Good News

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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Climate Change and Young People

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.

Open Thread

Again, I am getting sloppy on publishing these regularly…

Possible topics for discussion:

Enjoy!

Storms of my Grandchildren

I hope everyone had a fun and relaxing Christmas. Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to review for a while.

The worst part of the recent book by NASA climatologist James Hansen is, undoubtedly, the subtitle. The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity – really? That doesn’t sound like the intrinsic, subdued style of Dr. Hansen. In my opinion, it simply alienates the very audience we’re trying to reach: moderate, concerned non-scientists.

The inside of the book is much better. While he couldn’t resist slipping in a good deal of hard science (and, in my opinion, these were the best parts), the real focus was on climate policy, and the relationship between science and policy. Hansen struggled with the prospect of becoming involved in policy discussions, but soon realized that he didn’t want his grandchildren, years from now, to look back at his work and say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”

Hansen is very good at distinguishing between his scientific work and his opinions on policy, and makes no secret of which he would rather spend time on. “I prefer to just do science,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s more pleasant, especially when you are having some success in your investigations. If I must serve as a witness, I intend to testify and then get back to the laboratory, where I am comfortable. That is what I intend to do when this book is finished.”

Hansen’s policy opinions centre on a cap-and-dividend system: a variant of a carbon tax, where revenue is divided evenly among citizens and returned to them. His argument for a carbon tax, rather than cap-and-trade, is compelling, and certainly convinced me. He also advocates the expansion of nuclear power (particularly “fourth-generation” fast nuclear reactors), a moratorium on new coal-generated power plants, and drastically improved efficiency measures.

These recommendations are robust, backed up with lots of empirical data to argue why they would be our best bet to minimize climate change and secure a stable future for generations to come. Hansen is always careful to say when he is speaking as a scientist and when he is speaking as a citizen, and provides a fascinating discussion of the connection between these two roles. As Bill Blakemore from ABC television wrote in correspondence with Hansen, “All communication is biased. What makes the difference between a propagandist on one side and a professional journalist or scientist on the other is not that the journalist or scientist ‘set their biases aside’ but that they are open about them and constantly putting them to the test, ready to change them.”

Despite all this, I love when Hansen puts on his scientist hat. The discussions of climate science in this book, particularly paleoclimate, were gripping. He explains our current knowledge of the climatic circumstances surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (usually referred to as the PETM). He explains why neither of these events is a suitable analogue for current climate change, as the current rate of introduction of the radiative forcing is faster than anything we can see in the paleoclimatic record.

Be prepared for some pretty terrifying facts about our planet’s “methane hydrate gun”, and how it wasn’t even fully loaded when it went off in the PETM. Also discussed is the dependence of climate sensitivity on forcing: the graph of these two variables is more or less a parabola, as climate sensitivity increases both in Snowball Earth conditions and in Runaway Greenhouse conditions. An extensive discussion of runaway greenhouse is provided, where the forcing occurs so quickly that negative feedbacks don’t have a chance to act before the positive water vapour feedback gets out of control, the oceans boil, and the planet becomes too hot for liquid water to exist. For those who are interested in this scenario, Hansen argues that, if we’re irresponsible about fossil fuels, it is quite possible for current climate change to reach this stage. For those who have less practice separating the scientific part of their brain from the emotional part, I suggest you skip this chapter.

I would recommend this book to everyone interested in climate change. James Hansen is such an important player in climate science, and has arguably contributed more to our knowledge of climate change than just about anyone. Whether it’s for the science, for the policy discussions, or for his try at science fiction in the last chapter, it’s well worth the cover price.

Thoughts from others who have read this book are welcome in the comments, as always.

What’s Your Idea?

If you ran the world…how would you fix climate change? What would be your plan to implement clean energy? What renewables would you focus on, and how would you put a price on carbon?

Personally, I am more in favour of a carbon tax than cap-and-trade. It just seems simpler, more difficult for businesses to find loopholes around, and easier to gradually increase over the years. However, I would be happy with either of these two competing propositions…just as long as we can put a price on carbon, so that its true costs are finally reflected in goods and services.

From there, I would leave it to businesses to reduce their emissions through whatever method they wanted…no strict rules. When carbon has a cost, the invisible hand will be able to sort out the best methods. Businesses have spent centuries saving money and maximizing profit. Carbon would just be another form of currency, and we would take a fiscally conservative approach to spending it.

I believe that a multi-faceted approach to renewable energy is essential. At this point, no one technology will be able to replace fossil fuels. In combination, though, it would be possible. Lots more nuclear energy, supplemented with wind and solar (geographically suited to the area – in the future, though, a smart grid for better transport and storage of the energy would be ideal). We could use biomass from sustainable sources – algae looks quite promising, as it grows quickly, has a high content of oil, and its harvesting would have the benefit of reducing eutrophication in affected watersheds. Geothermal power is well worth developing, and in the meantime, it could be used for heating and cooling.

Continuing to burn natural gas, in the place of coal and oil, would be a very acceptable intermediate step. Collecting methane from landfills and farms would provide us with a carbon-neutral substance that’s chemically identical to natural gas.

Improved efficiency standards and cogeneration of heat and electricity could make a big dent in our energy usage, even before changing the source.

That’s what I advocate for – how about you? Leave your responses in the comments.