2 Degrees Of Global Warming Might Be Too Much

An excellent look, by Justin Gillis at the New York Times, at how the world decided that it should try to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade, and how that target might not actually be the right target:

Yet even as the 2C target has become a touchstone for the climate talks, scientific theory and real-world observations have begun to raise serious questions about whether the target is stringent enough.

For starters, the world has already warmed by almost one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. That may sound modest, but as a global average, it is actually a substantial number. For any amount of global warming, the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface and absorbs considerable heat, will pull down the average. But the warming over land tends to be much greater, and the warming in some polar regions greater still.

The warming that has already occurred is provoking enormous damage all over the planet, from dying forests to collapsing sea ice to savage heat wavesto torrential rains. And scientists are realizing they may have underestimated the vulnerability of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Those ice sheets now appear to be in the early stages of breaking up. For instance, Greenland’s glaciers have lately been spitting icebergs into the sea at an accelerated pace, and scientific papers published this year warned that the melting in parts of Antarctica may already be unstoppable.

The 2 degree target always had a significant degree of uncertainty attached to it (though it was useful to focus attention on some target). To consider it a threshold below which we would somehow remain “safe” was the wrong way to look at it. Yes, 2 degrees might be a threshold beyond which certain irreversible catastrophes would follow (melting ice sheets). But there is plenty of catastrophe below the 2 degrees threshold, as well, as we are already seeing (most notably, the acidification of the oceans). It has always been the case that a lot less warming would be a lot better for the planet.

This is a challenge to global climate policy, and as Gillis notes:

So, even as the world’s climate policy diplomats work on a plan that incorporates the 2C goal, they have enlisted scientists in a major review of whether it is strict enough. Results are due this summer, and if the reviewers recommend a lower target, that could add a contentious dimension to the climate negotiations in Paris next year.

Barring a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime, it is not at all clear how a lower target could be met.

Actually, it is not at all clear how the 2 degrees target will be met, either. The point is that “a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime” is what is needed regardless of the target. And the sooner political leaders (and the media, and then the public) come to that realization, the better off we will all be.

Climate change is an unprecedented challenge, so there is an obvious case to be made for an unprecedented mobilization of societies and technologists. We may be in “peacetime”–and therefore relatively complacent– according to conventional definitions of peace and war.  But we are facing an existential threat that is arguably greater than any threat of war experienced in human history (and orders of magnitude greater than the threat posed by Islamic extremism and ISIL, to which we devote inordinate and inexplicable amounts of attention and resources). That should count for something.

 

The Graphic Reality Of Extinction

The journal Nature sums up the threat of the Sixth Great Extinction in one mindblowing graphic (click here, or on graphic for zoomable  version):

Here’s the data and thinking that are behind the graphic:

Studies that try to tally the number of species of animals, plants and fungi alive right now produce estimates that swing from less than 2 million to more than 50 million. The problem is that researchers have so far sampled only a sliver of Earth’s biodiversity, and most of the unknown groups inhabit small regions of the world, often in habitats that are rapidly being destroyed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the uncertainty in the latest version of its Red List of Threatened Species, which was released in November. The report evaluated more than 76,000 species, a big increase over earlier editions. But that is just 4% of the more than 1.7 million species that have been described by scientists, making it impossible to offer any reliable threat level for groups that have not been adequately assessed, such as fish, reptiles and insects.

Recognizing these caveats, Nature pulled together the most reliable available data to provide a graphic status report of life on Earth (see ‘Life under threat’). Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi. Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.

Looking forward, the picture gets less certain. The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways. One simple way to project into the future would be to assume that the rate of extinction will be constant; it is currently estimated to range from 0.01% to 0.7% of all existing species a year. “There is a huge uncertainty in projecting future extinction rates,” says Henrique Pereira, an ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig.

At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.

I find it hard to believe that this is not screaming headline news every day. The media, like the public, simply doesn’t know what to do with the catastrophic implications of climate change and human impact on the planet. That is not good.

(H/T The Dodo–very appropriate, no?)

The Wonder Of Whales (And Nature)

A beautiful homage to the infinite complexity of Nature, and a reminder that it is hubris to act as if we understand the most subtle workings of the planet.

From the summary:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

When whales were at their historic populations, before their numbers were reduced, it seems that whales might have been responsible for removing tens of millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Whales change the climate. The return of the great whales, if they are allowed to recover, could be seen as a benign form of geo-engineering. It could undo some of the damage we have done, both to the living systems of the sea, and to the atmosphere.

Everything we do has implications for the planet and its regulatory systems. Tread lightly, lightly…

(h/t Cetacean News Network)

Major Misperception On Climate

Perceived contribution (gray bars) versus actual contribution (red dots) of different industries to global carbon emissions.

 

This has puzzled me for years:

The general public has a major lack of understanding of how eating meat and dairy contributes to climate change, according to a survey of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa by the market research organization Ipsos MORI. Although meat and dairy production accounts for roughly 15 percent of total global carbon emissions — equal to exhaust emissions from the international transportation sector — less than 30 percent of survey respondents identified meat and dairy production as a major contributor to climate change. More than twice as many — 64 percent — said transportation was a major contributor.

Interestingly, many people are aware that deforestation contributes to global warming, but don’t apparently don’t connect deforestation to clearing land to run livestock.

I guess the meat and dairy industry has a better PR team than the oil and gas companies.

Peek Oil: North Dakota Oil Wells Visualized

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 1.19.16 PM

Courtesy of the clever folks at the New York Times:

More than 11,000 oil wells have been drilled in North Dakota since 2006, covering the state’s agricultural landscape. In all, almost 40,000 miles of well bores have been drilled underground to connect the fracking operations to surface wells. Laid end to end, they would circle the Earth about one and a half times.

On Sunday, The New York Times published a monthslong investigation by Deborah Sontag and Robert Gebeloff into North Dakota’s conflicted relationship with its booming oil industry. In the process of reporting that article, we obtained the locations of every oil drilling line of every well in the state.

The precise depths and directions of these remain out of sight for a very obvious reason: The drilling lines are underground. Here, we change that.

The illustrations shown here are accurate in every respect except one: We changed the vertical direction of each oil well bore to go above ground instead of below it. Otherwise, every bore line is shown precisely how it’s described by North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources.

Gives new (visual) meaning to oil addiction. And very effectively conveys the reality that the business of being human is the business of constantly probing, altering, and wounding the planet.

Climate And Revolution (“Put down that donut!” Edition)

Elizabeth Kolbert adds more perspective to the gap between policy and reality, with a look at the recent US-China emission agreement:

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster—which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.”

On top of this rather nasty problem, there’s the issue of actually fulfilling the pledges. The Administration claims that reducing emissions by twenty-eight per cent over the next eleven years is “achievable under existing law.” This is a little like someone who’s trying to lose weight saying that his goal is “achievable” on a diet of doughnuts: it may be true in theory, but it’s extremely unlikely.

Well, Americans do love fad diets, though it is true that not many of them work, and some of them are dangerous. The real solution is to put a stiff tax on donuts, I mean carbon. The politics of doing that are of beyond comprehension at the moment. Still, understanding that pricing carbon is the single most important and indispensable policy step required to fight climate change would be a good first step.

Climate And Revolution (Cont.)

In a review of Naomi Klein’s new book. “This Changes Everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert doubts Americans are ready for the reality of addressing climate change (h/t Daily Dish):

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

And Kolbert doesn’t even include “not eating meat” to her list. I’m surprised Kolbert didn’t title her review “This Changes Nothing.”

Kolbert’s probably right, but this gets back to the problem that the media (and as a result political leaders) are completely failing to explain the scale and danger of the problem. When I want to imagine how we should be thinking about, and talking about, the threat of climate change I always go back to the thought experiment of imagining how the media, politicians, and the public would respond if ISIL had a master plan to warm the planet, melt the ice caps, flood our cities, and cause a mass extinction. Now that really would change everything.

End note: In her review Kolbert mentions an interesting study that examines how much energy each person on the planet should use, and how much they actually use. This also dramatizes how revolutionary real solutions to global warming would be:

What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.

The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.

To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.

The study doesn’t really take into account the fact that new energy technologies could and should allow us to consume more energy with fewer emissions. But it is still a wake-up slap to realize that for the average American the combination of reduced consumption and more efficient energy technologies needs to achieve an 83% reduction in per capita carbon emission. See what I mean about a revolution?

 

Climate And Revolution

I am always struck by the gap that seems to exist between what the public and policymakers THINK we need to do to blunt climate change, and what we REALLY need to do. Part of the problem has been that the media has completely failed to treat climate change with the urgency and scale it deserves, a fail which future historians will arguably rate the biggest media fail ever. Another part may be that being honest about the threat of climate change would mean being honest about how completely humanity needs to change its lifestyle, it economics and its politics. And that scares people because change is hard, and change on the scale required implies certain sacrifices.

So I am always interested to see reminders that climate change does not demand incremental policy adjustments but revolutionary adjustments. Because it is only after we come to grips with this fact that we can understand, and hopefully move beyond, the complete inadequacy and complacency of current efforts to address the problem.

The latest screaming reminder that we need to think in revolutionary terms is a failed Google effort to develop renewable energy sources to replace carbon-based energy sources. And, after crunching the numbers, Google abandoned the initiative:

We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

In other words, Google decided that even the most dramatic developments in current renewable energy technologies, leading to a 55% reduction of emissions by 2050, just wouldn’t do the job.

Because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century, reducing emissions means only that less gas is being added to the existing problem. Research by James Hansen shows that reducing global CO2 levels requires both a drastic cut in emissions and some way of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.

 

It was necessary, but not sufficient:

While this energy revolution is taking place, another field needs to progress as well. As Hansen has shown, if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability. To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink. We’re all for more trees, and we also exhort scientists and engineers to seek disruptive technologies in carbon storage.

Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change. What, then, is the energy technology that can meet the challenging cost targets? How will we remove CO2 from the air? We don’t have the answers.

How do you achieve that energy revolution? Google’s engineers suggest following Google’s approach to investment and technology disruption:

Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive.

Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments? The result could be energy innovation at Google speed. Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.

Today In the United States, the vast bulk of funding for energy R&D goes to established technologies. Essentially no money is allocated to related and potentially disruptive technologies, and about 10 percent is spent on projects that don’t seek to produce economically competitive energy.

 

I would add that we should also vastly increase the investment being applied to energy tech research (and in fact I would be prepared to make an argument that the United States would be more secure if we spent a very large chunk of our entire military budget on trying to solve the energy/climate problem instead of military forces and hardware).

As to how to start pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, I have an idea about that as well: get the world off meat and start reforesting the vast landscapes that have been de-forested for livestock.

Yes, all this sounds crazy and improbable. But as Google figured out, crazy and improbable is exactly what is needed if we are actually going to try and solve the problem.

This Is What Climate Change Adaptation Looks Like

“Sure, it sorta works. But it used to be a lot easier to walk around.”

 

When the river rises to cover your farm, farm on the river:

From July to October the waters can rise at least 10 feet. The trunks of trees more than 30 feet away from the dry season riverbed show watermarks waist high. When the fields flood, the village’s farmers have no work.

“There is water all around,” said Hafiza Khatun, 25, a mother of two whose family income used to vanish for six months of the year when her farm laborer husband had nothing to do. “There was no happiness.”

But three years ago, Ms. Khatun was trained by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization, to tend an unusual source of food and income: a floating farm with a duck coop, fish enclosures and vegetable garden moored by rope to the riverbank.

US And China Pledge To Cut Carbon Emissions

Emphasis on the word “pledge.”

First, the news. The US and China, following secret negotiations, have jointly pledged to accelerate carbon emission cuts:

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

New, and more ambitious targets, are of course necessary and welcome (more detail here). But China, with its authoritarian political structure, has a far greater probability of actually meeting these targets than the polarized, climate-denying, sacrifice-averse, American political system. At least for the near term, President Obama will have to wrestle with a Republican majority in Congress that is both nihilistic and dishonest in its attempts to suck political gain from its insistence that climate change isn’t a problem.

Here’s just one recent example of what the White House (and the planet) is dealing with:

In September, John P. Holdren, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was testifying to a Congressional committee about climate change. Representative Steve Stockman, a Republican from Texas, recounted a visit he had made to NASA, where he asked what had ended the ice age:

“And the lead scientist at NASA said this — he said that what ended the ice age was global wobbling. That’s what I was told. This is a lead scientist down in Maryland; you’re welcome to go down there and ask him the same thing.

“So, and my second question, which I thought it was an intuitive question that should be followed up — is the wobbling of the earth included in any of your modelings? And the answer was no…

“How can you take an element which you give the credit for the collapse of global freezing and into global warming but leave it out of your models?”

That “lead scientist at NASA” was me. In July, Mr. Stockman spent a couple of hours at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center listening to presentations about earth science and climate change. The subject of ice ages came up. Mr. Stockman asked, “How can your models predict the climate when no one can tell me what causes the ice ages?”

I responded that, actually, the science community understood very well what takes the earth into and out of ice ages. A Serbian mathematician, Milutin Milankovitch, worked out the theory during the early years of the 20th century. He calculated by hand that variations in the earth’s tilt and the shape of its orbit around the sun start and end ice ages. I said that you could think of ice ages as resulting from wobbles in the earth’s tilt and orbit.

The time scales involved are on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. I explained that this science has been well tested against the fossil record and is broadly accepted. I added that we don’t normally include these factors in 100-year climate projections because the effects are too tiny to be important on such a short time-scale.

And that, I thought, was that.

No, that is never that when it comes to honestly confronting the implications of reducing carbon emissions. And I have no doubt that Republicans will do just about everything they can to eviscerate both the President and his climate pledge. But at least the battle is slowly being joined. And climate needs to be central to the 2016 elections, and every election after that until real progress is made.