Last week, I argued that the right national target in the fight against global warming should be complete carbon neutrality. Apparently the UK's Liberal Democrats party has the same target in mind!
Calling for a "100 per cent carbon free" Brtain by 2050, the UK's Liberal Democrats party unveiled a series of proposals yesterday aimed at transforming Britain into an international leader in the fight against the climate crisis.
"Pollution doesn’t respect national boundaries," said Liberal Democrat party leader, Menzies Campbell. "Climate change is a global problem that requires an international solution. Britain should not be a bit player in finding that solution; we should be leading the pack."
The Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest political party (wikipedia entry here for ignorant yanks like me), will debate the proposals, outlined in a paper called "Zero Carbon Brtain - Taking a Global Lead," at their party conference in Brighton next month.
The plan calls for:
"With these policies the Liberal Democrats have become the first major British party to map out the route to a carbon neutral Britain," Campbell said. "And the first to plan the way towards a cleaner global environment too."
"This ambitious objective for zero-carbon Britain would put us in the global lead in tackling climate chaos," said Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary and Member of Parliament, Chris Huhne.
"Just as crucially," Huhne said, "we have set out plans that are the first attempt of any British political party to tackle carbon emissions from every part of the economy: transport, energy, housing, offices and factories. The time for talk has passed; we need action."
Well at least one yank is wondering (again) why we don't have instant run-off voting/preferential voting here in the U.S. (as they do in Australia) - or at least some system that allows viable 3rd parties.
The Liberal Democrats, a left-leaning social liberal party and Britain's third largest political party, routinely receives around 20% of the votes in general elections, and while the UK's first past the post" system under-represents them in parliament, the Lib Dems, as they are often abbreviated, still captured 62 seats in the House of Commons (about 10% of the 659 seats in the House).
In the U.S., we can only dream of a strong third party with seats in Congress that has the strength and position to take up a bold position on climate change, call for a carbon neutral America, and begin to shift the tenor of national and congressional debates on the climate crisis.
Without a strong two-party system that leaves little room for viable third parties, we in the U.S. will have to focus our attention on the two main political parties and do our best interject our rallying cry of a carbon neutral America into the mainstream.
Bravo to the Liberal Dems for taking a bold stand and setting an example for other political parties across the world! I'll raise a glass of gin to you chaps tonight...
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Last week, I argued that the right national target in the fight against global warming should be complete carbon neutrality. Apparently the UK's Liberal Democrats party has the same target in mind!
Monday, August 27, 2007
By Timothy Den Herder-Thomas...
The climate movement has been going about its business fighting coal plants, promoting wind energy, and working for comprehensive carbon reduction policies. Suddenly, there's a new development.
Yesterday, a New York Times article highlighted the challenges of development and the pollution it has caused in China. We imagine that the unprecedented growth China is going through is desperately valued by its citizens, and feel brutal when we argue that the industrialization fueling this growth is unacceptable. The opportunity is valued, quite desperately, but at the same it does not reach everyone, and the pollution is killing hundreds of thousands annually.
I attended a program called the Global Leaders Institute in New York City in July. The program was sponsored by Goldman Sachs and the Institute for International Education, and brought 75 students from around the world together for a week of trainings, speakers, discussions and actions around the broad frame of global leadership. I had a wonderful opportunity to talk with a number of students from China. One student shared the widespread poverty, illiteracy, and degradation of ecological services in western rural areas as good jobs were displaced to giant coastal cities. Another mentioned how sustainable community development was nearly impossible because local social organization was almost unknown and strongly suppressed if ever in conflict with the interests of the nation. And finally, I came to the discussion with one girl who, voice almost breaking, told of the incredible toll in lives and livelihoods that industrialization was taking on the country - with deaths from asthma and water pollution, sweatshop conditions splintering families and devouring days, and the pursuit of progress shoving aside whole neighborhoods, local economies, and community spaces for skyscrapers and factories and ever more coal-burning power plants.
We have argued that China will not stop the mad course of industrialization, but we should ask who will not stop. Is it the growth percentage-obsessed public officials who define the progress of the country or the hopes and dreams of the people who simply want lives that are actually better. Whose development is it anyway?
If you think I'm going to launch into a tirade against the unresponsiveness of a communist government to the needs of the people and laud the advances we've won with democracy, you will probably be as surprised as my Chinese friend was by what I say next:
Here in America, we also have working class people facing financial insecurity, social instability, and loss of community because their jobs have moved elsewhere. Here in America, we also have poor communities being surrounded by polluting energy facilities that give them elevated risk of asthma, cancer, and more. We still have millions of citizens being sickened by their food, whether by pesticides, or hormones, or simply the incredible glut of unwanted calories bringing diabetes, heart disease, and stress. Here in America, millions of people feel stuck in jobs they dislike simply for the paycheck, we have millions stuck at the end of a cul-de-sac with little knowledge of their neighbors, and we still have millions so alienated from their governance that they never make their voice heard. Here in America, the economy keeps roaring, turning out ever more consumer goods (and land-fill filler) and wealth for large corporations while yielding less and less of relevance to the average American. A few million homeless people walk the streets of our cities, farmers across the country are losing their land, and inner city high-school children have pretty high chances of going nowhere.
My friend from China was stunned when I told her this, because this is America, the land of dreams and capitalism; the place that has been developed. It's funny how our internal problems rarely get told overseas. She then said something to the effect of: 'if that's what success in development means, I think we need something different."
It's time for the new development.
Since before the drafting of Kyoto, nations have been arguing over who should bear the cost for fighting global warming, and change-averse politicians have been frightening the public by posing action on the climate crisis as a grave risk to our economy. Even the activists are arguing that climate solutions will simply cost less than doing nothing at all - as cited in the Stern Report. Western climate leaders despair right along side global warming deniers that action here will do little since countries like China and India are growing so rapidly, and "will not accept limits on carbon emissions so that they can pursue economic growth". Politicians and fossil energy lobbies repeatedly remind us that any gains that America might make will be wiped out in this industrial juggernaut, and therefore we have no reason to sacrifice and reduce our competitiveness if no one else will join.
I fear that even within the climate movement, we have accepted the assumption - that fossil energy use is directly connected to economic development, and thus that cutting carbon means a sacrifice. We levy policies which raise costs to energy producers, forcing them to reduce pollution by acquiring new technology or cutting down on production. Our rallying cries have been solar panels and hybrids: solutions that at least currently are not cost-competitive with the status quo, and unavailable to the global poor. When we push for higher fuel efficiency standards, we combat protests that it will raise costs not with the obvious argument that it will in fact increase economic competitiveness with Japanese companies, create jobs, and strengthen the economy, but with tired old argument that to avoid global catastrophe, it needs to be done. We see the solutions as limitations that the government must enforce upon us instead of an empowering opportunity to build something new. It's almost as if we want it to be a sacrifice.
In a post on Sunday, Richard Graves noted that;
"China has become the environmental sacrifice zone for the global economy. We offshore jobs, factories, and pollution. The combination of an enormous workforce in poverty, a government willing to suppress dissent, and the availability of enormous natural resources has proved irresistible to globalized and highly mobile multi-national corporations. However, the combination of corrupt local officials, weak regulations, and the fast-tracking of industry has allowed every ‘low-road’ corporation that can save a buck in return for dumping toxic waste, venting poison into the air, or contaminating the bodies of its workers to find a home."
It should be clear to us that our supposed 'higher environmental concern' has not prevented us from being the world's highest emitters of carbon (China is on the verge of surpassing the US, but they have 4 times as many people), nor has it prevented us from expressing our 'environmental concern' by shipping much of our carbon and pollution-intensive industry to other. Yet in doing so, we've done away with most of our industrial economy along with some our dirty industry - and it's as the New York Times makes clear, it's not necessarily doing well for the Chinese either.
We're dealing with global warming. Carbon emitted in China is just the same as carbon emitted in the US, and in their frantic attempt to 'catch up' to us, the Chinese are also not taking the time to build more efficient energy systems. It's time to end the debate of sustainability competing with development - that idea applied narrowly at the US-scale largely contributed to the current Chinese carbon boom. It's time to forge a development paradigm that actually works: one that empowers people, strengthens communities, and sustains the world.
Some people have used sustainable development to mean destroying things slowly enough that they can recover. Forget it, that's not what I'm talking about. In the climate context, that means slowing emissions - careful exploitation. It also means cutting growth in China. The new development is not about limiting growth, it's about redefining prosperity.
Most environmentalists know about CFLs. You pay several dollars for a light-bulb instead of under a buck, but the energy savings it gets you in a year can mean $30 back in your pocket - while lasting 10 times as long so you don't need new bulbs. A sacrifice? Now if they did full recycling of the mercury, metals, and glass in that light-bulb after it burned out, you'd avoid the chance of toxic pollution and landfill waste, and manufacturing would cost less than if they had to make the metal from virgin ore itself - the next generation of bulbs could be cheaper. But, you might argue, we don't have an efficient collection system for old CFLs - it would cost too much to ship them back to the manufacturer. That might be true know, but if so, we're missing the opportunity - why not have a community-wide collection facility for CFLs and other old appliances where they could be shipped en masse to be re-manufactured?
Is that too small scale? Not going to change the world? Let's scale up.
A few colleges and universities have set up sustainability revolving funds. These innovative financing mechanisms allow colleges to put money into energy efficiency, renewable energy, and smart design systems, and use the cost savings or revenue to repay the fund, growing it into the future. Harvard's Green Campus Loan Fund is the largest and most well-known on college campuses, with $12 million. Here's more news, Harvard's fund gets an annual Return On Investment (ROI) of around 27% - the economic opportunities in efficiency and other sustainability changes are so lucrative that it yields over twice what either the stock market or Harvard's own professionally managed endowment can achieve. A sacrifice?
The most important aspect of such a creative strategy is making sure that it's applicable everywhere, and in the case of revolving funds, I've been personally involved. While I can't boast the remarkable scale of Harvard's fund, or it's history, I and a couple friends did set up a revolving fund, currently at $67,000, at Macalester College in 2006 while I was a freshman. Because community participation and engagement is so crucial in the new development, it was key to us that students created the Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF), are significant partners in its management (the consensus-based CERF Board has 2 students of 5 members, the other three of whom are close allies among the faculty, administration, and alumni. Working with Facilities Management, academic departments, and other campus entities, students develop many of the projects and thus use CERF to both advance campus sustainability, engage in hands-on project development in climate solutions, and share their stories with others. My friend Asa Diebolt and I wrote a manual: Creating a Campus Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund to help other students, staff, and community members set up similar funds on their own. We're still awaiting return results on our first projects - estimates are all between 20% and over 100% ROIs for various initial project - which will allow us promote expansion of the fund to campus administrators. The system has been met with cautious optimism: it sounds impossible that we could advance climate solutions, avoid spending valuable student time on onerous grants or fund raising, generate incredible hands on academic opportunities, and empower efficient long-term campus planning all while saving money, but that's exactly how it works.
Achieving many things at once by doing it right to begin with is a key piece of the new development. It may take more forethought, planning, initial investment, and participation from the entire community, but it pays off big-time. It often means re-evaluating problems from entirely new scales. We started with efficiency in Macalester, now we're moving to the community level. Instead of seeing each homeowner individually, our student group is working with non-profits and community leaders across the Twin Cities to mobilize neighborhood groups to pursue efficiency as a whole. Doing so dramatically drops the price since we're buying in bulk, and cuts energy usage in an entire area, reducing the overall energy infrastructure needed for that area. Furthermore, using revolving-fund mechanisms, citizens can see investments in their own homes as simply parallel to the stock market - just significantly more profitable, and communities can amass their own capital to receive significant economic returns simply from their lower energy bills. We're also experimenting with ways that wealthier citizens can participate as investors to lower income communities - providing the capital investment in efficiency that is paid off simply by lower energy bills (the residents pay no more than under business as usual). These systems are all in very early stages of development, but they offer opportunities for everyday people to take control of their own carbon footprint, energy use, and economic situation by working together in innovative ways. Our student innovators and non-profit experts have all the efficiency expertise we need to make this happen - the capital is in the neighborhoods: there's little to waste on vanity projects, but enough to invest in lucrative ones. We don't need subsidies - though we take advantage of whatever is available, we don't need large energy companies, though we use their assistance on audits and such, and we don't need government regulations - though we're very active on driving them so more people are encouraged to step forward.
This is not a developing country, but the clean energy industry is a huge source of development. On our small farms in rural Minnesota, farmers are fighting the loss of the small farm economy and the agribusiness takeover by signing up wind energy leases and joining partnerships like Community-Based Energy Development to own their own wind turbines. With small loans and support from larger investors, small farmers are owning a stake of the new energy future. Similarly, as old industries like the St. Paul Ford Plant pull out, labor groups, concerned citizens, and the leaders of tomorrow pull together new plans for eco-industry centers and mass-transit, mixed-use communities, we're looking for ways to cut fossil fuels, save the economic, social, and environmental costs of driving, provide jobs in an innovative clean industry sector, develop locally-owned renewable energy sources, and build the types of communities that pull neighbors together to generate yet more innovative ideas for the community and those around it. You ask who's doing this: it's students working with labor leaders working with non-profit experts working with neighborhood residents working with small businesses working with local politicians. We're a community building a new future for ourselves: together we figure it out.
Still too small? Just some crazy anomaly out in the Twin Cities as some of my youth climate leaders like to remind me. Not at all. Do a bunch of research in your own community - you'll probably find a bunch of folks (possibly scattered, hopefully coordinated) trying to do the same thing. Then, check out the national and global scene. The Apollo Alliance is pushing for a massive public investment in the clean energy sector to create 3 million new jobs, end our oil addiction and confront global warming. As UC Berkeley's Daniel Kammen points out, investments in renewable energy create several times more jobs than equivalent investments in fossil fuels. And as Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center puts it, this economic activity can mean "Green Jobs, not jails" for low-income youth in America's cities. A sacrifice?
When we contract for a large scale wind turbine for community-owned generation in Minnesota, we're not buying from an American producer. The turbine will come from Spain, Germany, Denmark, or most recently India. That's right, our most common provider of large scale wind turbines is now Suzlon, an Indian company that is building them in India and exporting globally. The US is falling very far behind. In Kenya, solar panels were more popular than fossil energy based grid interconnection for several years, until a government subsidized program made grid interconnection cheaper - this is Kenya, a poor third world country with tons of sun where solar power beats out fossil energy as more accessible to rural farmers.
As I've been reminded time and time again, there's at least one carbon sector I can't see any opportunity in: air travel. There just isn't much of a way to get people around the world in any reasonable time without fossil-based jet fuel. Someone else will have to figure that one out. Otherwise, the possibilities just spring up wherever you look - an the technology is advanced enough that we can get a huge start.
All these cases are driven by innovative individuals working together to create inspiring solutions that improve their lives and the lives of those around them, make sustainability the centerpiece of the new economy, and empower yet more people to get involved. Instead of pursuing growth in a way that ignores the communities, individuals, and ecosystems around them, these systems build prosperity by collectively enhancing them all. It's truly an ecological way of looking at our economy and our lives. Note that it's also not passive - it can't really be done solely by large governments imposing regulations (although that can help) or by corporations coming up with new technologies to sell (though that can also help). Development that yields prosperity builds opportunities in a way that enhance, not degrade, the communities and contexts in which they are situated. This kind of economy requires active participation and engagement by the people and ecosystems that support them - the new society runs on people power. We can imagine CAFE and RPS and Energy Star standards all we want - it's neer going to happen across society and the entire world unless it becomes a part of our communities, our economies, and our lives.
Without a new development, achieving a climate neutral America as Jessie Jenkins argued in a recent post (and Carlos Rymer supported in a previous one) will be impossibly expensive and ultimately self-defeating - we would literally mitigate ourselves out of progress as do-nothing politicians have feared. As frightful as that sounds, a failure to dodge the climatic tipping points could be even worse. In either case, the result would be ruinous.
Without a new development, solving the climate crisis will be disastrous. With one, it will be not only cost-effective, but profitable. It will require investment in a new society unlike anything the world has ever seen, but it will pay dividends in economic opportunity, job creation, global peace, public health, stronger communities, human rights, and local self-determination beyond anything we can imagine. This is the point where we redefine progress, and build an economic paradigm that actually fulfills everyday people and sustains the world.
Make sure to take ownership of the new development. You can't wait around for it - we are all the ones who will pursue it. The opportunities are in our hands. We can imagine that it's someone else's work, and let nations and corporations bungle the potential that they cannot realize without us while reaping profits that we could share. Or we can step forward, realizing that this kind of progress if development of ourselves by all of us, and for the entire global community.
I don't know how positive development solutions will be reached in China when bureaucrats are missing even the most obvious opportunities for efficiency and community innovation, and I don't know how sustainable community development in the United States will change a culture of widespread perceived powerlessness. I am sure that the process of pursuing solutions for our own futures will yield wisdom and ability to face both challeges that we can barely imagine.
Most of all, I am sure it will not happen by waiting. Forging a resiliant, integrated, and vibrant society starts now, and we are the people we have been waiting for.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
By Timothy Den Herder-Thomas...
In the past couple months, the flurry of discussions around bold, visionary goals for global warming has gotten increasingly intense. We've been starting to realize that we have to be more ambitious if we're going to make it. I think this is a key question for movement introspection that's only the first stage in re-imagining a new society: what do we need to achieve?
We've been saying 80% by 2050 for over a year now. It sounds big, and significant, and is way beyond any of the 7% solutions Kyoto started with. But Kyoto phase 1 is over in 2012, after which we have to figure out the next step. I'll be nearing retirement by the time 2050 rolls around. We call it a science-based goal, but we're missing the risk assessment. Does the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) really hold the authority here? Before we go much farther, and define the post-Kyoto debate, we better take stock of the situation.
Here's a central challenge - why are we stopping at trying to prevent only those catastrophes that we are nearly sure of? Wouldn't it be prudent to avoid the risk of potential events, even if there's only a 50/50 chance that they'll happen. Considering that the things of which we're sure our tame compared to those that are still uncertain, I at least don't feel very comfortable taking our chance.
Let's face it, even if we were to stop emitting all carbon tomorrow, we are still going to lose large parts of Bangladesh, a country the size of Wisconsin home to 135 million people, and we are still going to have increasingly freakish storms and increasingly severe droughts (right where I am in MN too - for the second year in a row). Agriculture will face minor declines in some areas (like sub-Saharan Africa where people are already starving), and Venice is already a sitting duck (the Dutch are getting good at floating houses). It feels brutal to be callous, and we should use the knowledge to be ready when we do need to bail out places that get hit, but honestly, we just have to get used to the fact that yes, some of that is coming. These gradual, obvious changes will get us to the point where global warming will just be a massive global headache for the rest of my lifetime. Yeah, it's pretty annoying, but these types of things are not what we have to be worried about.
What we have to watch out for, are the really crazy changes that shake up everything.
We have to watch out for the tipping points. The really big, really bad changes that accelerate the problem, cause new positive reinforcement of climate change, and basically reshape the world.
There's a number of them that have been theorized, and many scientists believe that there are least decent chances that one or more could happen. More worrying still is the fact that the slow changes preceding these events are already starting to happen. Let's take a look at a few:
Die-back of Amazonia: the Amazon rainforest produces its own rainfall through the evapo-transpiration of the forest. As temperatures rise and we deforest the basin, less rain falls leading to drought. Since the soils hold very little water or nutrient reserves, just a few years of extreme drought could cause widespread die-back of forests. As the die-back accelerates, there are less trees to produce rain, less shade to cool the forest, and yet more drought and die-back. In addition to converting the Amazon into some combination of grassland and semi-desert conditions, this process would release massive amounts of carbon dioxide from decaying/ burning vegetation, turning one of the world's largest vegetative carbon sinks into a carbon source, thus causing more warming. Scientists in Amazonia have estimated that this die-back could be triggered with as little as three continuous years of extreme drought - The Amazon is in drought year number 2.
Gulf Stream disruption: we all know about the polar ice shrinking, and that the albedo effect with darker water keeps polar areas warming faster and faster than the rest of the world. But then there's the threat that collapse of large ice-masses like Greenland could send a massive rush of cold fresh water into the North Atlantic, threatening to cut off the Gulf Stream that keeps Europe warm (this is the disaster over-dramatized in The Day After Tomorrow). Scientists are now reducing the estimated risk of such on occurrence, but it should be noted that since the mid-1950s, the sinking of Gulf Stream water that drives the current has fallen by around 30% in response to colder fresher water. If you want a real shocker, go read The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, where he discusses that fact that in past glacial periods, the Gulf Stream has collapsed in as little as a decade, throwing Europe and eastern North America into violent mini-ice ages even as main glacial periods were ebbing.
Or how about the problem in western Canada, where forest fires and bark beetles are ravaging the boreal forests, switching the nation from a net absorber of carbon to a net emitter in just a matter of years. Since the boreal forests are massive carbon sinks, this additional carbon is a huge loss, accelerating the feedback loops working against us.
How about a really freaky one: the melting of tundra permafrost in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Permafrost holds massive quantities of carbon dioxide and methane that can be released only when the soil melts and begins to decay. With more carbon in these soils than the entire atmosphere, we could be looking at a nearly doubled potential for warming if this permafrost melts. While full release will almost certainly take over a century, it's beginning now, as endless reports of newly-swampy foundations, drunken trees, and melting Siberian peat bogs attest. Again, once started, the added carbon makes warming accelerate, meaning more melting ...
Shall I go on? Acidification of the world's oceans from increased carbonic acid concentrations resulting in dissolving carbonate rocks and the inability of ocean life to build protective shells? Massive collapse of methane hydrates (weird blogs of frozen-pressurized methane) from warming arctic seas? A rapid disintegration of the West Antarctic ice shelf sending sea levels up 10-20 feet? Loss of ice in the Himalayas causing massive drought and famine in the key food-producing river basins of the Indian subcontinent, China, and Southeast Asia?
I think we can all safely agree that we have to avoid this type of situation. Then there's a second key question: is any of this going to happen?
The answer is: we don't know. I'll be the first person to admit that any one of these 'tipping points' is uncertain: we know neither the timing of these tipping points, or even if they'll happen at all. Tipping points are inherently uncertain since they depend on complex non-linear responses that have little historical precedent (although they appear surprisingly common throughout the earth's history). But we should note that if one of them should occur, the result will both be disastrous, and will greatly increase the chances of others occurring. In other words, if we cross one of these thresholds, the world will never be the same again - and the chance of further drastic events will only increase. We have to dodge the tipping points.
We should note that complex civilization only emerged after a climatic tipping point, common over the past few million years of glacial-interglacial cycles, ended the last Ice Age and ushered in an era of warmth and prosperity. During that tipping point, atmospheric carbon concentrations rose from in the low 200s to near 280 parts per million (ppm). This change was typical of the periodic glacial-interglacial reversals of the past few million years, where carbon concentrations ranged from near 200 ppm (glacial) to near 300 ppm (interglacial). Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we've gone from 280 ppm to about 385 ppm, and we're rising at a higher rate than any time in recent geological history. Yet our climate has so far only changed gradually, slowly shifting from the recent past. A tipping point will be like a sudden flip as dramatic as the changes between warm periods and Ice Ages. The difference is that Ice Age to non-Ice Age flips have been common over the past few million years. A flip from an interglacial period to a warmer era has not happened for many millions of years - since before humanity. And the rate of growth in global carbon concentrations is almost unprecedented.
Funny then, that IPCC reports don't discuss tipping points very much. The reason is that they're uncertain. Since tipping points are all about non-linear processes (which can accelerate dramatically when only minor changes are made to the climate system), and are inherently unpredictable, they are naturally unlikely to be confirmed by scientific studies in general, which require rigorous certainty (usually 95% confidence that a predicted event will occur). While some research has suggested that this level of confidence can be expected for certain tipping points if we do nothing to slow carbon emissions, other studies are less conclusive and thus do not agree that these events are certain. Because the IPCC produces consensus-based reports, where all scientists (and later diplomats arguing on scientific grounds) must come to agreement on the final publication of the report, and events that do not have near-complete agreement in the research are omitted. Another way of saying this is that the types of events the IPCC predicts are 95% certain, or that there's only a 5% possibility of them not occurring. Given that the predictions of the IPCC are only those that are almost certain, we have to start wondering about what's being left out.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the chances of dramatically accelerating permafrost crossing a tipping point and thus causing vastly accelerated warming over existing predictions are 50%. This figure is completely made up (I sure hope its lower, though unless we change our course, the risk keeps rising) and the calculation of such a risk is so complicated based on a vast array of other variables as to be basically impossible to pinpoint accurately. Risk could also describe only a portion of the carbon released or a rate of release which changes the nature of the tipping point (its not like all the permafrost will melt at once), so this is a really simplistic example. The IPCC reports don't include this event because its not for sure, and thus can't be reported as scientific fact. Tipping point events vanish off consensus-based reports, leaving decision makers with no ability to assess the threat of such scenarios - most of our leaders aren't even aware of them. But would you like to base the future of the world on a coin flip?
Now let's imagine that the risk of that same tipping point event is only 1%. Pretty low, right? Small enough to ignore, right? Wrong. Homeowners typically buy home insurance even when the risk of their home being destroyed is vanishingly small - just a tiny fraction of one percent. We make a real investment in the security of our personal homes to avoid the risk of cataclysmic events. Why aren't we treating climate change the same way, and taking the problem seriously enough to avoid possible, though not certain, catastrophes? When the risks of all the possible tipping points are combined, they are far far higher than the risk of your individual home being destroyed by an accident. We can be sure that the risk is real, significant, and will only grow as we continue emitting more. The situation is also worse than on the personal level, since the effects shape our global home - the insurance industry can't use the financial weight of a wealthy society to bail out the unlucky homeowner. The victim in this case is the wealthy society, and we only have one home. With recovery out of the question, we only have one way to invest in our security: avoiding the crisis in the first place. Time for some prevention?
We can debate whatever level of risk we find appropriate as long as we like, but centrally, until we start looking at the risks, we're basing any policies we develop on the faulty assumption that the events we have to prevent are certain. And when you start looking at the risks for large scale impacts, the scale of the investment we have to make rises, the time-frame for doing so shrinks, and the cost of inaction soars sky-high. Taking a careful look at tipping points changes our frame - the 80% by 2050 reductions in the developed world that are necessary to prevent certain events become wholly inadequate in dealing with the risk of far worse ones.
For myself, I've decided I'm unwilling to accept any plan that will result in temperature rises that yield more than an estimated 1/3 chance of crossing a dangerous tipping point. A 2 out of 3 chance of making it through with only marginal impacts (like roughly a meter of sea level rise, temperatures a degree or so warmer, some amount of famine and a few more nasty hurricanes) that are for sure while avoiding real catastrophes seems the very maximum risk we can allow. I'd much prefer if the risk was 10% or 5%, 0r 1%, or even better 0.01%. We simply don't want to mess with this stuff.
To get to that low a risk, we're going to need to build a sustainable society, fast, collectively, and holistically. It will require everyone, which means it must also be done equitably, while taking into account the risks behind climate science. This is going to be intense.
I'll be following this up: as a teaser for next time, check out Colin Forrest's article about the degree of change that's needed. He's a layman analyzing a wide array of scientific documents. They're not consensus, but they've got risk analysis all over them. Similar conclusions have been popping up everywhere, so we have a lot to discuss. Next question: given risk, what should we aim for?
Friday, August 24, 2007
Putting Aside Percentages - the Right Target in the Fight Against Global Warming is Carbon Neutrality!
A new rallying cry for the climate solutions movement: "A carbon neutral future for ourselves and our children!"
By Jesse Jenkins...
When it comes to fighting global warming, there tends to be a lot of different percentages and years thrown around: California is planning to reduce global warming pollution 25% by 2020; Oregon's legislature adopted 10% below 1990 levels as the state's 2020 objective; bills floating around Congress push targets ranging from a mere return to 1990 pollution levels by 2020 to a cut of 80% by 2050.
Lost amidst all of these percentages and years, those of us committed to building a movement for solutions to the climate crisis have struggled to find a rallying cry.
In an effort to 'mainstream' the currently-most-aggressive legislation in Congress, the nationwide Step it UP day of action rallied behind a call for Congress to 'Step it UP!' and cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Step it UP was arguably quite successful in this goal: co-sponsorship and support for the Boxer-Sanders and Waxman climate change bills, which call for an 80% reduction, has been building and all of the major Democratic 2008 presidential candidates have now adopted the 80% by 2050 target as part of their platform (with some upping the ante with a call for a 90% reduction).
Step it UP 2, scheduled for November 3rd, plans to reiterate the 80% by 2050 target while adding a few new planks to the call for action.
But amidst all this talk of percentages, is the '80% by 2050' target that has become the de facto rallying cry for our movement the 'right' target? Will it be enough to get the job done and solve the climate crisis? Will it be an adequate rallying cry to inspire a popular movement?
Now that the 80% by 2050 call has become mainstream, it's time for a serious discussion about whether or not its' time for a new, more inspiring, more aggressive rallying cry.
Carlos Rymer recently posted an excellent discussion on what the 'right' target is, scientifically speaking.
There's a strong argument to be made that even an 80% reduction by 2050 will be too little, too late, to give us better-than-even odds of avoiding catastrophic consequences of climate change. I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to bet the future of the world, to bet my future and my children's future on coin flip odds!
Carlos concludes that a 95% reduction by 2030 is probably necessary in the developed world, in order to do our part to reduce per-capita emissions to an appropriate level.
I think Carlos is right on in calling for a more aggressive target, and as he concludes at the end of his post, a call for 95% reductions is, practically speaking, the same as a call for 100% reductions, or complete carbon neutrality.
David Roberts over at GristMill agrees, and proposes a replacement rallying cry:
"Children born today should live to see a U.S. that produces no climate pollution."
Scientifically speaking, a call for complete carbon neutrality - no more human caused global warming pollution than human efforts to absorb and sequester global warming pollution can remove from the atmosphere - is a much more sound target than an 80% reduction by 2050. We ultimately need to model our energy and industrial systems on natural systems: what we put in the atmosphere must not exceed what we can safely remove from the atmosphere - through reforestation efforts, for example.
A call for complete carbon neutrality is also a more inspiring and aggressive rallying point than the 'wonky' call for 80% reduction in global warming pollution by 2050.
Jefferson Smith of the Oregon Bus Project, the MC for the April 14th Step it UP! rally in downtown Portland, Oregon, got plenty of laughs out of the mouthful that slogan presents:
"What do we want?" he shouted, to which the crowd, at his jocular coaching, responded: "An 80% reduction in global warming pollution!"
"When do we want it?" "By the year 2050 or preferably sooner!"
This was followed by plenty of laughs at the inadequacy of such a lengthy and wonky 'rallying cry.'
But self-effacing jokes aside, this dilemma isn't something we should laugh off lightly.
Building the strength and momentum of a powerful climate solutions movement will require an inspiring and aggressive rallying cry, something people can latch on to, something with emotional (not merely intellectual) appeal, something that will help redefine what is politically possible. Unfortunately, I don't think the '80% by 2050' call for action fits those criteria (at least not any longer).
So let's put aside the percentages and the target years. Let's put aside the wonky mathematics. We can leave the targets and the years to the policy wonks who will attempt to translate our powerful call for a climate neutral future into concrete policy proposals.
Instead, let's pick up a rallying cry that appeals to the heart, a rallying cry that inspires, that motivates and that shifts the discussion of what is politically possible!
As David Roberts says, "I want my kids to live in a country that does not pollute the atmosphere with [greenhouse gases]. You don't need to know any math to understand that."
[Photo Credit - Step it UP!/John Quigley/Spectral Q]
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Carlos Rymer joins the growing WattHead team today (check out his two excellent posts on climate tipping points and the right target for carbon reductions).
Carlos Rymer is a student at Cornell University studying sustainable development. On campus, he leads the Sustainability Hub and co-leads KyotoNOW!. In the Spring of 2007, he co-led an effort to convince Cornell's administration to commit to the American College and
University Presidents Climate Commitment with a campus-wide petition drive and a strong media campaign.
Off-campus, Carlos co-led the New Jersey Climate March in the Spring of 2007, which helped win a statewide campaign to pass the Global Warming Response Act, ground-breaking legislation that sets the first mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions to be 80% below 2006 levels by 2050. Carlos is also a Campus Organizer and New York State Coordinator for the Sierra Student Coalition. He is also Vice Chair for the D.C. March Committee of the Energy Action Coalition Powershift Planning Team, which is organizing a major action as part of Powershift 2007, the first national youth climate conference.
Outside of the U.S., Carlos works with Romana Sostenible in the Dominican Republic, which promotes sustainable development. Carlos is the Renewable Energy Director and is leading a Renewable Energy Campaign to convince the tourism sector to invest 2% of its annual demand (over U.S. $10 billion) in renewable energy projects to reach a national goal of climate neutrality by 2030, with the goal of showing real, urgent leadership on climate change.
Carlos is also regular blogger at It's Getting Hot In Here and The Energy Independent.
Welcome to the WattHead team, Carlos!
By Carlos Rymer:
The U.S. climate movement is rapidly strengthening. Global warming is becoming one of the top issues for business, youth, labor, and other communities, and we hear calls for immediate action everywhere.
In the last two years alone, there has been a surge in public opinion and activism about this issue, including carbon neutral businesses and schools, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the IPCC report and other recent scientific studies, and commitments by other nations to fight global warming aggressively. All this has led to the U.S. movement to rally behind one simple call: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. Clearly, this is an aggressive target, making many in Washington uncomfortable, but is it enough to save our society from climate tipping points? Let’s take a closer look.
According to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, global society should not allow the global average temperature to rise beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Going beyond this threshold could set in motion a series of tipping points that would accelerate temperature rise, loss of existing carbon repositories, and catastrophic weather events to a point of no return, where reversing the process is likely impossible. This could include the disintegration of Greenland and West Antarctica (raising sea level by more than 10 meters), the extinction of more than 50% of all species, and rapid loss of ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and large parts of agricultural production systems. Direct loss of human life through natural disasters, disease, and famine would only compound general disintegration of a global economy reliant on efficient trade, cheap commodity production, and stable civilizations.
One problem is that the world has already warmed about 0.6ºC on average, and there is at least 0.5ºC of warming ahead of us due to the current concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In order to prevent about 1ºC of further warming, scientists say that we should keep the total greenhouse gas concentration, expressed in CO2 equivalents, below 450 ppm.
Researchers at the Hadley Center in the UK have condensed the science up to 2005 to show the scale of greenhouse gas emission reductions necessary to avoid catastrophic tipping points. The current science shows that the natural sinks of CO2 – the oceans, soils, and forests – will lose much of their capacity to absorb CO2 by 2030. With these projections in mind, the world must reduce its total per capita greenhouse gas emissions to 0.33 tons of CO2 equivalents per person. This translates into a global reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions of 60% below 2005 levels by the year 2030, a much more ambitious target than what is currently being supported in the United States, which would have to reduce its emissions by around 95% by 2030 to meet the world’s target equitably.
One concern that climate activists and progressive politicians in the United States would have with this ambitious target is that it supposedly would not have any support in Washington. But it helps to think back in time.
In 1997, was there all-out support for the targets agreed-upon in the Kyoto Protocol? Today, cities and states all over the U.S. believe these are first steps and have set much more ambitious goals. Two years after the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005, the European Union has agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% by the year 2020, with Germany saying it will go for 40% reductions. California, New Jersey, and a couple of other states have agreed to cut their emissions by at least 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. These previously “unrealistic” goals today are taken as the minimum “science-based” goals allowed. Given these fast changes in the last few years, would calling for a climate neutral U.S. by 2030 be politically acceptable?
The most recent studies tell us that this year’s IPCC projections are likely underestimates of what’s really happening and what’s to come. Let’s take a look at a sample of these.
Shortly after the IPCC technical report was released, the National Snow and Ice Data Center showed that Arctic sea ice was being lost three times faster than thought. The IPCC concluded that, from 1953 to 2006, the average sea ice loss per decade was 2.5%, but recent data shows that the average was in fact about 7.8%, 30 years ahead of forecast. As a result, the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer by 2020, warming the planet much faster due to the vast open waters that will be absorbing heat (and melting Greenland, by the way). It has already reached a record low this year.
Also this year, Dr. James Hansen and a team of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies published a study showing that the Earth was at a “dangerous tipping point.” Hansen and his team pointed out that the CO2 limit of 450 ppm was likely dangerous due to the consequences we’ve seen with 0.6C of warming, and that the ceiling should probably be a lot lower. They warned that even moderate business-as-usual would lead to “global and regional disasters.”
Recently, the Brazilian government, alarmed by climate change effects in the Amazon, decided to reconsider climate policy. 2005 saw a major drought in the Amazon that killed crops and caused other major losses. 2006 and 2007 have also been drought years. Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Institute, together with Brazilian scientists, have shown that 3 years of continued drought leads the Amazon to a massive transformation, ending with much of it as a savannah. If 2008 turns out to be like this year, we may begin to see trees die in the Amazon, a huge tipping point that would elevate carbon emissions.
Since 2005, the frozen Siberian peat bog has been partly melting during the summer. This year, in particular, a vast area melted for the first time in recent human history. Scientists estimate that these peat bogs could release more than 70 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide (by contrast, humans release about 25-30 billion tons of CO2 per year, so this would equal about 50 years of our current CO2 emissions).
Another study, this time near Antarctica, showed that the Southern Ocean is almost at capacity for holding CO2. The vast ocean served us well by taking up to 1/3 of all the carbon dioxide we released every year. But now, it will hold no more, so more of what we emit will stay in the atmosphere.
On the emissions side, new research shows that global CO2 emissions rose faster than the worst-case scenario used by the IPCC. The average in the last few years was 3.1%. This means that, if unchecked, we will likely see temperature rising above the worst-case scenario predicted by IPCC: 4.0C.
The fact is that the world needs a major energy transformation faster than previously thought if we are to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points. Before the U.S. climate movement allows the government to negotiate a new international treaty, it must make sure that the government understands the right target.
We, as climate activists, know that we have to work with what may currently be politically possible, but we shouldn’t be fools to think that we can’t change public opinion about targets and get politicians in government to agree to those targets. By 2009, the U.S. will likely begin negotiating a new global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If the U.S. does not go in demanding the right targets and that those targets are set equitably, we will see a treaty that may end up wasting a lot of financial resources in the name of failure, because the targets the world sets will likely not prevent tipping points.
Ultimately, it is up to climate activists who are leading the fight against global warming in the United States and elsewhere to make policymakers and the public aware of what the current observations and the science really calls for, not some consensus-based version that only considers what is certain and not what may be risky.
We must have a climate neutral nation within two decades or we’ll risk climate catastrophe. How to get there in two decades is a tricky question, and without the framework any targets have no meaning, but it is a question that will undoubtedly be answered if we make the climate neutral target mainstream. Climate activists: it is time to make your targets much more ambitious.
Shortly after the IPCC technical report was released, the National Snow and Ice Data Center showed that Arctic sea ice was being lost faster than the IPCC projections. The IPCC concluded that, from 1953 to 2006, the average sea ice loss per decade was 2.5%. This was concluded using model simulations. The recent data, on the other hand, shows that the average was in fact about 7.8%, 30 years ahead of forecast. As a result, the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer by 2020, warming the planet much faster due to the vast open waters that will be absorbing heat (and melting Greenland, by the way). Check out the release here and here.
Also this year, Dr. James Hansen and a team of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies published a study showing that the Earth was at a “dangerous tipping point.” Hansen and his team pointed out that the CO2 limit of 450 ppm was likely dangerous due to the consequences we’ve seen with 0.6C of warming, and that the ceiling should probably be a lot lower. They warned that even moderate business-as-usual would lead to “global and regional disasters.” Hansen has also warned that sea level will undoubtedly rise by at least 1 meter this century, and suggested that the Greenland ice sheet is beginning to desintegrate (could raise sea level by 7 meters). See here and here for more.
Recently, the Brazilian government, alarmed by climate change effects, decided to reconsider climate policy. 2005 saw a major drought in the Amazon that killed crops and caused other major losses. 2006 and 2007 have also been drought years. Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Institute, together with Brazilian scientists, have shown that 3 years of continued drought leads the Amazon to a massive transformation, ending with much of it as a Savannah. If 2008 turns out to be like this year, we may begin to see trees die in the Amazon, a huge tipping point that would elevate carbon emissions.
Since 2005, the frozen Siberian peat bog has been partly melting during the summer (see here). This year, in particular, a vast area that had never melted in recent human history became liquid water. Scientists estimate that these peat bogs could release more than 70 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide (by contrast, humans release about 25-30 billion tons of CO2 per year, so this would equal about 50 years of our current CO2 emissions!).
Another study, this time near Antarctica, showed that the Souther Ocean is almost at capacity for holding carbon dioxide. The vast ocean served us well by taking up to 1/3 of all the carbon dioxide we released every year. But now, it will hold no more, so more of what we emit will stay in the atmosphere. IPCC, check your emission projections next time!
On the emissions side, new research shows that global carbon emissions rose faster than the worst-case scenario used by the IPCC. The average in the last few years was 3.1%. This means that, if unchecked, we will likely see temperature rising above the worst-case scenario predicted by IPCC: 4.0C.
And just recently, The Guardian released an article about scientists warning about the proximity of tipping points in the climate system. It notes a new study showing that the Greenland ice sheet could disintegrate within 300 years (note that Hansen warns it could happen this century). It also notes other tipping points such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest, the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the shutdown of the world’s ocean circulation.
These things tell us two things: 1) All current projections are likely underestimates of what’s really happening and what’s to come, and 2) any further increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is very risky (i.e. we should be a lot more aggressive about our targets if our goal is to avoid tipping points). A more concerned administration/world would use this to declare war against greenhouse gases/global warming, making a complete transition to clean energy within 2 decades.
By Jesse Jenkins:
A couple weeks ago, the Daily Show ran a 'news story' about the Cape Wind Project, an offshore wind farm proposed for the Nantucket Sound in Massachussets. In their typical, too-funny-because-it's-so-true satirical style, the Daily Show skewered the ultra-rich, NIMBY opponents of what could be the United States' first offshore wind farm.
The video was popular and made it's way around the blogosphere. I posted the video here at WattHead, and the video drove the highest hit counts I've ever seen at this site (a factor of ten higher than usual!). Sadly, the video is no longer available on YouTube (darned copywrite laws!).
But if you'd like to know the true story behind this hilarious video, Wendy Williams, an author and Cape Codder who appears in the Daily Show story and is apparently responsible for tipping off Jon Stewart and gang, has posted a column at RenewableEnergyAccess.com about the Cape Wind Project.
Read on for the true story behind the Daily Show video:
Cape Wind: Behind the John Stewart Show
by Wendy Williams, Author
When Cape Wind -- both the book and the issue -- appeared recently on the Jon Stewart show, it was for some Cape Codders the event of the summer season. Yet all the hoopla came about by serendipity, really.
A friend sent me a message with the name and phone number of a producer at the show. "You should call and get on the show," he wrote.
Feeling very intimidated, I picked up the phone to call for advice. I erred, however. Thinking I was calling my friend, I instead I called the phone number I was looking at on the computer screen. "Jon Stewart Show," the producer said, answering the call.
I'm not very polished when it comes to publicity. "Well," I said, "I guess it's pretty inappropriate for me to be calling you. I actually dialed your number by accident I'm sorry to bother you. Maybe I should just hang up."
And the rest is history, so to speak...
By now, several weeks after the famous spot in which Jason Jones, fake television reporter extraordinaire, "interviews" Senator Ted Kennedy by megaphone while sitting in a tiny boat on the Nantucket Sound in front of the Kennedy compound, the piece has been posted on You-Tube and viewed by well over 50,000 people.
It is funny, I have to admit. But it isn't really fair to lay all the blame for the six years of stalling and lobbying and backroom-dealing at the feet of Massachusetts' senior senator. At least as guilty is Willard Mitt Romney, a man who was 100-percent committed to keeping the project from being built.
Romney made this promise as part of his campaign to run for governor of the state, and he made it long before he knew anything about the project. "I keep my promises," he once told an interviewer, and he certainly did in the case of Cape Wind, whether it was good for the state or not.
Romney pulled every string and threatened any public appointee in order to keep the project tied up in regulatory hell for as long as he was governor. At least one person lost her job when she spoke out about what was going on behind closed doors in the Massachusetts Governor's office.
Not a few people think Romney's interest in all this delay was tied up with campaign contributions. The family of Bush Pioneer Richard J. Egan—a major financier of Romney's run for governor—is very much financially behind the $20-million effort to stop the project.
So what is Cape Wind, why is it so important, and when will it be built? It's an ambitious offshore wind energy project proposed six years ago for Nantucket Sound, summer sailing grounds and drinking resort of the world's wealthiest people. Long before the details of the project were revealed, these wealthy socialites decided that martini hour would be ruined—positively destroyed—if they had to see wind turbines on the horizon.
To some extent, I can see their point. Much of their money comes from fossil fuels, and Cape Wind represents not that dirty past, but a much more positive future. Initially the project team, led by the world's most stubborn energy entrepreneur Jim Gordon, wanted to built 130, 2.8-megawatt turbines on a very shallow shoal more than 5 miles off the coastline.
But opponents have been so successful in using their financial and political muscle to tie up the project that now, six years later, the technology has improved so much that Gordon has scaled down the number of turbines to 130 - but scaled up the output. Those 3.8-megawatt (MW) turbines would now make up a project with the nameplate capacity of 468 MW.
The developer says that the project would produce about 80 percent of the Cape and Islands' yearly consumption of electricity.
Why is Cape Wind important? It has become the flagship project for a promising new technology, offshore wind. It is well-suited to the northeastern region of the United States, where open space is severely limited, but where ocean winds are powerful and dependable.
Moreover, Cape Wind would reduce the use of the oil-fired power plant on the Cape Cod Canal. It should surprise no one that, as explained in great detail in the book, much of the money spent opposing the project can be traced to coal-and-oil roots.
The potential for power produced by offshore wind is obviously threatening to fossil fuel outfits. Down in Delaware, an offshore wind proposal was chosen by government agencies in lieu of a coal plant. Coal interests have challenged that decision as well.
Because Massachusetts' new governor, Deval Patrick, avidly supports new energy technologies, the project is expected to receive the necessary permits on the state level shortly—although project opponents have begun manipulating a Cape Cod local board, the Cape Cod Commission, in yet another delay attempt.
At the federal level, the project's permitting remains very uncertain. Currently, Minerals Management Service (MMS), of the federal Department of Interior, is supposed to release a massive draft Environmental Impact Statement any day now.
However, "any day now" has been the watchword on this release for many months. The most recent public announcement from MMS said the document would possibly be released this month, but observers aren't holding their breath.
The final decision from MMS is currently scheduled to be made next summer; however, this seems unlikely. For a project that has encountered no serious scientific, environmental or (genuine) legal issues, this seems a little long—particularly when the world feels such urgency over oil, coal and climate change.
Wendy Williams has written for many major publications, including Scientific American, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal and The Baltimore Sun. She has been journalist-in-residence at Duke University and at the Hasting Center; a fellow at the Center for environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado and at the Marine Biological Laboratory. The author of several books, including Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, she lives on Cape Cod.
The WattHead team continues to grow as we welcome Timothy Den Herder-Thomas to the WattHead contributors team.
Timothy Den Herder-Thomas grew up in Jersey City, NJ, and started organizing around climate and energy issues in his inner-city high school. Now a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN as an Environmental Studies Major, Timothy is deeply involved in the movement for climate solutions. On campus, he works with student organization MacCARES to develop climate solutions while building student engagement at the campus level. Along with state-level coordination, Timothy works with the Energy Action Coalition and its partners, especially the Sierra Student Coalition to advance the Campus Climate Challenge.
Timothy focuses on engaging students in taking their work beyond campus by working with local residents, small businesses, labor leaders, farmers, and local governments to implement sustainable community development solutions. Timothy sees these people-powered initiatives as key to both building a climate movement and implementing the solutions the transition entails.
Welcome to WattHead Timothy!
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Hurricane Dean sets several records as many ponder the connection between Global Warming and stronger hurricanes
Hurricane Dean made landfall early this morning as a fierce category five storm, slamming into the southern end of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula with 160+ mph winds and lashing rains.
The major hurricane has set several records and, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, caused many to take a closer look at the connection between global warming and more intense and devastating hurricanes.
Here are the key records that Dean either broke or otherwise affects:
1. With a minimum central pressure of 906 millibars, Dean was the ninth most intense hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic basin (for comparison Hurricane Katrina's minimum pressure was 902 millibars).As with any single weather event, it is impossible to blame Hurricane Dean or any other singular storm on global warming directly. However, if recent trends towards more intense storms are true - and they are at least consistent with scientific predictions based on basic thermodynamics - recent massive hurricanes could be a sign of things to come, as global warming continues to warm ocean temperatures, fueling stronger storms.
2. That 906 millibar pressure reading was at landfall, making Dean the third most intense landfalling hurricane known in the Atlantic region and the first Category 5 storm at landfall since 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
3. When measured by minimum pressure, six of the ten most intense Atlantic hurricanes--Wilma, Rita, Katrina, Mitch, Dean, and Ivan--have occurred in the past ten years.
Chris Mooney at Huffington Post and the Daily Green has published two excellent posts (one short, one longer) about what we can and can't say about global warming and Hurricane Dean:
Now we see why the ancient Mayans built their cities inland from the coasts.[An obvious hat tip to Chris Mooney. (Image source: Weather Underground)]
Early this morning, Hurricane Dean slammed the Yucatan as a still-intensifying Category 5 storm with sustained winds upwards of 165 miles per hour. Dean required some troubling readjustments of our hurricane records, and as a result, we may hear some serious chatter today about the relationship between these intense storms and global warming.
For that reason, the purpose of this post is to lay out what we can and can't reliably say about Hurricane Dean. The upshot is this: We have to be careful what we claim and how we claim it, but even so, Dean fits into a worrisome pattern.
We can't blame any one hurricane event on global warming directly. Nevertheless, the information above is certainly consistent with the idea advanced by some scientists that global warming is causing an intensification of the average hurricane. We're apparently seeing the strongest hurricanes recur in the Atlantic with a higher frequency than before -- or at least, than we've ever been able to measure before.
Measuring systems weren't as good in earlier eras, you see -- a fact that makes our records somewhat impeachable. A "record" is only what's recorded, after all. And so skeptics will inevitably quibble with our imperfect data and challenge it. There might well have been a storm much stronger than Dean 200 years ago -- we just don't know.
Nevertheless, if you look at the data we have, Dean fits into a very troubling pattern and context. Moreover, the present data, with all their admitted imperfections, aren't all we have to go on. There's also the theoretical expectation that hurricanes ought to intensify, for basic thermodynamic reasons, as global warming adds more heat to the oceans. Add together this theoretical expectation with the new records today and, well, anyone would be justified in feeling pretty worried by Hurricane Dean.
Dean was also the strongest hurricane anywhere in the world so far this year -- and by far the strongest at landfall. We can only hope that somehow, the damage is lighter than expected as the storm tears across the Yucatan today and then prepares to cross the Bay of Campeche and make a second expected landfall in mainland Mexico.
For a further and more detailed discussion of Dean in its Atlantic and global context, see my "Storm Pundit" post at The Daily Green, available here.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Not all biofuels are created equal: in fact, depending on how they are produced, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel can be environmentally destructive, raise the price of food, and even hurt efforts to tackle global warming.
Biofuels - ethanol and biodiesel - present a potentially important (partial) solution to concerns about global warming and our over-reliance on oil. However, to paraphrase a great LA Times op ed on the ethanol craze, alcohol is best enjoyed in moderation, and the same goes for these alcohol-based biofuels.
So before we all get drunk on ethanol, we'd better take a close look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of biofuels and make sure we get it right.
The Benefits - In Pursuit of Energy Independence and a Safe Climate
Biofuels offer the potential to displace foreign oil and depleting fossil fuels with a more sustainable and domestic fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, depending on how they are produced, ethanol and biodiesel require considerable fossil fuel inputs - diesel for tractors, natural gas for fertilizers, fuel to transport the feedstocks, and typically fossil fuels to produce the biofuels at a biorefinery. So while the biofuel itself may be made from renewable crops and contains only carbon that was absorbed from the atmosphere during the growth of the plants, the total net benefit of biofuels after taking into account inputs is far from carbon neutral nor fossil fuel free.
Exactly how much net benefit there is to biofuels depends largely on the production methods and feedstocks and has been the subject of much debate. While some have repeatedly made the case that conventional biofuels - corn-based ethanol and soy or rapeseed-based biodiesel - take even more fossil fuels to produce than the offset, the consensus has been that conventional biofuels offer a moderate reduction in fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions - on the order of a 10-30% reduction when compared to conventional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.
Next-generation biofuels produced from cellulosic feedstocks - a fancy term for a wide variety of generally inedible plant matter including wood, straw, and grasses as well as agricultural wastes like corn stalks and rice hulls - are an exciting prospect and could maximize the potential for biofuels to offset oil and fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Making ethanol or biodiesel from cellulosic feedstocks can be a much more energy efficient process than conventional corn or soy-based biofuels, can be made from inedible crops and even agriculture, forestry, or urban waste materials.
However, next-generation, cellulosic biofuels are currently in the early stages of commercialization. The first pilot and commercial scale cellulosic biofuel refineries are under construction or on the drawing boards these days and how long it will take to fully scale up and commercialize the emerging biofuel technology remains to be seen.
Up in Smoke - How Slash and Burn Agriculture Wipes Out the Climate Benefits of Biofuels
Land use changes - most notably the loss of tropical forests - account for about 20 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions - roughly the same as both the total annual emissions from the United States or China.
That's right: slash and burn agriculture can be just as large a threat to the climate as China's rampantly growing economy or the hundreds of millions of cars plying American highways!
So if we're going to start replacing oil with biofuels, we'd better not be trading one problem - rampant oil consumption - for another equally devastating problem - accelerating the conversion of tropical rainforests into farm and grazing lands.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what we're beginning to see, with massive swaths of tropical forests, savannas and grasslands - all productive carbon 'sinks' - being slahed, burned and replaced by biofuels plantations. Massive expansions of palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, soy and sugar plantations in Brazil, and jatropha plantations in China's forested Southeast have all been proposed to feed the growing global demand for biofuels.
Slashing massive swaths of forests to clear the way for biofuel plantations clearly amounts to a devastating ecological loss. These tropical and semi-tropical forests are some of the most biologically-diverse habitats in the world and have already been devastated by traditional timber and agricultural demands. It's no wonder the Worldwatch Institute has called China's biofuels expansion "an ecological disaster," and the same can be said for similar biofuel expansion plans across the world.
But even beyond the massive loss of biodiversity and habitat when forests are converted to biofuel plantations, the destruction of these forestlands also wipes out any global warming benefits of biofuels.
According to a new study published in Science last week ($ub req., see this New Scientist summary) the climate benefits of ethanol and biodiesel are completely wiped out by tropical deforestation.
When you destroy forestlands, grasslands, savannas and other wilderness, much of the carbon stored in the ecosystem's living matter ends up in the atmosphere - burned, decomposed or otherwise oxidized. Additionally, forestlands represent an important carbon sink, 'breathing' carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it as trees and other plants grow.
The loss of these important natural carbon 'scrubbers' more than makes up for the moderate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from burning biofuels instead of gasoline or diesel: according to the study, it would take up to a century for the benefits of biofuels to recoup the initial loss of the tropical forestland and the emissions associated with slashing and burning the land to make way for biofuel plantations!
"We cannot afford that, in terms of climate change," says Renton Righelato, co-author of the new study.
Furthermore, the study concludes that the climate benefits of biofuels are trumped by reforestation efforts, even in temperate climates. "You get far more carbon sequestered by planting forests than you avoid emissions by producing biofuels on the same land," says Righelato.
The study's authors found that reforestation would store and sequester between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than would be saved by burning biofuels produced on the same amount of land instead of gasoline (see bar chart below).
[Graphic: the carbon savings from burning biofuels instead of gasoline (top six bars) compared to the carbon emissions resulting from clearing tropical forestland for biofuel plantations (red bar) and the carbon savings from reforestation efforts (bottom three bars). Figures are expressed as metric tons of carbon equivalent saved or emitted per acre devoted to biofuel production or reforestation. (Source: New Scientist)]
No Free Lunch When Fuel Competes with Food
We all know the old adage: there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, when fuel competes with food, everyone's lunch gets more expensive (as the LA Times accurately observes).
The vast bulk of global biofuels production utilizes edible feedstocks like corn and soy. As demand for corn to make ethanol has soared, corn prices have shot up, nearly doubling in the past year. Record high prices are encouraging a record acreage of corn planted in the United States - the highest in 63 years - and prices for other foods are on the rise as farmers plant corn in acreage they have otherwise planted wheat or soy.
Prices for all kinds of food have soared in the first half of 2007 (see chart below) and the LA Times op ed reports that grocery-store food prices rose 8%. It's unknown how much of that hike is attributable to corn, and rising fuel and fertilizer costs are certainly a major factor in rising food prices, but soaring demand for corn for ethanol production is certainly playing a significant role as well.
[Graphic: Food prices on the rise in 2007. (Source: McClatchy Newspapers)]
Middle class Americans may be able to shrug off higher prices at the grocery store, but increasing food costs hit lower income folks harder.
And if low-income Americans are feeling the crunch, things are even harder in the developing world. When you get buy on just a few dollars a day, doubling corn prices are no small matter. Rising corn prices have already launched public outcry and even riots in Mexico, which depends on imported American corn for tortillas and other affordable, nutritious stables.
Producing biofuels from inedible cellulosic feedstocks could provide a solution to this fuel-or-food dilemma, although producing energy crops like switchgrass - an excellent biofuel feedstock and native North American grass that once dominated much of the Great Plains - on limited agricultural land could continue the competition between biofuels and foodstuffs.
Clean Green Fuels? - Other Environmental Effects
Industrial farming to produce biofuel feedstocks, particularly corn, consumes large amounts of water and chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Many of these chemicals seep into waterways, polluting the water and providing nutrients for algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen and kill everything else. A 'dead zone' the size of Connecticut and Delaware put together has repeatedly formed in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by algae gorging on chemical fertilizers carried into the Gulf by the Mississippi river.
Additionally, farmers ordinarily rotate crops annually to avoid soil exhaustion, but high corn prices encourage them to plant corn in the same fields year after year. This high-intensity farming accelerates the loss of topsoil and depletes soil nutrients and the only way to make this work is to pour on more fertilizers, further exacerbating problems.
Finally, while ethanol may be "cleaner burning" when it comes to many pollutants and is a better fuel additive or "oxygenate" than toxic MTBE, burning ethanol in high concentrations could increase certain air pollutants. A recent Stanford University study argued that E85 - a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline - produces so much ozone, a key ingredient in smog, that if it were used in Los Angeles instead of gasoline, it would raise ozone-related deaths 9%.
Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater - If We're Smart, Biofuels Still Have a Role to Play
Given all of these concerns about increased use of ethanol and biodiesel, should we just bag the whole idea and move on to something else? No, I would argue.
When it comes to confronting the climate crisis and ending our oil addiction - two massive problems - we're going to need all the tools we can get. Biofuels, if done right, still have an important role to play in reducing our reliance on oil and our contribution to global climate change.
I present the above concerns about biofuels because understanding the potential pitfalls, problems and limitations of biofuels - both conventional and next-generation - will be crucial to developing the standards that are necessary to ensure that biofuels can help make a dent in our oil addiction and help solve the climate crisis without exacerbating other environmental problems.
We should focus on developing cellulosic biofuels that rely on readily available cellulosic biomass in existing waste streams - timber slash and mill residues, urban wood wastes, agricultural residues, etc.
These feedstocks offer the least environmental impacts, do not compete with food crops, and according to this study (pdf) are available in large enough quantities to be worth pursuing - roughly 3/4 of a billion dry tons each year, or enough to produce around 75 billion gallons of ethanol or biodiesel if estimated yields from next-generation biorefineries prove correct.
That is enough biofuel to provide about 1/3rd of all the energy consumed by cars and light trucks in the United States.
Additionally, unlike producing ethanol from corn, which typically requires large amounts of coal or natural gas, converting cellulosic biomass to biofuels requires little or no fossil fuel inputs. In fact, cellulosic biorefineries should be able to utilize the lignin portion of the biomass left over after the cellulose is removed to produce all of the energy inputs for the refinery process and even produce electricity for export (potentially offsetting electricity from coal or natural gas).
Getting on the Right Path - Time for a New U.S. Biofuels Strategy
To be done right:
Employing these kinds of standards in our public policy would necessitate a dramatic shift away from heavily supporting corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.
It would necessitate the creation of environmental sustainability standards for the U.S. biofuels industry and would imply a ban on imported biofuels from countries that do not adopt satisfactory sustainability standards on their own domestic biofuels industries.
It would require a focus on commercializing next-generation cellulosic biofuel technologies and exploring the most sustainable feedstock sources and harvesting/collection methods.
So, given all of the concerns about biofuels, why aren't any of our elected officials calling for a change in direction for the U.S. biofuels industry? Why do we continue to subsidize the corn ethanol industry to the tune of several billion dollars a year? Why do all of the presidential candidates pay at least lip service to corn ethanol, even those like Hillary Clinton and John McCain that have been openly critical of corn ethanol in the past?
Well, the political power of agri-giants like ADM and Cargill and the importance of corn-growing Iowa in presidential elections are certainly standing in the way of a sensible biofuels policy. It's hard to find another explanation for an energy policy that is so clearly designed to do little to actually solve any of the problems it's supposed to solve while so clearly benefiting narrow but politically powerful special interests.
The latest Senate energy bill continues this trend with a massive 36 billion gallon/year by 2022 biofuels requirement, 40% of which will likely come from good old corn-based ethanol, necessitating a quadrupling in the U.S. corn ethanol industry! (To be fair, the bill does require that 60% of the standard is met with next generation biofuels...)
It's time for a change in American energy policy when it comes to biofuels. It's time to actually have an energy policy when it comes to biofuels, and not a massive agricultural subsidy program disguised as an energy policy.
Let's heed the warnings of climate scientists, ecologists and rioting Mexican peasants: the path we're on right now means biofuels exacerbate the climate crisis, amount to an environmental disaster, and drive up prices for food around the world.
But there's another path, a path where sustainably-harvested, next-generation biofuels coupled with a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency and the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles makes gasoline a thing of the past.
It's time to get ourselves on the right path.
[A hat tip to Glenn Hurowitz at Gristmill]