A non-partisan campaign to put action on climate change at the centre of the coming election campaign was launched at the weekend (NZ Herald, RNZ). Climate Voter, a joint initiative by Forest & Bird, Generation Zero, 350 Aoteoroa, Greenpeace, Oxfam and WWF, is using social media to drive the campaign, and will host a debate on climate policy between the leaders of the top six polling parties in September. At the time of writing over 10,000 people had signed up to the campaign — including me. It’s a very worthwhile effort and one I’m very happy to support, because as long as politicians are allowed to get away with mismanaging or ignoring climate policy, NZ will remain on the wrong path. The laws of physics don’t care what your politics are, but they will make people who ignore them pay a high price.
Posts Tagged 350
In this week’s news-packed edition of The Climate Show we have an exclusive interview with Jim Salinger, probably New Zealand’s highest profile climate scientist, talking about extremes and the shape of things to come. John Cook discusses his new paper with Stephan Lewandowsky, Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation, which is already upsetting climate cranks around the world, plus we look at carbon bubbles, renewable energy beating coal on price, and a simply superb iPad app.
Carbon bubble begins to bite: Hot Topic.
Increases in extreme rainfall linked to global warming: Science Daily.
New Mexico Utility Agrees To Purchase Solar Power At A Lower Price Than Coal: Climate Progress.
Renewables now cheaper than coal and gas in Australia: REneweconomy.
[13:15] Jim Salinger, NZ’s best-known climate scientist.
Debunking the sceptic
[31:30] John Cook of Skeptical Science discusses Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation. Shaping Tomorrow’s World blog post here.
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McKibben: naming the enemy Jul 28Join the conversation at Hot Topic
“It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.” These are the words Bill McKibben uses to describe the fossil-fuel industry in a recent striking article in Rolling Stone which has received wide attention. It’s well worth reading, not least for the elegant lucidity of its prose. This post is not intended as some kind of summary, but rather as a reflection on McKibben’s notion that we need to recognise that we are up against a formidable enemy. He moves to this declaration by considering three numbers.
The first is 2o Celsius, the level of warming which is widely accepted politically as not to be exceeded. Scientifically it can’t be regarded as a safe level of warming, and it’s certainly not so regarded by McKibben, but ”political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target”.
The second number is 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon dioxide scientists estimate can still be added to the atmosphere by mid-century and give us a reasonable (80%) hope of staying below two degrees.
The third number is 2,795 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies. “In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.” And it’s five times more than we can burn and have any hope of staying within two degrees of warming.
In other words 80 percent of the fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground if we’re to observe the 2 degree guardrail. But economically speaking McKibben points out that the reserves are already above ground – “those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value”. They support share prices, money is borrowed against them, nations base their budgets on expected returns from them. And the asset write-off which would have to be made if 80 percent of those reserves were left unexploited would be in the region of $20 trillion by some estimates.
There’s no sign of any intention on the part of companies or countries to allow that to happen. Even though they know global warming is the result – “they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all” – they relentlessly pursue the search for more hydrocarbons, including bidding for leases in the Arctic where the melting of sea ice is clearly a consequence of warming.
Indeed, as I posted here, Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson claims to be fully conversant with the science, even to be participating in IPCC reports, but somehow reconciles that with continued exploitation of the fuels. I wrote of his recklessness. McKibben is stronger: “There’s not a more reckless man on the planet than Tillerson.”
Entrenched, fighting to remain protected from having to pay the true cost of its product, unwilling to acknowledge the harm that product is now recognised to be causing, determined to carry on drilling and mining, showing minimal interest in alternative energy development – it’s hardly hyperbole to describe the industry as an enemy to human civilisation. And this is the view McKibben considers we need now to take.
What he’s seeking is a level of moral outrage which might eventually mean that investment institutions sever ties with companies which profit from climate change, along the lines of the divestment movement of the 1980s from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Some hope, perhaps, but one which might be helped along by the Carbon Tracker report Unburnable Carbon earlier this year warning investors of the risk of heavy exposure to fossil-fuel companies whose assets will look much less secure if the political world is finally shocked by climate disaster into serious regulation of carbon.
It’s very much in order for McKibben to identify an enemy, remembering that it’s a moral struggle that he points to, and that he’s always been clear abut the path of non-violence. It’s a complicated picture, of course, since it is not possible to simply stop using fossil fuels. But what is possible is a rapid transition away from them to alternatives, and at the point where companies or countries put obstacles in the way of that transition, and look first to the full exploitation of the fossil resources, they can rightly be regarded as enemies of human society. It’s a label they have to reckon with. And maybe it’s one which will work on the human consciences of those involved and give them pause.
It’s a stark characterisation. But the numbers McKibben offers are stark. And so will be the consequences of burning all that fuel. Here in New Zealand as the government relentlessly trumpets the likely economic benefits of greatly expanded fossil fuel exploration, and the Labour Party appears to be following not too far behind albeit a trifle less enthusiastically, politicians need to look at the big picture, the climate change picture. They need to ask themselves more than whether localised oil spills can be prevented or contained. The big question is whether they want to be aligned with forces ready to take huge risks with the global environment which sustains human civilisation, all in the name of preserving dubious financial assets.
Hansen’s letter on lignite Apr 07Join the conversation at Hot Topic
At the suggestion of Slovenian colleagues, James Hansen has written to the President and members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia urging them to deny a state guarantee for a proposed European Investment Bank loan to fund a new lignite-fired power plant in their country.
He points out that they are considering a decision which will have significant effects, some irreversible, upon the world that today’s young people and future generations inherit. Such a strong statement, he says, however unlikely it may seem at first glance, is a clear conclusion of the most advanced climate science. That science he proceeds to summarise in his letter, and to describe in more detail in an attached paper The Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature.
The paper is well worth attention. No fewer than 17 co-authors, from a variety of universities and institutes around the world, participated in its preparation. The result is a valuable summation of the science and the implications for humanity in moving to carbon-free energies and energy efficiency. I don’t know whether many politicians actually sit down and read a coherent account of where climate science is at, but the paper serves extremely well for anyone, politician or not, who wants such an account.
’Humanity is now the dominant force driving changes of Earth’s atmospheric composition and thus future climate.’ Hansen’s blunt opening statement is explained in detail as the paper proceeds. I’ll touch only lightly on its contents, which are familiar enough to anyone who follows the issue. It’s worth noting the increasing urgency which the paper points to as the impacts of global warming become apparent. What was once thought to be a tolerable level of a few degrees of warming can now be seen as dangerous. Although global warming is currently less than 1ºC, significant impacts are already apparent. There has been a much larger than expected decrease in summer Arctic sea ice; the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shedding ice at several hundred cubic kilometres per year and accelerating; mountain glaciers around the world are receding rapidly; the hot dry sub-tropical climate belts have expanded; the abundance of reef-building corals is decreasing; more than half of all wild species are experiencing habitat and seasonal timing changes; mega-heatwaves have become more widespread.
There is a consequent need for a reassessment of what constitutes a dangerous level of warming and the paper points to Earth’s paleoclimate history as a guide. Powerful feedbacks of loss of albedo and rising CO2 emissions greatly amplified the effects of what would otherwise have been small changes in past climates; that is a warning for us of what the extremely rapid rise in emissions today may result in. Past records of sea level rise are particularly ominous in this respect.
The paper explains the conclusion that an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350 ppm is the target which could stabilise climate near current temperatures. It’s an important conclusion, but also a troubling one in that we are already well past that mark and climbing. However the paper considers it is not impossible to return to 350 ppm this century through reforestation and increasing soil carbon. But emissions must start to be scaled back urgently as well.
Hansen et al also warn of the possible development of slow feedbacks, such as ice sheet disintegration, species extinction or the release of methane hydrates, if warming is allowed to continue. These slow feedbacks can become tipping points where further and possibly rapid changes become inevitable because they develop their own momentum and the dynamics of the process takes over.
The paper runs through the likely impacts of global warming — sea level rise, continuing into successive centuries possibly to very high levels; shifting climate zones, already apparent in isotherms moving poleward at a typical rate of the order of 100 km/decade in the past three decades; threats to species survival; loss of coral reefs; climate extremes; a variety of threats to human health.
The only effective response to the dangers posed by warming is for the world to move expeditiously to carbon-free energies and energy efficiency, leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. This transition, the paper considers, will not occur until a price is put on carbon. Fossil fuels are cheap only because they are subsidised and do not pay their costs to society.
One of the world’s leading climate scientists, supported by a distinguished group of colleagues from a number of disciplines, takes the trouble to write to the members of the Slovenian National Assembly over one coal-fired power plant, and to include a carefully prepared paper tailored to their understanding. One hopes the Assembly members will recognise that the attention they have received is a measure of the concern that the authors feel that the world is heading for major disaster. One also hopes they will read the paper closely. I did, and I find it difficult to see how anyone could doubt the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence it canvasses that we are at a time when it is imperative that we begin a substantial and steadily continuing reduction in our emission of greenhouse gases and that we acknowledge that most remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.
Some social scientists point out that the scientific evidence alone is not what convinces people. I have some difficulty appreciating this because I found some years ago that the science was quite enough to convince me. They in return would no doubt say that I was socially pre-conditioned to conviction. But whatever the merits of such arguments it surely remains important that the stark reality of the scientific picture be continually brought to public attention and that we are made to understand that the scientists themselves are deeply alarmed by what they discover. That’s the touchstone against which all our responses should be measured, whatever social factors may also come into play. Hansen and his colleagues perform a public service of high importance.
A fighting chance? Oct 08Join the conversation at Hot Topic
Bill McKibben has a striking article this week in Yale e360 in which he explains why the protest against the pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to the US may be the start of ’something big and desperate’. The desperate part is easy to understand. Three converging factors contribute to it, political, meteorological and geological.
Politically the US administration has failed to secure carbon legislation, or even to show much resolve to do so, with the result that there isn’t going to be a price on carbon in America, and hence not in most of the world, any time soon. The hope that surrounded Obama’s election in that respect has evaporated.
That hope was perhaps always excessive – but then, the man himself had done all that he could to encourage it. On the night he clinched the nomination he said that during his presidency ’the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.’ Waiting for a messiah, we managed to convince ourselves we might have found one.
Meanwhile the climate is changing.
Sometime in the last few years it became utterly clear we’d left the Holocene behind, bound for some new, chaotic place in which humans had fundamentally altered the planet.
2010 was the warmest year for which we have records; Arctic sea ice is now at its lowest recorded level, while Canada’s Arctic ice shelves have shrunk by half in just the last six years. And what all this has shown is that the planet is coming unglued, at least the planet on which civilization developed. We’ve seen flooding and drought on a scale never witnessed before, from the Indus to the Mississippi, from Texas to the North China Plain. By the end of last year, the world’s biggest insurance company, Munich Re, was declaring that the unprecedented run of catastrophes ’cannot be explained without global warming.’
McKibben’s third factor, the geological, is equally disturbing. As oil prices have risen the oil companies are finding it economic to go after shale gas, shale oil, and ’the granddaddy of them all, the tars sands megaproject in northern Alberta’.
They have a pool of oil – and hence of carbon – about the same size as the one we’ve largely burned in Saudi Arabia. If we torch most of it, then it’s ’essentially game over for the climate,’ in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.
Against these factors the environmental battle to keep the carbon in the ground is elemental — ’easy to understand, worth going to jail for’. The hope is that the Keystone XL pipeline protest might buy some time. It’s a desperate battle to keep things from getting worse. If delay can be achieved then maybe during that time we will come to our senses about global warming.
Keystone XL is such a huge deal because the president can actually stop it himself, without consulting our inane Congress. That’s why we’ll be surrounding the White House on Nov. 6, circling it with people simply holding signs with quotes from his campaign. Like, ’it’s time to end the tyranny of oil.’ It sure is, and if Obama for once actually lives up to his words, just maybe it will signal something new about him. My guess is we’re not going to change meteorology or geology, which leaves us with politics.
In the course of a Guardian interview with Leo Hickman this week McKibben expands on the theme that this is a real battle
The thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that this is a fight. The idea that held for years that we could all talk rationally to politicians about this and that they would do the right thing is now over. What we failed to count on was while we talked to them rationally in one ear with science and economics the oil industry was doubling in the other ear the threats to keep anyone from doing anything.
And the fossil-fuel industry is powerful and pouring resources into delaying action on climate change:
In a fair fight, we would have won this battle long ago because the science is clear and most people have a sincere desire to build a different kind of world that will work best for their kids. But the battle is not being fought on science, but on money. There is an enormous interest within the fossil-fuel industry to prevent change for even a few more years while they wrack up records profits.
The environmental movement can’t possibly match that kind of money.
’Until we find a different currency to work in, we’re always going to lose. We’re never going to have enough money to compete with these guys head on. That’s why we’re experimenting with lots of different currencies. There’s a lot of spirit, creativity and energy in these global days of action.’
McKibben admits to learning on the job as an activist, but in my eyes he’s making a good fist of it. The fact that he’s a writer by profession is no drawback. As we watch the dreary procession of politicians denying, prevaricating, delaying, looking the other way, it’s not surprising that the population at large is hardly aware of the dangers threatening. Meanwhile the enthusiastic search for unconventional oil and gas proceeds apace, with the possible prospect of a long extension of fossil fuel exploitation and use. Here in New Zealand the government and Solid Energy and others speak of how we mustn’t miss the opportunity to draw wealth from such resources. I’ve commented before on how normal this is all taken to be.
What is left but active protest? McKibben speaks for those who are trying to build a movement of sufficient size and urgency to thrust the science to the fore. Hickman in the interview asked if it needed an Arab Spring-type uprising of outcry and revolution, driven through social networking, and McKibben replied that that might well be part of what is required. It’s hard to believe that such a movement can be built in the face of the powerful forces which have so far been able to neutralise the message from science. But all honour to those who are trying. It’s unquestionably a battle worth fighting.
The God Species Aug 14Join the conversation at Hot Topic
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.
Before he left New Zealand, Jim Hansen wrote an open letter to prime minister John Key on behalf of the youth of New Zealand, and specifically 350.org. It’s well worth reading in full, because it encapsulates the case for taking action here, and now. I would be most interested in seeing a meaningful response from Key, but — as they say — I’m not holding my breath. Here’s the letter:
Dear Prime Minister Key,
Encouraged by youth of New Zealand, especially members of the organization 350.org, I write this open letter to inform you of recent advances in understanding of climate change, consequences for young people and nature, and implications for government policies.
I recognize that New Zealanders, blessed with a land of rare beauty, are deeply concerned about threats to their environment. Also New Zealand contributes relatively little to carbon emissions that drive climate change. Per capita fossil fuel emissions from New Zealand are just over 2 tons of carbon per year, while in my country fossil fuel carbon emissions are about 5 tons per person.
However, we are all on the same boat. New Zealand youth, future generations, and all species in your country will be affected by global climate change, as will people and species in all nations.
New Zealand’s actions affecting climate change are important. Your leadership in helping the public understand the facts and the merits of actions to ameliorate climate change will be important, as will New Zealand’s voice in support of effective international actions.
The fact is that we, the older generation, are on the verge of handing young people a dynamically changing climate out of their control, with major consequences for humanity and nature. A path to a healthy, natural, prosperous future is still possible, but not if business-as-usual continues.
The state of Earth’s climate is summarized in the attached paper [The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future, which can be found here],whose authorship includes leading world scientists in relevant fields. The bottom line is that Earth is out of energy balance, more energy coming in than going out. Thus more climate change is “in the pipeline”.
Failure to address emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of human-made climate change, will produce increased regional climate extremes, as seen in Australia during the past few years. But young people, quite appropriately, are concerned especially that continued emissions will drive the climate system past tipping points with irreversible consequences during their lifetimes.
Shifting of climate zones accompanying business-as-usual emissions are expected to commit at least 20 percent of the species on our planet to extermination — possibly 40 percent or more. Extermination of species would be irreversible, leaving a more desolate planet for young people. They will also have large effects on New Zealand’s principal export industry, agriculture.
Sea level rise is a second irreversible consequence of global warming. Some sea level rise is now inevitable, but with phase down of fossil fuel use it may be kept to a level measured in a few tens of centimeters. Business-as-usual is expected to cause sea level rise exceeding a meter this century and to set ice sheet disintegration in motion guaranteeing multi-meter sea level rise.
Prompt actions are needed to avoid these large effects. Phase-out of coal emissions by 2030 is the principal requirement. Also unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. These conditions, plus improved agricultural practices and reforestation of lands that are not effective for food production, could stabilize the climate.
I have had the opportunity while in your country to meet your science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and your climate change ministers, Hon Nick Smith and Hon Tim Groser, and discussed these issues with them. If I can be of any help with the science of climate change I am very willing to assist your government. Implications for New Zealand are clear.
First, New Zealand should leave the massive deposits of lignite coal in the ground, instead developing its natural bounty of renewable energies and energy efficiency. If, instead, development of such coal resources proceeds, New Zealand’s portion of resulting species extermination estimated by biological experts would be well over 1000 species. Most New Zealanders, I suspect, would not want to make such ‘contributions’ to global change.
Second, New Zealand should lend its voice to the cause of moving the global community onto a path leading to a healthy, natural, prosperous future. That path requires a flat rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies domestically, with the funds distributed uniformly to citizens, thus moving the world toward the carbon-free energies of the future.
Prime Minister Key, the youth of New Zealand are asking you to consider their concerns and exercise your leadership on behalf of their future, indeed on behalf of humankind and nature.
With all best wishes,
James E. Hansen,
Columbia University Earth Institute
The letter was copied to the PM’s science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, Nick Smith and Tim Groser. I would have paid good money to be a fly on the wall at Hansen’s meeting with the last two…
The Climate Show returns with a packed show, featuring one of the world’s best known climate scientists, NZ-born, Colorado-based Dr Kevin Trenberth — star of the Climategate “where’s the missing heat” emails. He’s been in New Zealand to visit family (experiencing the Christchurch quake in the process) and to attend a conference, and his comments on the state of our understanding of climate change should not be missed. John Cook of Skeptical Science returns with his new short urls and an explanation of why declines have never been hidden, and Gareth and Glenn muse on Arnie “Governator” Schwarzenegger riding to the rescue of climate science, cryospheric forcing and carbon cycle feedbacks from melting permafrost, and a new paper that suggests that current policies are pointing us towards extremely dangerous climate change. All that and hyperbranched aminosilica too…
Show notes below the fold.
News & commentary:
Christchurch earthquake, Feb 22 2011. At the time of writing the death toll was expected to rise to over 240. At least 100 of those who died were tourists or foreign students. If you would like to donate to support the recovery effort, please consider the Red Cross appeal.
Schwarzenegger: It’s Time to Terminate Skepticism on Climate Change
Models guiding climate policy are ‘dangerously optimistic’: Computer models predicting future climate change are underestimating emissions and overestimating technology, warns climate scientist Kevin Anderson. Guardian story here, and full paper [Anderson and Bows. Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences (2011) vol. 369 (1934) pp. 20-44 -- PDF], and Bryan Walker’s discussion at Hot Topic.
Feature interview:: Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado. Born in NZ, worked at MetService, now based in Colorado, one of the highest profile climate scientists in the world, and a regular subject of attacks by denialists. The AMS paper referenced is available from KT’s web site linked above.
Clearing up misconceptions about ’Hide the Decline’
1. It’s not about ’global temperatures’ but a small number of high latitude tree rings:
2. ’Hide the decline’ has nothing to do with ’Mike’s trick’ which is the simple technique of plotting instrumental temperature and reconstructions on the same graph.
3. It’s not hidden at all but openly discussed in the peer-reviewed literature since 1995:
Green Machine: Sucking carbon dioxide out of the air.
James Hansen has long been a leading climate scientist and he is also an excellent communicator of the science to the public. What he had to say about the scientific picture in his recent interview with Bill McKibben, a different aspect of which I highlighted in yesterday’s post, is of interest for its clarity and for the bluntness of its affirmation of how CO2 levels in the atmosphere can be returned to safer levels. The book Hansen refers to in the course of the interview is his Storms of my Grandchildren. The interview is an addition to the latest paperback edition.
McKibben opens by asking about the large number of new national high-temperature records this year. Hansen replies:
’What we see happening with new record temperatures, both warm and cold, is in good agreement with what we predicted in the 1980s when I testified to Congress about the expected effect of global warming. I used coloured dice then to emphasize that global warming would cause the climate dice to be ‘loaded’. Record local daily high temperatures now occur more than twice as often as record daily cold temperatures. The predominance of new record highs over record lows will continue to increase over the next few decades, so the perceptive person should recognize that climate is changing.’
It doesn’t need big hikes in average global temperature to cause major changes.
’The last time Earth was 2 degrees warmer so much ice melted that sea level was about twenty-five meters (eighty feet) higher than it is today.’
He recognises the strength of weather variability and warns that it will be increased by global warming:
’But remember that weather variability, which can be 10 to 20 degrees from day to day, will always be greater than average warming. And weather variability will become even greater in the future, as I explain in the book, if we don’t slow down greenhouse gas emissions. If we let warming continue to the point of rapid ice sheet collapse, all hell will break loose. That’s the reason for ‘Storms’ in the book title.’
McKibben then asks about “climategate”, to a robust response from Hansen. An excerpt:
’The NASA temperature analysis agrees well with the East Anglia results. And the NASA data are all publicly available, as is the computer program that carries out the analysis.
’Look at it this way: If anybody could show that the global warming curve was wrong they would become famous, maybe win a Nobel Prize. All the measurement data are available. So why don’t the deniers produce a different result? They know that they cannot, so they resort to theft of e-mails, snipping private comments out of context, and character assassination.
’IPCC’s ‘Himalayan error’ was another hoax perpetrated on the public. The perpetrators, global warming deniers, did a brilliant job of playing the scientifically obtuse media like a fiddle…
’IPCC scientists had done a good job of producing a comprehensive report. It is a rather thankless task, on top of their normal jobs, often requiring them to work sixty, eighty, or more hours per week, with no pay for overtime or for working on the IPCC report. Yet they were portrayed as incompetent or, worse, dishonest. Scientists do indeed have deficiencies–especially in communicating with the public and defending themselves against vicious attacks by professional swift-boaters.
’The public, at some point, will realize they were hoodwinked by the deniers. The danger is that deniers may succeed in delaying actions to deal with energy and climate. Delay will enrich fossil fuel executives, but it is a great threat to young people and the planet.’
Asked about whether we can stop the process of increasing warming and the tipping point dangers it brings with it, whether we can stabilize the situation, Hansen responds:
’We can estimate what is needed pretty well. Stabilizing climate requires, to first order, that we restore Earth’s energy balance. If the planet once again radiates as much energy to space as it absorbs from the sun, there no longer will be a drive causing the planet to get warmer. Restoring planetary energy balance would not immediately stop sea level rise, but it should keep sea level rise small. Restoring energy balance also would prevent climate change from becoming a huge force for species extinction and ecosystem collapse.
’We can accurately calculate how Earth’s energy balance will change if we reduce long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. We would need to reduce carbon dioxide by 35 to 40 ppm (parts per million) to increase Earth’s heat radiation to space by one half watt, if other long-lived gases stay the same as today. That reduction would make atmospheric carbon dioxide amount to about 350 ppm.’
There are additional reasons for the 350 ppm target, one of them being ocean acidification; Hansen refers to ocean biologists concluding that for the sake of life in the ocean we need to aim for an atmospheric carbon dioxide amount no higher than 350 ppm. However Earth’s energy balance is the criterion that provides the most fundamental constraint for what must be done to stabilize climate.
McKibben remarks that his organisation, 350.org, meets opposition from some activists who demand an even lower target of 300 ppm or the pre-industrial 280ppm. But Hansen replies that all we can be sure of at present it that it should be ‘less than 350 ppm’, and that is sufficient for policy purposes:
’That target tells us that we must rapidly phase out coal emissions, leave unconventional fossil fuels in the ground, and not go after the last drops of oil and gas. In other words, we must move as quickly as possible to the post—fossil fuel era of clean energies.
’Getting back to 350 ppm will be difficult and will take time. By the time we get back to 350 ppm, we will know a lot more and we will be able to be more specific about what ‘less than 350 ppm’ means. By then we should be measuring Earth’s energy balance very accurately. We will know whether the planet is back in energy balance and we will be able to see whether climate is stabilizing.’
He goes on to explain that it is difficult to specify at this stage an eventual value for CO2 because there are other human-made climate forcings. Methane and tropospheric ozone in the air are among them, and realistic reductions of those gases would alleviate somewhat the amount by which we must reduce CO2.The cooling effect of atmospheric aerosols is likely to be lessened as we improve air quality. It would be foolish to demand a CO2 reduction to 280 ppm at this stage of our understanding.
One of the things Hansen says we must do in our scaling back to 350 ppm is not to go after the last drops of oil and gas. It was rather deflating, therefore, as I was preparing this post to see that today’s NZ Herald carries an upbeat report on the prospects for petroleum exploration in New Zealand waters as the price of oil rises. All the more depressing to see the comments on how exploration-friendly the NZ government is regarded as being.
A Merrill Lynch spokesperson, describing New Zealand as a ’sweet spot’ for exploration, said the royalty regime in this country was attractive.
“People believe that if you find stuff the Government won’t try and screw them over with an unfriendly tax arrangement.”
Indeed the Government is pro-actively formulating a petroleum action plan to encourage more drilling. It appears to be pursued with a good deal more purpose than any plan to encourage renewable energy development.
What does the government reply to Hansen when he says the world must not go after the last drops of oil and gas? That these are not the last drops? That we don’t believe you? For that matter in possibly allowing the development of the Southland lignite fields what is it saying to the even more pressing need, in Hansen’s view, to rapidly phase out coal emissions?
We should keep pressing such questions on the NZ government. We must not allow them to thumb their noses at the science.
Children of the future Dec 27Join the conversation at Hot Topic
You are suggesting that we file suit against the government? That’s the question Bill McKibben puts to James Hansen in the course of a recent interview. ’Precisely,’ replies Hansen.
’Begging Congress to be responsible does not work. Exhorting the president to be Churchillian does not work.
’On the contrary, Congress has passed laws and the executive branch has defined and carried out policies that trample on the future of young people. Consider the subsidies of fossil fuels and the permission that is given to the fossil fuel industry to use the atmosphere as an open sewer without charge. We cannot let the government pretend that it does not realize the consequences of its actions.’
He then goes on to speak of a basis for suing the government as described by Law Professor Mary Wood of the University of Oregon and others.
’She shows that the Constitution implies a fiduciary responsibility of governments to protect the rights of the young and the unborn. She describes what she calls atmospheric trust litigation. Suits could and should be brought against not only the federal government but also state governments, and perhaps lower levels–and in other nations as well as the United States.’
Earlier in the interview he was talking to McKibben about civil disobedience, and explaining that he prefers the term peaceful civil resistance. Hansen himself has taken part in acts of civil resistance, and is still awaiting trial on one of the charges. It was in that context that he recalls that it was action by the US courts which finally signalled an end to segregation. There were massive acts of non-violent civil resistance at the time, which helped to get the courts involved. It was the courts which opened the door to real progress because they had the ability to order desegregation under the equal protection provision of the Constitution. Eventually lawmakers became involved. He connects that time with the current situation:
’Courts ordered desegregation to achieve civil rights of minorities. Similarly, if a court finds that a government is failing in its obligations to young people, the court can require that government to submit plans for how it will reduce its emissions. Courts have authority to require governments to report back at intervals on the success of their actions and to define corrective actions if they fail to achieve specified reduction.’
Hansen considers that the legislative and executive branches of US government are not going to solve the problem on their own. He used to think that the problem was that governments did not understand what the science was telling us and its urgency.
’But I learned in my interactions with governments in several nations that the governments are not ignorant of the climate problem, they are not unaware of the need to move on promptly to clean energies. Yet at most they set goals and take baby steps because they are under the strong influence of fossil fuel interests. There are too many people profiting from our addiction to fossil fuels–and they have a huge influence on our governments.’
The courts, the judiciary branch of government, Hansen considers to be less influenced by fossil fuel money than the legislative and executive branches, and should be able to respond to the climate issue as they did in the past to such issues as segregation.
’Human-made climate change now raises a moral issue as momentous as any that the courts have considered in the past. Today’s adults are reaping the benefits of burning fossil fuels while leaving the consequences to be borne by young people and future generations. Are my grandchildren, and other young people, included in the category of ‘any person’ and thus deserving equal protection of the laws? A positive answer, I believe, is obvious.’
(‘Any person’ refers to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution which Hansen had previously quoted: ’No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’)
If suits are brought, and the courts are willing to respond, Hansen recognises the need for definition of the emissions trajectory required to avoid dangerous human-made climate change. He reports that he is currently working with his colleagues to define the necessary emissions scenario. Their paper will be titled ’Sophie, Connor, Jake and Lauren versus Obama and the United States Congress.’ (The names are those of his grandchildren.) Although the task is not yet completed he says it is clear that the requirement will be an annual emissions reduction of several percent per year.
’Wow,’ says McKibben. ’Let’s say the court instructs the government to reduce emissions so as to yield a safe level of greenhouse gases, which would mean getting carbon dioxide back below 350 ppm. Is it practical to achieve such a scenario?’
Absolutely, in Hansen’s view, but only if the government is honest and produces policies which result in actual reductions in fossil fuel emissions, not phony offsets. In the interview he goes on to elaborate his view of the carbon taxes by which this would be achieved. But we won’t follow him further in this post, which was intended to highlight the judicial recourse which he, along with others, is obviously now considering. The interview also includes at an earlier stage reflections on the science which are worth attention, and I intend taking them up in a succeeding post.
What hope it is realistic to attach to recourse to the courts in the US, those of us who live outside the US can probably only wonder. But we can certainly wish it might prove to be a fruitful approach if it is employed. The lack of cohesion in US policy is utterly dismaying for those who realise the escalating danger in which the world stands from human-caused global warming.
The interview with McKibben is reproduced as an added section to the new paperback edition of Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren (2009 edition reviewed on Hot Topic). The royalties from all sales of the book go to the organization 350.org which McKibben helped found and which Hansen considers has demonstrated the most effective and responsible leadership in the public struggle for climate justice.