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Archive for the ‘Mitigation and Policy’ Category

You may have already heard that carbon dioxide concentrations have surpassed 400 ppm. The most famous monitoring station, Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, reached this value on May 9th. Due to the seasonal cycle, CO2 levels began to decline almost immediately thereafter, but next year they will easily blow past 400 ppm.

Of course, this milestone is largely arbitrary. There’s nothing inherently special about 400 ppm. But it’s a good reminder that while we were arguing about taxation, CO2 levels continued to quietly tick up and up.


In happier news, John Cook and others have just published the most exhaustive survey of the peer-reviewed climate literature to date. Read the paper here (open access), and a detailed but accessible summary here. Unsurprisingly, they found the same 97% consensus that has come up over and over again.

Cook et al read the abstracts of nearly 12 000 papers published between 1991 and 2011 – every single hit from the ISI Web of Science with the keywords “global climate change” or “global warming”. Several different people categorized each abstract, and the authors were contacted whenever possible to categorize their own papers. Using several different methods like this makes the results more reliable.

Around two-thirds of the studies, particularly the more recent ones, didn’t mention the cause of climate change. This is unsurprising, since human-caused warming has been common knowledge in the field for years. Similarly, seismology papers don’t usually mention that plate tectonics cause earthquakes, particularly in the abstracts where space is limited.

Among the papers which did express a position, 97.1% said climate change was human-caused. Again, unsurprising to anyone working in the field, but it’s news to many members of the public. The study has been widely covered in the mainstream media – everywhere from The Guardian to The Australian – and even President Obama’s Twitter feed.


Congratulations are also due to Andrew Weaver, my supervisor from last summer, who has just been elected to the British Columbia provincial legislature. He is not only the first-ever Green Party MLA in BC’s history, but also (as far as I know) the first-ever climate scientist to hold public office.

Governments the world over are sorely in need of officials who actually understand the problem of climate change. Nobody fits this description better than Andrew, and I think he is going to be great. The large margin by which he won also indicates that public support for climate action is perhaps higher than we thought.


Finally, my second publication came out this week in Climate of the Past. It describes an EMIC intercomparison project the UVic lab conducted for the next IPCC report, which I helped out with while I was there. The project was so large that we split the results into two papers (the second of which is in press in Journal of Climate). This paper covers the historical experiments – comparing model results from 850-2005 to observations and proxy reconstructions – as well as some idealized experiments designed to measure metrics such as climate sensitivity, transient climate response, and carbon cycle feedbacks.

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The term “fossil fuels” is a very large umbrella. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the usual distinctions, but there’s also unconventional oil (such as the Alberta tar sands) and unconventional gas (such as shale gas from fracking). “Unconventional” means that the fuel is produced in a roundabout way that’s less efficient and takes more energy than regular fuel. For example, oil in northern Alberta is mixed with sand and tar that’s difficult to remove. As global supplies of conventional oil and gas decline, unconventional fuels are making up a growing segment of the petroleum market.

The different types of fossil fuels are present in different amounts in the ground. Also, for each unit of energy we get from burning them, they will release different amounts of carbon emissions. Given these variables, here’s an interesting question: how much global warming would each type of fuel cause if we burned every last bit of it?

A few weeks ago, a new study addressed this question in one of the world’s top scientific journals. Neil Swart, a Ph.D. student from the University of Victoria, as well as his supervisor Andrew Weaver, one of Canada’s top climate scientists, used existing data to quantify the warming potential for each kind of fossil fuel. Observations show the relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change to be approximately linear, so they didn’t need to use a climate model – a back-of-the-envelope calculation was sufficient. Also, since both of the authors are Canadian, they were particularly interested in how burning the Alberta tar sands would contribute to global warming.

Swart and Weaver calculated that, if we burned every last drop of the tar sands, the planet would warm by about 0.36°C. This is about half of the warming that’s been observed so far. If we only burned the parts of the tar sands proven to be economically viable, that number drops to 0.03°C. If we don’t expand drilling any further, and stick to the wells that already exist, the world would only warm by 0.01°C, which is virtually undetectable.

Conventional oil and natural gas would each cause similarly small amounts of warming, if the respective global supplies were burned completely. Unconventional natural gas would cause several times more warming – even though it’s cleaner-burning than coal and oil, there’s a lot of it in the ground.

The real game-changer, though, is coal. If we burned all the coal in the ground, the world would warm by a staggering 15°C. There’s a large uncertainty range around this number, though, because the linear relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change breaks down under super-high emission levels. The warming could be anywhere from 8°C to 25°C. In the context of previous climate changes, it’s hard to overemphasize just how dramatic a double-digit rise in average temperatures would be.

The main reason why the warming potential of coal is so high is because there’s so much of it. The Alberta tar sands are a huge resource base, but they’re tiny in comparison to global coal deposits. Also, coal is more polluting than any kind of oil: if you powered a lightbulb for one hour using coal, you would produce about 30% more CO2 emissions than if you ran it using conventional oil.

The tar sands are more polluting than regular oil, but exactly how much more is a very difficult question to answer. The end product that goes into your car at the gas station is essentially the same, but the refining process takes more energy. You can supply the extra energy in many different ways, though: if you use coal, tar sands become much more polluting than regular oil; if you use renewable energy that doesn’t emit carbon, tar sands are about the same. The authors didn’t include these extra emissions in their study, but they did discuss them in a supplementary document, which estimated that, in an average case, tar sands cause 17% more emissions than regular oil. Taking this into account, the tar sands would cause 0.42°C of warming if they were burned completely, rather than 0.36°C.

Therefore, headlines like “Canada’s oil sands: Not so dirty after all” are misleading. Canada’s oil sands are still very dirty. There just isn’t very much of them. If we decide to go ahead and burn all the tar sands because they only cause a little bit of warming, the same argument could be used for every individual coal plant across the world. Small numbers add up quickly.

The authors still don’t support expansion of the tar sands, or construction of pipelines like the Keystone XL. “While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally,” Andrew Weaver writes, “the tarsands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.” Nationally, tar sands are a major climate issue, because they enable our addiction to fossil fuels and create infrastructure that locks us into a future of dirty energy. Also, a myriad of other environmental and social problems are associated with the tar sands – health impacts on nearby First Nations communities, threats to iconic species such as the woodland caribou, and toxic chemicals being released into the air and water.

Tar sands are slightly preferable to coal, but clean energy is hugely preferable to both. In order to keep the climate crisis under control, we need to transition to a clean energy economy as soon as possible. From this viewpoint, further development of the tar sands is a step in the wrong direction.

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A lot of great articles reflecting on the Durban talks have come out in the past few weeks, particularly in the mainstream media. Some of my favourites are Globe and Mail articles by Thomas Homer-Dixon and Jeffrey Simpson, The Economist writing that climate change, in the long run, will be more important than the economy, and George Monbiot on how much money we spend bailing out banks while complaining that cutting carbon emissions is too expensive.

Share your thoughts, and other articles you like, in the comments.

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Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Following the COP17 talks in Durban, South Africa – the latest attempt to create a global deal to cut carbon emissions and solve global warming – world leaders claimed they had “made history”, calling the conference “a great success” that had “all the elements we were looking for”.

So what agreement did they all come to, that has them so proud? They agreed to figure out a deal by 2015. As James Hrynyshyn writes, it is “a roadmap to a unknown strategy that may or may not produce a plan that might combat climate change”.

Did I miss a meeting? Weren’t we supposed to figure out a deal by 2010, so it could come into force when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012? This unidentified future deal, if it even comes to pass, will not come into force until 2020 – that’s 8 years of unchecked global carbon emissions.

At COP15 in Copenhagen, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The German Advisory Council on Global Change crunched the numbers and discovered that the sooner we start reducing emissions, the easier it will be to attain this goal. This graph shows that if emissions peak in 2011 we have a “bunny slope” to ride, whereas if emissions peak in 2020 we have a “triple black diamond” that’s almost impossible, economically. (Thanks to Richard Sommerville for this analogy).

If we stay on the path that leaders agreed on in Durban, emissions will peak long after 2020 – in the best case scenario, they will only start slowing in 2020. If the triple black diamond looks steep, imagine a graph where emissions peak in 2030 or 2040 – it’s basically impossible to achieve our goal, no matter how high we tax carbon or how many wind turbines we build.

World leaders have committed our generation to a future where global warming spins out of our control. What is there to celebrate about that?

However, we shouldn’t throw our hands in the air and give up. 2 degrees is bad, but 4 degrees is worse, and 6 degrees is awful. There is never a point at which action is pointless, because the problem can always get worse if we ignore it.

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Two events to celebrate today:

First, the Australian Parliament passed a carbon tax last week. Although it is relatively weak (oil for cars is exempt, and most emission permits are given out for free), it gets the country off the ground, and will hopefully strengthen in the future. It will be interesting to watch the effectiveness of this tax compared to cap-and-trade systems in other countries.

Additionally, income taxes have been reworked to offset the revenue from the carbon tax, to the point where most households, particularly low-income ones, will benefit financially. So much for “the new Dark Age”!

Secondly, Obama has delayed a decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the 2012 elections, due to environmental concerns with the planned pipeline route. A few months ago, it was fully expected that Obama would approve the pipeline by the end of the year, but opposition from scientists, Nobel Laureates, environmental organizations, and most of Nebraska seems to have tipped the scales.

Canadian coverage of Obama’s announcement is both amusing and infuriating. I read the Globe and Mail, which I would describe as fiscally conservative but socially liberal (really, I just read it because its science coverage is substantially more accurate ahead than my local newspaper). The Globe and Mail seems to define Canada as the tar sands industry and nothing else. Check out this article: a decision regarding a single Canadian oil company is now “a setback for Canada-U.S. relations“, to the point where “Canada is going to have to diversify away from the United States, not just in energy but in everything else we can“, because “they don’t treat us as nicely as their self-interest suggests they should“. And finally, “Canada’s challenge is to ensure other potential markets for Alberta’s crude are not hobbled by the same anti-oil-sands forces“.

Canada’s challenge? How is international anti-environmental lobbying anything but the industry’s challenge? Canada includes millions of young people who will grow up to face the consequences of climate change, millions of Aboriginals whose lives and livelihoods have been damaged by tar sands extraction, and millions of citizens already opposed to the industry. To ignore all of these groups, and to imply that Canada is the oil industry, is frankly quite insulting.

I am a Canadian, and I don’t want this fundamentally unethical industry to define my country. TransCanada’s interests are not necessarily Canada’s interests, and Canada-U.S. relations do not revolve around this single sector of the economy. Maybe the Canadian government doesn’t see this yet, but the American government seems to.

Between Australia and the United States, is the tide turning? Is the pendulum swinging? I’m not sure, but I think I will take advantage of these two small reasons for hope.

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Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

What is the most important policy issue facing today’s young people? Climate change might not seem like an obvious contender, as it feels so distant. Indeed, the majority of impacts from global warming have yet to come. But the magnitude and extent of those impacts are being determined right now. Only today’s young people will still be around to witness the effects of today’s actions.

Many people see climate change as just another environmental issue that will only impact the polar bears and coral reefs. In fact, it’s far more wide-reaching than that. An increase of only a few degrees in average global temperature will affect human systems of all kinds: agriculture, public health, economics, and infrastructure, just to name a few.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top scientists studying global warming, says that significant changes in global temperature can be expected within the lifetimes of young people alive today – “somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.” It might sound like a small change, until you look back at the history of the Earth’s climate and realize that the last ice age was only around 5 degrees Celsius cooler than today. Additionally, the rate of warming (which is the more important metric for the ability of species, including people, to adapt) is higher today than it has been at any time for at the least the past 55 million years. Human technology has far surpassed the natural forces in the climate system, to the point where significant future warming is inevitable. In fact, says Schmidt, the climate system “hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate.”

However, the future is still quite malleable. Two degrees of warming is bad, but five degrees is far worse, and the difference between the two ends of the spectrum will depend on what we decide to do about the problem. Since our emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are causing global warming, the solution is self-evident: cut our emissions, as quickly as we can reasonably do so. Implementing this solution is not so simple, as fossil fuels are currently highly integrated into the global economy. Luckily, free-market mechanisms exist which alter the price signals of fossil fuels to better reflect the damage they cause. A revenue-neutral carbon tax, which is offset by reductions in income taxes or paid back evenly to the public as a dividend, is one solution; a cap-and-trade program, which treats carbon emissions like a currency, is another. While virtually nothing has been done in North America to cut emissions, the rest of the developed world has made a pretty good start.

Here in North America, the outlook for action is somewhat bleak. In the United States, says Schmidt, many people “perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests…they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists.” The Republican Party has adopted this strategy of denial, to the point where top presidential candidates such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry truly believe that climate change is a hoax scientists cooked up to get grant money. The Democrats largely accept the science, but after nearly a full term in office, President Barack Obama hasn’t made any progress on the cap-and-trade program he promised upon his election. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said that he will follow whatever actions the United States takes, or does not take, on climate change policy.

It seems that action necessary to mitigate global warming won’t be taken unless citizens demand it. Otherwise, emissions will likely continue unabated until the problem is too severe to ignore any longer – and even then, the situation will get worse for decades while the climate system catches up. “No action,” says Schmidt, “is a decision in and of itself.”

What decision, then, will we make? Will we get our act together in time to keep the warming at a tolerable level? Or will we choose to let it spiral out of control? Will future societies look back on us with resentment, or with admiration? Remember, you and I are part of those future societies. But we are also part of today’s.

Thousands of years from now, it won’t matter what the US deficit was in 2011, or which nations went to war with each other, or how much we invested in higher education. These issues matter a great deal to people today, but they are very transient, like many aspects of human systems. Climate change, though, will alter the earth on a geological timescale. It will take the planet around one hundred thousand years to undo what we are doing. We are leaving behind a very unfortunate legacy to the entirety of future human civilization, and all life on Earth – a legacy that is being shaped as you read this; a legacy that we could largely avoid if we chose to.

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Apologies for the few weeks of silence. Moving cities again, combined with the beginning of a new term, meant hardly any writing time! I should be back into a regular routine now, though. Enjoy.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama seemed serious about climate change action. He promised an 80% reduction in American greenhouse gas emissions by 2050: a target which, if reached, would go a long way in solving global warming. Therefore, when he won the election, citizens concerned about climate change cheered the world over. “We will restore science to its rightful place,” Obama said following his inauguration. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories…All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

This cheery picture of a renewable energy economy is about as far away as one can get from the energy source Obama is now considering supporting: tar sands. Concentrated in Western Canada, the tar sands are an unconventional, and very dirty, form of oil. They produce more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy than regular petroleum – in fact, if you take transport and refinery into account, they’re slightly worse than coal. If we aggressively develop the tar sands, we will have no hope of stabilizing climate change at a reasonable level.

The problems don’t end there. Extraction and refinement takes over an incredible amount of land that would otherwise serve as vital habitat for wildlife. Additionally, tar sands are loaded with toxic substances such as heavy metals, which are removed during the refinement process. These byproducts inevitably leach into the water system, endangering the health of nearby First Nations communities and the viability of entire ecosystems in the boreal forest.

In my opinion, this is Canada’s most shameful practice. A short-term spike in jobs will lead to centuries of social, environmental, and economic damage. Sadly, many of our politicians think this trade-off is acceptable.

Now, industry is hoping for an American partnership in tar sand development. The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would run all the way from Alberta to Texas, so tar could be refined in the US. Imagine the habitat destruction and pollution required to construct this pipeline. Imagine the consequences of a leak in the pipe. And imagine how much more of the tar sands will get dug up and burned if there is a demand from the US.

Luckily, this pipeline requires special permission from the president in order to be built. There is no deadlock in Congress to worry about; no concessions to make for the Tea Party. It’s all down to Obama. Will he keep his campaign promises?

How could someone promise to “restore science to its rightful place” while making decisions that every line of science predicts will endanger our future? How could someone make specific goals and targets, then turn around and take actions that guarantee these goals will fail? If the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved, it won’t be by the Obama we knew in 2008.

350.org, a nonprofit climate change action group, is coordinating a movement pressuring Obama to reject the pipeline. It includes typical lobbying efforts, including a petition signed by over 600 000 people, but is centered on a two week stretch of civil disobedience. Waves of volunteers formed a peaceful sit-in on White House property, and were willing to get arrested to draw attention to the issue. As of the sit-in’s conclusion on September 3rd, a total of 1,252 people had been arrested, including top climate scientist James Hansen, environmental journalist Bill McKibben, and author Naomi Klein.

Others condemned the pipeline at more of a distance. Recently, nine Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, wrote to Obama, pleading with him to reject the proposal. Youth leaders from the PowerShift conferences threw in their support. Unsurprisingly, Al Gore denounced the pipeline, calling it an “enormous mistake”.

Is civil disobedience the answer? Will it build up the movement, or polarize it? If governments don’t listen to letters, why would they pay attention to protests? But if they don’t listen to this, why should we trust them at all?

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