Mr. Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM (US Bureau of Land Management). You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.’

Tim DeChristopher is paying a high price for his principled disruptive action. Disgracefully high. I hope the wave of support he is receiving from a wide range of people will buoy him up during the tough time ahead. Nonviolent civil disobedience is likely to increase as the intransigence of governments in the pursuit of fossil fuels persists and as brave individuals decide that there is no other effective path open to them. I’ve written of civil disobedience several times in past posts (here, here, here and here) and I repeat here what I wrote in one of them indicating my own view:

’Nonviolent civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition back through Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Thoreau and many others.  Thus far in relation to climate change it is sporadic but if governments continue to ignore their responsibility to drastically reduce emissions we may expect to see more of it. Understandably so. What else will serve to communicate the deep seriousness of the issue? The capacity of governments to blandly absorb the climate message, sometimes to acknowledge it, and then to carry on regardless is beginning to seem limitless. Civil disobedience puts a strain on the body politic which the kind of people who engage in it would normally seek to avoid. But there is much at stake.’

If DeChristopher’s sentence is any guide those undertaking acts of civil disobedience will have a harder time of it in the US than elsewhere in the western world. All the more honour to them. They occupy an important post in the continuing battle to persuade our governments to abandon the fossil fuel path which spells such danger for humanity.

America’s Climate Problem: The Way Forward Bryan Walker Aug 03

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America is much better in technology than governance. That’s the sentence that leapt out at me and remained prominent throughout my reading of economist Robert Repetto’s book America’s Climate Problem: The Way Forward. I sought the book for review because, although its focus is on the US, what happens there will crucially affect the rest of us, in terms of both the level of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and the likelihood of international agreement to limit them. The book doesn’t exactly inspire hope on either count, but it is constructive in the path it suggests for the US to follow and puts the ball squarely in the court of the policy makers.

It’s always good to read an economist who gets the full seriousness of climate change and Repetto certainly does that. In his opening outline of the problem he stands with the unequivocal statements of the National Academy of Science and uncompromisingly sets out the risks both globally and within the US, emphasising the scariness of reinforcing feedback mechanisms, some of which are already under way. America’s response must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 per cent over the next forty years. Some measures are under way, he notes, but they are far from adequate to the task.

The challenge is to transition to clean energy and dramatically increased energy efficiency. It can happen, and like earlier energy transitions it will stimulate economic growth. Indeed the shift is already under way and needs only to be supported and accelerated. He spells out the wide range of technologies available and the innovations in energy management which will enable them to be put to full use. Those already at hand are sufficient for the task, let alone those which are still to come. They require only institutional change and political commitment. Governance, in a word. And that’s the sticking point. There is a legacy of poor governance in many areas which needs to be overcome, and he patiently details how it can be, from structuring utilities to encourage efficiency, to interstate transmission lines, to ill-directed energy subsidies and much more.

At the heart of the book is the author’s exposition of how to put a price on carbon to encourage the most cost-effective ways of reducing emissions. An ‘upstream’ cap and trade system is the best way of proceeding. Permits would be issued, preferably by auction, to firms that sell fossil fuels. Permits would be required of first sellers and enforced at the refinery gate for petroleum, the first distribution point for natural gas, the mine shipping terminus for coal and the port in the case of imports. Reductions in emissions would be imposed through gradual year-by-year reductions in the permits available. He goes into some detail to explain the finer points of design which would make the system most effective. He also indicates why cap and trade is preferred to a carbon tax. It’s not that a carbon tax would harm the economy; the problem is that there is no way of knowing what the tax rate should be to achieve the desired end of emissions reduction. It is also likely that the yearly increases needed would cause political controversy. His treatment of cap and trade faces up to thorny questions such as international competitiveness and impacts on low income households. The best ways to help the latter are by financial compensation. The worst way would be to prevent retail energy prices in the residential sector from rising.

Repetto is insistent that in serious economic analysis there is simply no support for claims that a comprehensive cap and trade regime would impose excessive or unsustainable costs on the economy or households. All reputable economic analyses agree on this basic finding. On the question of employment opportunities he concludes that climate policy can be neither justified nor condemned because of its employment effects. ’The justification for climate policy has to be the need to stabilise the climate.’ In discussing the implications for industrial competitiveness he points to the tendency of mature industrial economies to protect sunset industries and emphasises the need for US industrial policy to move to provide strong stimulus to emerging sunrise industries. If it fails to do this it risks being shut out of the world market in fast-growing sectors such as the wind and solar energy industries.

Repetto recognises that, given the US stance, international agreement on post-Kyoto climate change measures are currently stymied by the respective negotiating positions of the developed countries and the developing. But within that constraint he suggests a way forward that will still allow for significant progress in the decade post 2012. Ambitious binding commitments to reduce emissions made by Annex 1 countries can be accompanied by a focus on policies and measures which take advantage of ‘win-win’ opportunities in developing countries.  Those are opportunities which are financially beneficial in themselves and at the same time climate-friendly. Energy efficiency improvements and public transport investment are two examples. Such cost-saving mitigation efforts represent low-hanging fruit, and Repetto points out that one of the most attractive characteristics of such fruit is that it grows back as new opportunities emerge. Finally he urges that a reformed Clean Development Mechanism and other offset programmes find a place in the framework for ongoing  international cooperation. Incidentally this chapter of his book includes an eye-opening box listing what China has already done in already adopting ’more effective policies to reduce emissions than the US has’.

Why has the US response been so inadequate? Repetto ascribes the failure to the broader failure of America’s political system. ’At the root of it all is money.’ Enormous sums are needed for campaigns, far too large to come from small donations by ordinary citizens. They come from interest groups, including corporations, who expect returns for their investment. Campaigning support leads to lobbying access. Industry also provides money for extensive public relations and disinformation campaigns and bankrolls right-wing and libertarian think tanks to advance arguments against policies to curb emissions. As Repetto elaborates on all this and describes the decline of bipartisanship in Congress the reader is not surprised by his declaration that a truly transformative climate law would be uncharacteristic of the American political system.  Breakthroughs are possible, but they normally need circumstances not present today — room on the political agenda, and a strong public demand for action.  It’s not a promising scene.  Repetto doesn’t think oblique approaches like a clean energy message are sufficient to carry the day. The climate challenge must be faced directly, not danced around with secondary messages. Obama should use his bully pulpit to say bluntly that this is by far the greatest environmental challenge in American history.  The way forward runs uphill. The more people get behind and push the better.

A final chapter examines America’s very inadequate adaptation measures in some detail and urges ways in which better preparation can be made to protect the country from the worst effects of climate change, concluding with the warning, however, that future adaptation cannot take the place of strong immediate measures to reduce emissions.

The book is thoughtful and measured and carries a quiet authority. Repetto hasn’t given up on his country being able to rise to the challenge of climate change, and he understands how it can be done, but he’s sober about the prospect. ’Failure is an option,’ he writes, ’but by no means a necessity.’

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