Category Archives: Global Warming

Climate Change in the Courts

Remember school house rock and “How a bill becomes a law?” The Saturday morning programming focused on wide-ranging subjects including civics. The video addressed legislation but there is another mechanism to “make law” or at least influence government policy. Individuals and cities or states can seek redress in the courts to force actions of government agencies when they think the agencies are acting in violation of existing laws or constitutional mandates.

The suggestion that human activities, most notably burning fossil fuels, can influence global climate has been around since early in the Nineteenth century. The connection has been strengthened ever since. A landmark decision of the supreme court occurred during George W Bush’s second term in 2007. Several states and cities, led by Massachusetts successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency to force regulation of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses as pollutants.

The case, Massachusetts v EPA turned on the definition of a pollutant. The court ruled that greenhouse gasses are pollutants and therefore should be regulated to protect the environment. This allowed the Obama administration to ramp up efficiency standards for cars and light trucks and to produce the clean power plan which clamped down on carbon emissions from power plants.

President Trump has acted to reverse both of these Obama era regulations. His actions are being contested in the courts, based to a considerable degree on the previous supreme court interpretation of greenhouse gasses as pollutants and the need for their regulation.

Another interesting case is before the court now. This case, Juliana v U.S. is being brought by a group of children ages 11 to 22 against a number of agencies including the EPA, Energy, Interior, and Defense departments. This is literally a children’s crusade for the right of future generations to live in a stable climate.

Apparently, the government will not challenge the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and the climate changing. Nor will they deny human influence on the changes. Rather the government will argue that the claimed harms of weather extremes cannot be reasonably connected to climate change.

The connection between any individual storm event and climate change is a difficult claim to make but let me use a favorite sports analogy. Mark McGuire, a slugger for Oakland and St. Louis, hit home runs both before and after employing anabolic steroids to enhance his performance. Can any one home run be linked to “juicing?” No, of course not. However, both he and Sammy Sosa both broke the previous home run record while juicing.

We are now breaking records for climate disruption while enhancing climate change. The job of the litigation will be to make that connection. If so the court should rule with the children to protect their future.

The children are not asking for damages per se, but rather are asking the judge to order the affected agencies to revamp regulations with the goal of reducing emissions of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to much lower levels than exist today.

Voting for Change

The mid-term elections are just about over with mixed results. The Democratic message was one of access to affordable healthcare and human rights. The Republicans argued for the need to protect our southern border from migrants. What wasn’t often discussed was the increasingly loud drumbeat for addressing climate change.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most dire yet. Previous reports have generally given a range of possible effects, be they global warming, ocean acidity, or sea level rise. The essence of this latest report is that the predicted outcomes appear to fall at the extreme end of the range. Basically, it is getting hot even faster, sea levels are rising even faster, etc. The pace of climate change is accelerating and the obvious response should be a more rapid reduction in the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Efforts have been made by some. Seven candidates for governor ran and won promising to support renewable energy solutions. Governors-elect in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, Maine, New Mexico, and Oregon campaigned to expand their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) . The percent capacity for renewable energy has been expanded and target dates for attainment have been shortened.

Governor-elect Jared Polis, Colorado will seek a target of 100% renewable energy by 2040, up from the current RPS of 30 % by 2020. Also with a target of 100% is Connecticut Governor-elect Ned Lamont. The Connecticut target date is 2050. The leader in concern for climate change, California, already has an RPS of 100% BY 2045. The recent wildfires in California have been linked to climate change and only serve to strengthen the resolve of Californians.

Unsurprisingly, all seven are Democrats. This reflects the desires of the party’s membership, where concern for global warming is much higher than among Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 70% of Democrats trust the science of global warming. Compare that with Republican trust at only 15%.

The climate lost in a couple of direct challenges. In ever-so-blue Washington State, a ballot issue to impose a carbon tax failed. Colorado failed to drastically limit drilling for oil and gas on state property. Arizona voters rejected a 50% by 2030 RPS, while Nevada approved the exact same RPS.

Here in Arkansas, we don’t have any RPS. We do have a favorable net metering regulation. Some homes and small businesses have grid-tied renewable energy systems. Using solar panels as an example, such grid-tied systems can send energy to the grid when the sun shines making the meter run backwards. When the sun doesn’t shine the owner draws power from the grid.

Right now the “exchange rate” is neutral. Owners of such systems get paid the same price as they pay when consuming. The cost-effectiveness of renewable systems depends on the rate structure which is determined by the Public Service Commission. Big producers such as Entergy and SWEPCO are lobbying the PSC hard and fast to limit the competition by seeking a rate structure far less favorable to small producers of renewable energy.

Trump, Military at Cross Purposes

Recently, President Trump without acknowledging the actual name of the bill signed into law the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.” The omnibus military spending bill outlines how over 700 billion dollars will be spent by the Pentagon. A number of interesting expenditures will address Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) which continues the trend begun by President Obama to ready the military for the effects of global warming.

Language in the bill calls attention to sea level rise and the impact on coastal areas of erosion and possible contamination of drinking water via salt intrusion. Currently, the Naval Academy in Maryland is experiencing increased flooding due to storm surges. The bill specifies that for any new military construction in a 100-year floodplain, the design must include an additional two feet above previous base flood elevation.

Also in the bill is concern for the warming Arctic. The rapid warming has created an increased focus on the north pole as a theater of concern. Both China and Russia have shown increased military activity in the area. Whereas Russia has a fleet of twenty-five icebreaker vessels, the US has only two. Six new icebreakers will be funded in the bill.

A recent Pentagon study discusses not only the ravages of sea level rise but also the effects of drought, wildfires, heat stress, and other extreme weather events at US bases here and around the world. Increasing calving of glaciers means an increase threat of icebergs. A warmer climate is increasing the spread of insect disease vectors which will impact military personnel.

At the same time that Congress is funding military concern for AGW, the white house continues to deny. During the 2016 presidential campaign then-candidate Trump famously decried concern for global warming and climate change by calling it a Chinese hoax, cooked up to make us spend money unnecessarily and thereby put us at an economic disadvantage. As president, Trump has acted on his belief by working to roll back regulations meant to address AGW.

President Trump’s position flies in the face of the global scientific consensus. Every scientific body around the world has agreed that AGW is real and needs to be addressed. Every government around the world agrees and has signed on to a collective effort to address AGW, with the singular exception of the world’s largest economy, the United States. Actually, we are signed on, but President Trump has expressed his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the earliest possible date outlined in the agreement.

The regulations being challenged are meant to reduce the use of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases that contribute to AGW. Regulations include the Energy Star rating system, increasingly strict emissions standards for cars and light trucks, and the Clean Power Plan.

These absurd conflicting interests, military spending to mitigate AGW and President Trump’s actions to aggravate AGW, do harm to our economy and make us look foolish to the rest of the world. Just another day in Trump’s America.

Controlling Carbon

The United States is responsible for over 20 % of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, essentially Carbon Dioxide. Our 6 billion tons produced annually comes from electricity generation, transportation, and commercial uses of fossil fuels. There are numerous strategies to reduce carbon emissions, the simplest being energy efficiency and the substitution of wind and solar power for burning fossil fuels. Regulatory actions to reduce carbon emissions can take several forms.

Carbon emissions can be regulated via a tax. If energy production by burning coal, oil and natural gas becomes more expensive, use of carbon-free energy production will be favored. This is basically a national sales tax on carbon usage. The tax rate on carbon for the desired reduction of carbon emissions is adjustable, raising the tax rate would lower carbon emissions. The income generated from the tax could be used to increase energy efficiency via subsidies, thus lowering costs. Increased transportation costs could be at least partially offset through infrastructure improvements.

Rather than use the income from a carbon tax for public works, the tax could become revenue neutral with a fee and dividend approach. The increased cost of energy to consumers could be offset by an equivalent reduction in income taxes. A negative income tax would ensure that the poor aren’t disproportionately impacted. Alternately the income could be put in a trust fund which then would be returned directly to consumers via a monthly dividend.

Yet another approach to regulating carbon emissions is cap and trade. Basically, the government sets a maximum level of carbon emissions, the cap, then issues permits to emitting industries. The emission permits could be traded on an exchange. If company A wants to expand an emitting activity, they would have to go to the marketplace and buy additional permits. Company B could profit from increased efficiency by selling their unneeded emission permits. Total carbon emissions would be lowered as the maximum emission cap is reduced.

Both a cap and trade mechanism and a carbon tax can be an effective way of lowering carbon emissions as long as they provide a clear economic incentive to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Of the two cap and trade is more complex in its implementation but can better ensure target emission reductions are met.

For cap and trade, the costs are a little murky because that is determined by the trading market.
Carbon taxes are the opposite. The cost is clear but the amount of emissions reduction is iffy.

Some will argue that the government should not be picking winners and losers. This would be a fair argument except not including the external costs of burning fossil fuels gives it an advantage over cleaner alternatives. Added costs to burning fossil fuels can be thought of as a mechanism to include those costs and level the playing field.

The chance of doing anything to slow the train wreck of global warming seems unlikely with the current administration. In fact, just the opposite is occurring. Trump has stated his desire to undo many policies put in place by previous administrations such as fuel efficiency standards, the energy star rating system and President Obama’s clean power plan.

Science Denial

The scientific perspective is that global warming is real, it is causing harmful changes to the climate, and it is caused by human activity. A strong majority of Americans believe the planet is getting warmer, and most believe that humans are the cause. A disconnect occurs however when Americans are asked about risk. When asked will global warming harm us, that majority gets much more narrow. When asked will global warming harm you personally, all of a sudden the majority disappears.

We know it’s happening and it might impact others but we don’t believe it is a risk to us personally. Like so much else, the political divide over global warming is widening. As time goes on Democrats and to a lesser extent independents are becoming more convinced of global warming while Republicans less so.

Numbers are slowly increasing over time and across the political spectrum that global warming will have an impact in the future. Not surprisingly there is a strong inverse correlation between age and belief in the risk of global warming. Younger generations express much more concern than their elders. Women are more concerned than men, and the more educated express more concern than the less educated.

Denial of scientific evidence has been around since, well, science. Denial is strongest when the evidence challenges a particular worldview. Evolution of life on earth, especially the part about humans, is still denied by a significant minority of the public. A lot of folks learn their religion long before they learn science and among some religions, evolution is anathema.

John Scopes wasn’t prosecuted for teaching the atomic weight of Carbon. He was prosecuted for teaching that humans have an ancestor in common with apes’ ancestors. This has always been misunderstood as humans evolved from apes.

Galileo wasn’t convicted of heresy for showing that gravitational acceleration was constant (his famous dropping of dissimilar sized balls from a tower in his hometown of Piza.) No, his sin was to challenge the orthodoxy of the church about the sun circling the earth. Work with his invention, the telescope, led him to accept and promote the Copernican view of a heliocentric solar system. It took the church over 350 years to admit that he was right.

Reasons for denial of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) range from simple ignorance to a purposeful deceit. Surely we puny humans can’t have an impact on the global climate (yes we can.) There is no way we could know what the temperature or atmosphere was like millions of years ago (yes we can.)

Slightly more sophisticated, but equally wrong, are some pseudoscientific arguments. One is that volcanoes emit much more Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ) than human activities, therefore it isn’t our fault. Nope, humans produce orders of magnitude more. A true, but immaterial statement is that water vapor in the air absorbs more heat than CO2 . The amount of water in the atmosphere is dependent on the temperature hence it is a result, not a cause of warming.

So why all the denial? H L Mencken put it nicely: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.”

Seas are Rising Faster

Predictions about global warming by the experts come in three flavors. First, the warnings we are being given are overblown and we need do nothing. Option two is that the warnings are real and we need to act to mitigate climate change. Option three is that scientists are being conservative about their predictions and things are actually worse than predicted. By worse, I mean all the negative outcomes are getting worse faster than anticipated.

By one measure, sea level rise, it appears that option three is in the works. The previous predictions as to the rate of sea level rise seem to have underestimated the actual rate. Scientific studies conducted around the world show that sea level rise over the past century amounted to about a 19 centimeter (7.5 inches.) Recent studies show however that the rate of rise is quickening.

The rate of rise for the 20th century was 1.7 millimeters (mm) per year. Since 1993, however, the observed rate is 3.2 mm per year. At this rate sea levels will rise over a foot this century. People alive today will oversee hundreds of thousands of people driven from their island homes in the South Pacific. Possibly millions more in low lying coastal areas such as Bangladesh will become displaced, exacerbating the problems of human migrations.

The above is predicated on sea level rise being constant throughout the 21st century. There is no indication that that is true. Sea level rise is accelerating. Rates observed today will increase in the future. That foot of rise will be happening much sooner than the end of this century. This is a real existential threat to people everywhere, not only those displaced but also to those who have to deal with the displaced migrants.

The threat is not just from submerged land, higher tides and storm surges can cause salt infiltration which threatens fresh water supplies and cropland. The rest of the world recognizes this and has begun to act. The governments of every nation on earth came to an agreement as to the actions needed, essentially the decarbonization of economies. We here in the United States, however, decided not to participate. Even though we represent only five percent of the world’s population, we produce almost a quarter of the world’s pollution.

Rather than lead the world with our science and technology in finding sustainable energy solutions, we go blithely on our way dragging the rest of the world down.

The issue is real, the science is sound, and settled. Science is not infallible but it is self-correcting. There is not a global cabal of scientists lying to us. Science just doesn’t work that way. Yes, there are occasional errors and even outright fraud. We know this because of, you guessed it – science. Let me explain with a personal anecdote.

As a young graduate student studying the shapes of certain molecules, I noticed a significant error in the data of a senior scientist at another institution based on work I had done with related materials. I contacted him and to make a long story short, he wrote back thanking me for finding his error. How cool is that? A grad student gets to correct a senior scientist. That is the way science works, if you’re right you’re right.

Global Warming – A Brief History

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, over 200 years ago, scientists recognized that the atmosphere may be capable of trapping heat. Joseph Fourier, a French natural philosopher and mathematician hypothesized that there was a link between certain gases and the temperature of the earth, when the concentrations were lower the planet was cooler and when higher, warmer.

He was an avid mountaineer and familiar with glaciers and the scars they left from their grinding away the surface. He was likely the first to speculate that the earth may have been much colder and hence covered with much more ice in the distant past. Simultaneously he posited that earth could likewise be much hotter under other conditions.

In the 1859 an Irish physicist, John Tyndall, was studying invisible “heat rays” now known as infrared radiation. He was the first to recognize that the gases Carbon Dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere are capable of trapping heat and therefore their presence, even at low concentration, can impact the temperature of the air.

Probably most important in the history of global warming and climate change is the work of Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist . He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1903. The prize was awarded for his work in understanding certain features of chemical reactions and especially for his mathematical treatment of the rates of reactions. Basically he was the first to quantify the speed of chemical reactions.

Less well known at the time was his work examining the impact of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere and the climate. In 1895, Arrhenius presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” His work went beyond that of his predecessors by mathematically modeling the impact of varying amounts Carbon Dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere.

As crude as his tools of the time were, he did make the connection that more Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere would result in an elevation of the earth’s surface temperature. He also pointed out that burning fossil fuels would serve to raise the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

Flash forward to the 1950s. Professor Charles Keeling began recording the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere first at Antarctica and then in 1958 at Mona Loa observatory in Hawaii. The data collection continues to this day and is now know as the Keeling curve. The simultaneous observation of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases and rising global temperature began the modern era of the recognition of anthropogenically driven global warming.

We also know that more than the temperature of the planet is at risk. Much of the Carbon Dioxide emitted from burning fossils fuels, about 30 %, does not remain in the atmosphere but is absorbed in the oceans, causing acidification.

The threat of global warming, climate change and ocean acidification have long been known. These threats are not a Chinese hoax but rather an existential threat to much of the life on this planet.

Climate Change, Weather Change

Climatology is meteorology writ large. They are really just different branches of atmospheric science. If you want to know whether it is likely to rain tomorrow talk to the weatherman who is a meteorologist. But if you want to know about what the weather will be like in a number of years, you should consult a climatologist.

As I write the water has yet to drain out of the east Texas area where Hurricane Harvey caused the greatest rainfall event ever in United states (over 50 inches of rain.) Meanwhile, there are three hurricanes off our shores. These are weather phenomena which are impacted by climate. Climate change of necessity causes weather changes.

Hurricane Irma is the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever. It appears to be on a collision course with Miami Beach. If it veers slightly to the west the Carolinas are threatened. Right behind Irma is Jose streaming in our direction from the east. Hurricane Katia is stewing off the coast of Mexico with little indication of movement.

Meanwhile on our west coast earlier this year we saw record flooding and now a severe heat wave and wildfires from Los Angeles to Vancouver.

Is this normal? Or is the the new normal if climate change is factored in? There is uncertainty in blaming any one event on global warming. Realistically that can’t be done. But let me analogize if I may. Mark McGuire was a major league baseball player. Much of his success at home plate he later admitted was due to his use of performance enhancing steroids. Just one example, from 1996 to 1999 he led the league in home runs.

So here is the question: Can we attribute any one of those home runs to steroid use? Not really. What we can say is the muscle mass developed due to his steroid use greatly contributed to his success.

Adding Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is like providing steroids to an athlete. The added CO2 causes heat to be trapped in the atmosphere which which causes warming, but also creates a more dynamic atmosphere. More droughts occur because it’s hotter. More intense rainfall events occur because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

Hurricanes are driven to large degree by the warmer ocean water, clearly demonstrated by the summer/fall hurricane season when the Atlantic is naturally warmer. Make it warmer still from global warming and you get Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever.

The concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher (407 ppm) than it has been for at least 2 to 4 million years. Other heat trapping gasses such as Methane and Nitrous Oxide are also at all time highs. Yet there are those, in fact whole political parties, which deny anthropogenic climate change even in the face of rising seas, melting ice, and intensifying storms.

The United States contributes 20% of the heat trapping gasses to the atmosphere, but only constitute about 5% worlds population. Every scientific body on the planet including all major science organizations in the United states agrees that climate change is a threat and needs to be addressed. Our government is alone among the nations of the world in our refusal to address global warming. ALONE.

Trump Pulls Out

It is now clear now that the current administration has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement for specious reasons. Trump will take us off the world stage, away from 195 countries who do recognize the risks of ignoring global warming, ocean acidification, and climate change.

Global warming as a concept is not new. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and Nobel laureate wrote in 1896 on the risks of continued burning of fossil fuels and the resultant accumulation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere. [On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground] The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had been stable stable for hundreds of thousands of years – under 300 parts per million (PPM). In under 200 years we have raised the concentration to the current value of over 400 PPM, 150% of the value at the start of the industrial revolution.

Despite the relatively simple physical principals involved and despite the evidence from air and water temperatures, rising sea levels, and melting ice President Trump still thinks that global warming is a hoax. He seems fixated on the idea that developing sustainable energy supplies will drag our economy down. Is there evidence of such?

Very simply -No. Germany has installed more solar photovoltaic energy systems per capita than any other country, yet they are running a trade surplus with the United States. On a good day Denmark can produce 100 % of its energy from wind turbines and runs a considerable trade surplus with the United States. Ironically, much of their surplus involves selling wind turbine technology to us. We do have a small industry manufacturing wind turbine blades, but the company is Danish. China has leapt to the head of the pack for producing solar panels and we all know about their trade imbalance.

What do the captains of industry here think? Big fossil fuel producers such as Exxon-Mobil support the agreement. Even coal companies support the agreement. Walmart supports the agreement. Of course forward looking companies like Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Apple, Tesla support the agreement. Polls shows that the majority of Americans in every state, across the political spectrum support the agreement.

The agreement that we are walking away from is first and foremost voluntary. The agreement would in no way allow foreign influence of our laws or sovereignty. The agreement calls for international goals for reducing the rate of global warming by reducing the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses.

The US goal was a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 27 % of 2005 emissions by 2025. This is doable with a combination of energy efficiency, sustainable technologies such as wind and solar and switching from carbon intensive coal to natural gas. These changes to our economy are already underway and by participating in the agreement we show the world that we care about collective actions for all humanity, even for all life on this planet.

By not joining the agreement we turn away from 195 countries and join with Syria, torn by a violent civil war, and Nicaragua, who thinks the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

Antarctica and Global Warming

Antarctica, the southernmost continent is literally the last place on earth. It occupies about 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million sq. miles.) For comparison, it is about twice the size of Australia and half the size of North America. Because of the tilt of earth’s axis and local elevation, it is obviously the coldest with an average wintertime temperature of – 60°Celsius, and summers averaging -28° C.

Interestingly Antarctica is also the driest, windiest and highest. Annual precipitation is 20 centimeters (8 inches) and most of that falls on coastal areas with the interior even drier. Ironically, although it is a desert based on precipitation, it contains 70% of the world’s fresh water as ice.

Wind speed averages 23 mph across the continent, but straight line winds of 200 mph have been recorded. Compare this with a category 5 hurricane whose winds are a puny 156 mph. Only an F5 tornado creates wind speeds equivalent to that encountered routinely on Antarctica.

One of the reasons for the cold weather in Antarctica, as noted earlier is its average elevation. The North Pole is at sea level, actual below it because the land mass at the North Pole is under the Arctic Ocean. The average elevation however for Antarctica is over 8,000 feet. The South Pole itself is over 9,000 feet and the highest point is 16,300 ft. Ice over much of Antarctica is a mile or more thick.

So what’s up (pun intended) with Antarctica? The temperatures? Well, it’s complicated as parts of the continent are warming while others aren’t. First the warming part. Both computer climate models and recorded data over decades show that while the planet is warming as a whole, the polar areas are warming even faster. This is a result of several different phenomena. Clouds, ice cover, water vapor and large scale weather patterns have all be implicated.

Ice is shiny stuff and reflects much sunlight. As ice over the sea melts the sun warms the less shiny water more. The term for light reflected divided by light absorbed is albedo. For very shiny snow or ice the albedo is about 0.9 (total reflection would result in a value of 1.0). Open oceans are much less reflective hence absorb more heat and have an albedo of less than 0.1.

The south pole has a confounding variable – the ozone hole. Essentially the reduced amount of ozone over the south pole reaches a maximum in the austral spring. The ozone hole is gradually decreasing due to international protocols which banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons. As the amount of ozone returns to normal the temperatures in the south pole are expected to rise as rapidly as in the north. As the Antarctic continent warms and sea ice melts, some of the land based, 1 to 3 mile thick layer of ice will begin to melt.

Were all this ice to melt sea levels would rise over 200 feet. This catastrophic sea level rise would inundate Manhattan Island, Miami, New Orleans, Houston and on and on. This won’t be happening soon, but without first recognition of human impact to global warming, it will happen.