Category Archives: Global Warming

Global Warming as a Threat Multiplier

The single most important, essentially all-encompassing function of government is to keep us safe. This too often is thought of only in terms of physical violence; you know the line, defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic… But other factors threaten our well-being. Climate change, floods, droughts, and intensified storms affect us all. Additionally, these factors can serve to magnify the risks of many others, especially military and political.

The term “threat multiplier” is used not just by what some call climate alarmists but also the Pentagon. The US military gets it.

Refugee crises have driven some countries into the hands of autocratic leaders who talk tough but at the expense of democracy. Refugees from the Middle East wars strains the patience if not the resources of Europe. The wars are ultimately political but the politics can be driven by environmental factors.

The bloody and seemingly endless civil war in Syria was preceded by a drought that drove farmers from the fields and herders from the pastures. Without work, the former herders and farmers were easily conscripted into the arms of warlords who paid them to kill not till.

The civil war in Yemen was begun over political power. Climate change is multiplying the suffering of the people. In the past, villages would store enough food to last for three or four months in times of emergency. In recent years less rainfall, resulting in reduced harvests, means little if any food is stored for periods of crisis. There is arguably no greater crisis than war.

Now, this civil war threatens to spiral into a broader war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or even engulf the whole region in conflict and misery.

The presidential election of 2016 was dominated by Trump’s call to “build the wall.” Although immigration was at the time at a fifty-year low, increasing numbers of refugees from the Northern Triangle region of Central America now threaten our stability.

Refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are fleeing violence born of lawlessness. Again these conditions are made worse by climate change. The region is getting hotter and paradoxically, both floods and droughts strain agriculture. What rainfall occurs happens in fewer, heavier events. Flooding followed by periods of drought. To stay alive in hard times, many, especially young males, turn to violence as their only recourse.

Not acting to reduce the rate of global warming will exacerbate problems across the board. Climate change itself and all the troubles that the change serves to multiply the ravages of war, famine, and refugee crises.

The good news is that there are solutions. Sustainable energy supplies that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere are cost-effective replacements for fossil fuels. Utilities and some cities here in Arkansas are adding large scale solar arrays to their energy mix. The cities of Clarkville and Fayetteville have installed arrays with the intention of powering all city functions. Hot Springs has recently signed contracts to do the same. Even the Dover School System is examining a solar power option.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Weather Problems, Climate Solutions

May is usually a rainy time of the year but this year is special. As I write the Arkansas River is rising to a historic high level. Some homes in low lying areas of Fort Smith and Van Buren are flooded and the crest is still days away. The Interstate 540 bridge over the Arkansas River is closed and some Highways near the river are closing due to flooding. Pope County Judge Ben Cross has suggested that even sections of Interstate 40 may close.

This flooding presents immediate problems for travelers and homeowners alike but also threatens agriculture, the number one industry in Arkansas. Waterlogged fields can’t be planted and this is the planting season. Couple this the self-inflicted wounds of tariff wars with China and one can see that farming in the Arkansas River Valley is in trouble.

Could this particular flooding event have been predicted? Of course not, but the likelihood of the flooding has been predicted. General Circulation Models (GCM,) the computer systems that estimate the effects of climate change due to global warming, indicate that a warmer climate is a wetter climate for the simple reason that warmer air holds more moisture. The models are doing a good job of predicting a general increase is severe weather including storms and flooding in the midwest and midsouth.

Although most Americans accept the reality of man-made global warming, we have yet to demand action to mitigate or reduce the threat. What will it take? What ever steps we take need to be done immediately and with the understanding that the solution will take a long time. It has taken a couple of centuries to increase the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by 70% but we are realizing the effects at an increasingly rapid rate.

The solution of course is to decarbonize our energy systems. Simply put we need to stop burning stuff to produce energy for industry, to heat and cool our homes and fuel our vehicles. Tremendous strides have been made to lower the cost of wind and solar energy. The next revolution which will make the transition possible is battery storage of the electrical energy. We need an immediate program, a national agenda, to support sustainable energy and suppress carbon emitting fuels.

Democrats have introduced a bill in the US House of representatives to institute a Carbon Fee and Dividend. This will both favor the transition to sustainable energy, but create millions of high tech jobs – jobs that can’t be outsourced as the work must happen here. Additional benefits include a reduction of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths due to improved air quality.

The biggest fear of this transition to a stable future is economic. The fossil fuel industry has tried to paint a sustainable energy future as more expensive but nothing could be further from the truth. The cost of inaction is increasingly expensive. The avoided cost to taking action now, coupled with the reduced costs of wind and solar versus fossil fuels makes for a bright future.

Lower energy costs, more jobs, a more stable climate, and cleaner air – the time has come.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

It’s Time for Underground Transmission Lines

What do the Camp wildfire in California, sales of Tesla Model 3, and the east coast hurricanes have in common? The answer is that currently, none involve underground electric transmission and distribution lines.

The Camp Wildfire in Northern California this year was the deadliest in the history of California. At least 85 people died, 12,000 structures were destroyed, and over 220 square miles were burned. This one wildfire alone caused 10 billion dollars in property damage. Although climate change-induced drought and increasing population density both contributed to the catastrophe, the ultimate cause was most likely a short in an overhead electric transmission line.

Several million people lost electric power due to Hurricanes Michael and Florence. Extensive damage to downed transmission and distribution lines can take weeks to replace or repair. This delay impacts the local economy and threatens the health of those dependent on hospitals, clinics, and electrically powered medical devices. The cost to repair the electrical grid damage will be tens of millions of dollars.

Tesla’s lower cost but still pricey Model 3 is outselling all other luxury cars combined. In August it became the fifth highest selling car in the United States. As we convert our transportation systems to electric power we need to upgrade and expand our electrical grid.

At the same time, climate change is threatening the stability of traditional overhead transmission and distribution lines. Storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes can knock down lines. Floods and droughts both can cause shorting of lines and loss of power. It is time to consider burying our grid. Estimates of the costs of burying the grid as opposed to overhead lines vary wildly, some up to a order of magnitude higher.

Not calculated in these costs are the externalities mentioned above. Also as is often the case, the price of modernization goes down with both economies of scale and improvement in the technology itself.

A couple of years ago a major controversy raged across this part of Arkansas over the proposal for a large transmission line designed to bring cheap wind-generated electricity from the midwest to consumers to our east. Politics, the advent of cheap natural gas from fracking, and strenuous objections from landowners caused the cancellation (delay?) of this project.

There is no question that vast reserves of cheap wind energy exist on the great plains, but the power needs to be delivered to users, most of which are to the east of the plains. Large-scale transmission lines are needed.

One project looks to the future. A 350 mile HVDC underground transmission line has been proposed to run from Mason City, Iowa to Chicago. It will take advantage of cheap wind power. To lower project costs the line will use existing railway rights of way. Major transmission lines could also be located aside highway rights of way. It is not safe to put overhead lines along highways as they present a serious collision hazard.

All of our infrastructure needs maintenance and occasional upgrades as environmental conditions change. We can pay for a more stable climate and resilient electrical grid now, or have our children pay much more in the future.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Global Cooling Myth

Those in denial about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AWG) frequently make a claim about a past prediction of global cooling rather than warming. The argument goes something like this: How can we trust the scientific community about their dire warnings of global warming when not that long ago they were warning about an impending ice age? What is it, warming or cooling? They don’t know.

The graph of the earth’s temperature between 1880 and now is bumpy to say the least, in scientific terms it is called a noisy signal. If you look at a short enough time period one can find both periods of warming and cooling. From about the 1940s to the 1970s there was a period of cooling; overall however, the trend is to warming. We are now about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 1880.

This brief period of cooling led to a number of studies focused on climate change. One significant discovery in this era was a climate driver known as “Milankovitch cycles.” This was a recognition of a certain wobble in the earth’s tilt and small changes in earth’s orbit. Whereas these cycles may have been important in past ice ages, they had little or nothing to do with the current changes in contemporary climate issues.

Another factor studied was particulate matter in the atmosphere. The brief cooling of the 40s-70s may have been impacted by larger than previous amounts of fine dust particles from burning fossil fuels. The dust actually caused reflection of sunlight, lowering the amount of light and heat that reached the surface of the planet. In fact, this has led some to the dangerous proposition of injecting dust into the atmosphere to combat AGW.

These were the discussions of scientists in the 1970s, where publishing in peer-reviewed journals is what goes for scientific discussions. A recent study, a peer-reviewed publication of course, looked at the number of publications in the 70s relating to changes in the earth’s climate. The authors of this study found there were only 7 papers predicting cooling, 20 predicting no change, and 44 predicting warming. The was never any consensus of global cooling, only a brief discussion.

The state of scientific publications now is a resounding consensus for global warming. The data is clear, the planet is getting warmer which is forcing changes to the climate. We know the warming is due to human activities because of correlations between warming and increases of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and deforestation.

Being skeptical about scientific findings is healthy. In that respect science is self correcting. Misunderstanding and outright fraud have been uncovered by questioning scientific results. But at some point when a consensus becomes clear, even overwhelming then the refusal to accept the consensus changes from healthy skepticism to dangerous denial.

Denial of AGW is hazardous as it allows some to justify inaction. The longer we wait, the more expensive will be our actions to mitigate damage. It is somewhat like a debt, the longer one waits to pay it off, the more costly it becomes. Inaction now just shifts greater costs to the future, our children.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

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.