Open Thread

Apologies for my silence recently – I just finished writing some final exams that I missed for the AGU conference, so I’ve been studying hard ever since Boxing Day.

I am working on a larger piece about climate models: an introduction to how they work and why they are useful. That will take about a week to finish, so in the mean time, here is an open thread to keep things moving.

Some possible discussion topics from posts I’ve enjoyed:

Enjoy!

Recommended Reading

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.

What Happened At Durban?

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.

Ozone Depletion and Climate Change

“Global warming…doesn’t that have something to do with the ozone?” Well, no. Environmental issues are not all the same. It’s common for people to confuse climate change and ozone depletion, but they are separate issues – although they are indirectly connected in some interesting ways.

Ozone, which is made of three oxygen atoms stuck together (instead of two, which is what normal oxygen gas is made of), is vital to life on Earth. It forms a layer in the stratosphere, the second layer up in the atmosphere, that is very good at absorbing ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun. UV radiation severely damages organisms if enough of it reaches the surface. The 3% or less that gets through the ozone already gives us sunburns and skin cancer, so you can imagine what the situation would be like if the ozone layer wasn’t there at all.

In the middle of the 20th century, synthetic gases known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) became popular for use in refrigerators and aerosol products, among other applications. They were non-toxic, and did not react easily with other substances, so they were used widely. However, their chemical stability allowed them to last long enough to drift into the stratosphere after they were emitted.

Once in the stratosphere, the CFCs were exposed to UV radiation, which was able to break them down. Free chlorine atoms (Cl) were liberated, a substance that is very reactive indeed. In fact, Cl acts as a catalyst in the decomposition of ozone, allowing two ozone molecules to become three oxygen molecules, losing their UV absorbing power in the process. Since catalysts are not used up in a reaction, the same Cl radical can continue to destroy ozone until it reacts with something else in the atmosphere and is removed.

Over the poles, the stratosphere is cold enough for polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) to form. These PSCs provided optimum conditions for the most reactive chlorine gas of all to form: ClO (chlorine monoxide). Now there wasn’t just a catalytic cycle of free Cl radicals depleting the ozone, there was also a cycle of ClO. It turns out that Antarctica was more favourable for ozone depletion than the Arctic, both because its temperatures were lower and because its system of wind currents prevented the ozone-depleting substances from drifting out of the area.

Before long, there was a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica (due to the PSCs), and concentrations were declining in other locations too (due to the basic Cl reactions). The issue became a frontier for scientific research, and scientists Crutzen, Rowland, and Molina won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work with atmospheric ozone.

In 1987, politicians worldwide decided to ban CFCs under the Montreal Protocol. This movement was largely successful, and the use of CFCs has become nearly negligible, especially in developed nations. They have been replaced with gases that safely decompose before they reach the stratosphere, so they don’t interfere with ozone. The regulations are working: the ozone hole in Antarctica has stabilized, and global stratospheric ozone concentrations have been on the rise since 1993.

In contrast, climate change is a product of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Unlike CFCs, most of them are not synthetic, and they are released from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), not specific products such as refrigerators. Rather than destroying a natural process, like CFCs do, they strengthen one to the point of harm: the greenhouse effect. This phenomenon, which traps heat in the atmosphere, is absolutely vital, as the Earth would be too cold to support life without it. Increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases with fossil fuels becomes too much of a good thing, though, as the greenhouse effect traps more heat, warming the planet up.

Just a few degrees Celsius of warming can cause major problems, as agricultural zones, wind and ocean currents, and precipitation patterns shift. The sea level rises, submerging coastal cities. Many species go extinct, as the climate changes faster than they can adapt. Basically, the definition of “normal” in which our civilization has developed and thrived is changing, and we can’t count on that stability any more.

Unlike the Montreal Protocol, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have more or less failed. Fossil fuels permeate every part of our lives, and until we shift the economy to run on clean energy instead, convincing governments to commit to reductions will be difficult at best. It remains to be seen whether or not we can successfully address this problem, like we did with ozone depletion.

Although these two issues are separate, they have some interesting connections. For example, PSCs form in cold areas of the stratosphere. That’s why the ozone hole is over Antarctica, and not somewhere else. Unfortunately, global warming is, paradoxically, cooling the stratosphere, as a stronger greenhouse effect means that less heat reaches the stratosphere. Therefore, as climate change progresses, it will make it easier for the ozone depletion reactions to occur, even though there are fewer CFCs.

Additionally, CFCs are very strong greenhouse gases, but their use has drastically reduced so their radiative effects are of lesser concern to us. However, some of their replacements, HFCs, are greenhouse gases of similar strength. They don’t deplete the ozone, but, per molecule, they can be thousands of times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Currently, their atmospheric concentrations are low enough that they contribute far less forcing than carbon dioxide, but it wouldn’t take a large increase in HFCs to put us in a bad situation, simply because they are so potent.

Finally, these two issues are similar in that ozone depletion provides a smaller-scale analogue for the kinds of political and economic changes we will have to make to address climate change:

  1. Unintended chemical side effects of our economy posed a serious threat to all species, including our own.
  2. Industry representatives and free-market fundamentalists fought tooth and nail against conclusive scientific findings, and the public became bewildered in a sea of misinformation.
  3. Governments worked together to find sensible alternatives and more or less solved the problem.

We’ve already seen the first two events happen with climate change. Will we see the third as well?

The Pendulum

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A few years ago, climate change mitigation became a major political issue. Before 2005, governments certainly knew that human-caused climate change was a serious problem – but the public knew next to nothing about it, so there was no incentive to act. However, between 2005 and 2007, a perfect storm of events splashed the reality of climate change onto the world stage.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finally came into force in early 2005, after years of negotiation. The United States refused to sign, and Australia signed on a little late, but every other developed nation in the world agreed to emission targets. Here in Canada, the Liberal government enthusiastically pledged its support for Kyoto. My local newspaper ran editorials exploring the different ways we could meet our targets, through combinations of clean energy, green infrastructure, and efficiency standards.

The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for the United States, as Hurricane Katrina mercilessly demonstrated the amount of damage that extreme weather can bring. It’s impossible to say, at least with our current technology, whether or not Katrina was caused or even worsened by a warming planet. However, such devastating storms will become the norm as climate change progresses. Scientists aren’t sure whether or not hurricanes will become more frequent in a warming world, but the average hurricane is expected to become stronger and more damaging, and we are already beginning to see this rise in storm intensity. Katrina gave us an example of what we can expect from climate change – even if it wasn’t a direct effect in itself – and the world was shocked by the suffering that ensued.

2006 marked the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. For scientists studying climate, the film was an admirable, up-to-date example of science communication, albeit with a few minor errors and oversimplifications. However, for citizens new to the issue (I particularly remember my classmates in grade 9 social studies discussing the film), An Inconvenient Truth was a disturbing reality check – scarier than any horror movie, because it was real.

The major scientific event of 2007 was a drastic, unexpected drop in Arctic summer sea ice. That season’s melt was exacerbated by coincidental weather conditions, so the next years weren’t quite as bad, but the trend was still worrying, to say the least. The research community had assumed that summer ice would stick around for at least a century, but this timescale was soon halved and quartered as ice melt exceeded even the worst projections.

By 2007, lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election was underway, and political awareness of climate change was obvious. It was no surprise that Democrat Barack Obama had ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but even the Republicans seemed to be on board. During his time in office, George W. Bush had insisted that, since climate change could be natural, any mitigating action was not worth the economic risk. Republican presidential candidates seemed to realize that continuing to adopt this attitude would be political suicide. The most extreme example, John McCain, who would eventually win the Republican presidential nomination, had emissions targets only slightly less extensive than Obama’s. As he said in 2007,

The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God’s creation…The problem isn’t a Hollywood invention nor is doing something about it a vanity of Cassandra like hysterics. It is a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge.

However, McCain, once an author of a bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would soon completely change his stance. By 2010, he was asserting that cap-and-trade legislation was unnecessary and carbon dioxide posed no harm to the American people. He even went so far as to question the political motivations of science he once wholly accepted:

I think [global warming is] an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There’s great questions about it that need to be resolved.

The story of John McCain isn’t too surprising. Politicians frequently base their statements on public sentiment rather than personal opinion. They say what people want to hear, rather than what they truly believe is important. This aspect of our political system is depressing, but persistent. The real question, though, regards what changed public sentiment so quickly. Why did politicians like McCain feel compelled to denounce the importance of action on this problem, or even the existence of the problem itself? What happened since 2007 that made the pendulum swing so far in the other direction?

Strike one was the economy. The global recession that began in 2008 was the largest since the Great Depression, and concern for all other problems promptly went down the drain. It’s understandable for citizens to not worry about the environment when they don’t even have the means to feed and clothe their children properly. However, for governments to not realize the long-term economic implications of allowing climate change to continue, along with the potential job-creating benefits of a new energy economy, was disappointing, even though it wasn’t surprising.

Strike two was the all-out war on climate science, spearheaded by the fossil fuel industry and the far right. This PR campaign has been underway since the early 1990s, but was kicked up a notch just over a year ago. Since public understanding of the causes and effects of global warming was growing, and the science was becoming more solid by the month, the PR tactics changed. Instead of attacking the science, they attacked the integrity of the scientists. The most extreme example occurred in November 2009, when private correspondence between top climate researchers was stolen, spread on the Internet, and spun in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientists’ motives. This event, known as “Climategate”, spurred a great deal of anger among the political right, and everything from bitter editorials to death threats against scientists ensued. Perhaps most distressingly, by the time investigations found that the scientists involved were innocent, and the reality of climate change untouched, Climategate was old news and media outlets failed to adequately follow up on the story. Citizens heard the accusations, but not the exonerations, so political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions slipped even further.

Strike three – well, there has been no strike three, and a good thing too. Strikes one and two were so bad that some are hoping the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how the situation could get worse. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year, and the Copenhagen meetings failed to create a replacement. As it was, many developed nations failed to meet their targets, and the Canadian government backed out completely.

The possibility of federal climate legislation for the United States is laughable now that not a single Republican Senator thinks action is necessary, and most doubt the reality of the problem, choosing to believe that the entire scientific community is out to lunch and/or an agent of conspiracy. President Obama’s director of climate policy, Carol Browner, recently left her position, although none of her major goals had been met. Obama’s recent State of the Union address included lots of hopeful statements about clean energy, but absolutely no mention of climate change, as if merely acknowledging the most pressing reason for a new energy economy would be political suicide. The time-honoured tradition of saying what the public wants to hear has even reached Obama, the man who promised change.

In Canada, legislation to simply set targets for emission reduction passed the House of Commons (made of elected representatives), but the Senate (composed of appointed politicians) chose to use their newfound Conservative majority to strike down the bill with no debate whatsoever, in a blatantly undemocratic move that has not happened since the 1930s. The Canadian government is all for a new energy economy, but not one based on environmental and social responsibility. The Alberta tar sands, which are substantially more polluting and carbon-intensive than traditional oil, continue to expand, and both federal and provincial governments are worryingly enthusiastic.

From 2005 to 2007, politics was high on promises of mitigation, but low on delivery. Since then, it has been devoid of both. It’s starting to seem as if it will take a major global disaster that can be unquestionably tied to climate change for governments to get their act together.

This would all be very well if there was no lag time between cause and effect in the climate system, but it doesn’t work that way. It takes several decades for all the warming in the pipeline to show up. If we waited until climate change became unbearable, and then cut off our emissions completely, the situation would still get worse for decades before it stabilized.

The worldwide failure of governments to take action on climate change is baffling. It seems that the best they can do is occasionally promise to fix the problem, but never actually get started. If this continues for much longer, we’re all going to pay the price for their mistakes – and so will people for generations to come.

All Is Not Lost

I really enjoyed reading two recent polls conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication. In particular, the results made me wonder why the US government still hasn’t passed a climate bill.

For example, US presidents have been saying for over a decade that it is unfair to force their industries to reduce emissions if developing countries do not have similar targets. However, only 8% of American adults share this view, and 65% believe that “the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.” 77% agree that CO2 should be regulated, and 65% would like to see an international treaty signed.

The only solution which had less than 50% support was a tax on gasoline, even if it was revenue-neutral: offset by a decrease in income tax rates. This opposition can’t really be a case of people worrying about money. In this hypothetical situation, taxes aren’t being increased – they’re just being moved around, in a way that actually gives people more control over how much they are charged. Perhaps the public would prefer a more laissez-faire approach, or perhaps they had a knee-jerk reaction to the word “tax”. It’s not like the revenue-neutral aspect of this solution is well-known to most.

When the poll was broken down by political party, there were some surprising results that ran contrary to what one hears in the halls of Congress. 64% of Republicans support regulating CO2. Only 30% think that protecting the environment reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Overall, the poll showed very strong support among Americans for action that still hasn’t happened, largely because a very vocal minority has had a disproportionate influence on the policy debate. If there was a referendum today, Kyoto targets and the cap-and-trade bill would pass with flying colours.

This support was even more interesting when compared to the questions regarding science. Only 61% of Americans think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is due to human activities. 45% think “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”, and only 34% were aware of the existing consensus.

The discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and support for mitigation shows that Americans, in general, practice risk management when it comes to climate change. Even if they’re not sure whether or not there is a problem, they understand what is at risk, and are willing to take action to prevent major consequences. Greg Craven, you got your wish.

I think that the misconception of a voracious scientific debate, apart from being perpetrated by the media, stems partly from the fact that most of the public lacks the experience to distinguish between scientific and quasi-scientific debates. Competing hypotheses, published in leading journals, seen as the frontier of the field….that’s a scientific debate. Editorials, written by anyone other than a scientist publishing in the field, claiming to refute an overwhelming consensus? Can’t even come close. However, I suspect that many would categorize the second as “scientific debate”, simply because it’s their only encounter with science.

All is not lost, though. 81% of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about global warming. That’s more than they trust any other source that was mentioned in the question. And 20%, 27%, and 29% say that they need a lot more, some more, or a little more information, respectively. Maybe all that needs to happen is for us to speak louder – because people are ready and willing to listen.