Category Archives: Global Warming

Private Sector must be the Answer

In Al Gore’s award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth” he used the old saw to depict a real problem with global warming. If you put a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in cold water but very slowly warm it up and the frog will stay until it is too late and be boiled alive.

That is a nice analogy for the dilemma we face with with global warming. The process is slow. Another analogy would be to call it glacially slow, but glaciers are moving, and melting, at a fairly rapid pace these days. Humans and a number of animals evolved to react to rapidly occurring threats – the snap of a twig in the brush, the glint of light from an eye, and we are ready to fight or flee.

Global warming is a decades to centuries change that threatens us now, and many just don’t see the threat, a threat not to us individually, but to our future. Some are so insensitive to the risk that even if they believe it to be true, won’t react because it doesn’t matter to them personally. If the majority of us hold this opinion, we are doomed as a species.

Some governments are beginning to react with policies that favor carbon free energy strategies, but the steps are often small and can be more costly than simple business as usual burning of fossil fuels. Hey, it’s on face value cheaper and we know how it works.

On a more hopeful note is the fact that technology got us into this problem, but technology and the private sector, hold the potential to get us out. Obviously we need to stop burning fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. Natural Gas, essentially methane, is does not produce as much pollution as the others, but ultimately its use must be curtailed also.

There two ways to replace the fossil fuels, use less through efficiency and replace energy production with non-carbon sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Of the three, wind is the most developed. We currently get about 4 % of our electric energy production from wind, entirely land based. The potential for off shore wind, especially on the east coast affords considerable potential but currently is more expensive to exploit than wind resources in the midwest. Currently the cost of wind generated power is as cheap as that from a modern coal fired plant. And the costs continue to decline, the opposite of the cost for producing power from coal.

Solar Photovoltaic systems (solar panels) are sprouting up everywhere, especially since the price has dropped by half in just the last few years. Not only are homeowners adding panels to their roofs but utility scale systems are being installed. Entergy recently announced that they intend to build a 500 acre solar farm near Stuttgart. For perspective, a square mile covers 640 acres.

Until the intermittent energy sources of wind and solar penetrate to about 30% of total production, no additional back up power is needed. Essentially there is enough existing reserve power to keep the lights on after dark when the wind isn’t blowing. Beyond that, battery backup will be needed. Development and deployment of utility scale battery production will surely follow the demand.

Clean Power Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the Clean Power Plan. This plan has been evolving since multiple supreme court rulings avered that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant and should be regulated according to the Clean Air Act. Carbon Dioxide is the principle greenhouse gas driving global warming. It’s release to the environment must be slowed and ultimately stopped to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The plan seeks to lower the emissions of Carbon Dioxide by going after the low hanging fruit first: coal fired power plants. The national mandate is to reduce emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, so implementation will be spread over 15 years. Interestingly, current levels of CO2 emissions are lower that 2005 already. This is due to a combination of the recession lowering demand for power and the increasing reliance on sustainable energy supplies such as wind and the conversion of older coal plants to natural gas. Natural gas plants have always been cleaner burning in a number of ways such as particulate emissions, but especially cleaner due to lower CO2 emissions.

Realistically the country has been moving away from coal already. The cost of coal fired plants has been on the rise because of the increasing recognition of the harmful health effects of burning coal. This has resulted in stricter control of emissions other that Carbon Dioxide. These include particulates which when inhaled interfere with breathing, and toxic metals that pollute the environment and have health consequences of their own. An additional factor driving down the use of coal is the availability of increasing amounts of cheap Natural Gas brought on by the fracking boom.

The situation here in Arkansas is made more difficult because we are behind the curve when it comes to transitioning away from coal. Although the national mandate is a 32 percent reduction averaged over the states in aggregate , ours is 37 percent. The relevant measure is “pounds of CO2 produced per amount of electricity generated (lbs CO2/MMWhe .) California for example only needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 14 percent because they have already moved aggressively to sustainable energy supplies. The states have much latitude in how to lower carbon emissions. Increasing efficiency in energy production from coal plants, carbon trading, and producing more energy from renewable energy are all on the table.

In addition to reducing the risk of global warming, the health benefits of cleaner air abound. Reduced particulate emissions will reduce the incidence of asthma and other cardiopulmonary ailments. Other improvements include lowered emissions of toxic heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that tens of billions of dollars will be saved in 2030 by improvements in human health and environmental services.

The coal industry is of course squealing like a stuck pig and will sue, along with states heavily dependent on coal use like Arkansas. Their argument is regulation will drive up the cost of electricity. History has shown time and again that industry claims of the cost of regulation are invariably exaggerated. The EPA claims that actual costs of electricity will go down.

And finally there are jobs. Although a few jobs in mining, transporting and utilizing coal will be lost many many more will be created in the new industries associated with renewable energy.

Global Warming; Freshwater, Saltwater

Will fighting over freshwater replace fighting over oil? The snowpack in mountains has been exploited by humans since the beginning of civilization. The slow release of water as the snowpack melts provides not only drinking water but also water for irrigation of crops where seasonal rainfall is insufficient.

Billions of people around the world depend on melt water. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly nearly half the human population of the planet. Global warming is threatening the timely delivery of freshwater. More cold season runoff can overwhelm reservoir storage of water, and less warm season runoff means less water for irrigation during the growing season.

Researchers at Stanford have published a paper examining the projected impact of global warming and water resources, especially those related to the snowpack in the northern hemisphere. Using the average and extreme rates for precipitation, accumulation and runoff for the 30 years from 1976 to 2006 as a baseline, they then used computer modeling to project out through the 21st century.

They found that as global warming intensifies, low snowfall years will increase, and the snow melt will occur sooner, disrupting water management. “”While the greatest impacts are likely to occur at higher levels of global warming, our results highlight the fact that continued emissions over the next few decades are likely to substantially reduce snow accumulation in a number of regions, increasing the risk of both flooding and drought in different parts of the year,” said the lead author of the paper.

A second, obvious threat posed by global warming is the melting of ancient land bound ice. As the ice reservoirs on the antarctic continent, Greenland, and other interior glaciers melt away, sea levels will rise threatening the great coastal cities of the world. Sea level rise is happening now and recent data suggests that it is happening at an accelerating rate.

Based on long term measurements of tidal gauges and more recent satellite data, on average the rate of sea level rise from 1880 to 2013 has been 0.06 inches per year. If one looks at more recent data however the rate of rising is much greater, over twice as fast. Looking at data from 1993 to the present shows a rate of change of sea level of 0.14 inches per year. Taking account of the accelerating rate of change of sea levels, experts predict a sea level rise of up to 6 feet by the end of the century.

It is extremely difficult to stop the seas from rising but by active approaches to slow global warming we can slow the rate of change of sea levels, giving us more time to protect coastal populations through mitigation.

Global Warming and Politics

Anthropogenic Global warming (AGW)and the resultant climate change is acknowledged by essentially every scientific body around the world. President Obama recognizes this and has instituted several policy initiatives.

These include but aren’t limited to a mandate to increase transportation efficiency to reduce the use of oil and oil derived fuels. The new Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFE) standard will rise to over 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

The EPA is completing rule making which will result in a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants. Obama also supports research and development of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal to replace the use of fossil fuels.

But Obama will leave office in 2017 and a new president will be in charge. What will be his or her policies towards global warming?

Democratic candidates are generally are more concerned about AGW and are more likely to enact policies that address the issue. Republican candidates, not so much.

Hillary Clinton, the hands down leader for the democratic party’s nomination, put AGW near the top of her priorities. She described it as “ “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.” She also joined with Obama by saying that she would defend the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Bernie Sanders, her challenger from the left for the democratic nomination is equally in favor of strong actions on AGW. At a speech in Burlington, the senator from Vermont said “Climate change is real. It is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. And let’s be clear — if we do not get our act together and have the united states lead the world in combating climate change, there will be more drought, more famine, more rising sea level, more floods, more ocean acidification, more extreme weather disturbances.”

The current leader in the crowded republican field, Jeb Bush, has expressed concern for climate change but thinks private industries innovations such as fracking to produce natural gas will solve the problem. Natural gas, essentially methane, does burn cleaner than oil and coal; however methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Right now billionaire Donald Trump is runner up to Bush in the republican sweepstakes but like the remainder of the crowd is only in the single digits for support. He is a AGW denier. His comments tend to the claim that occasional cold weather or snow storms prove that it is a hoax. He has said little on energy policy but we could expect little action on climate change in his administration.

Just the announced Republican candidates are too numerous to include comments from all but here are a couple more.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, claims that climate change is irrelevant – “there’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on.” Mike Huckabee – “The volcano that erupted over in Northern Europe [in 2010] actually poured more CO2 into the air in that single act of nature than all of humans have in something like the past 100 years.” This patent falsehood shows where he stands.

Global Warming and Biodiversity

Global warming denial takes many forms and for a number of reasons. One factually true but disingenuous form of denial involves the claim that climate change has happened before and will happen again so we don’t need to take action.

It is factually true that the climate changes. But the changes which have occurred in the past generally took anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of years. On these time scales plants and animals adapt and net biodiversity is at least stable or even increases due to evolutionary adaptation to change.

Rapid climate change such as we are observing now is occurring at a pace which drives species to extinction. Slow climate change can be good as it leads to greater biodiversity but rapid climate change is always bad as it reduces species diversity. The richness, the real value – even economic value – of a biome is related to the diversity of organisms present.

Ecologists discuss this in terms of environmental services. Environmental services are the benefits we derive directly from our environment. Climate stabilization, biogeochemical cycles, the hydrologic cycle, soil development and protection, pollination services, and pest control are among the services provided by diverse environments.

Climate stability depends to some degree on forestation which removes carbon from the atmosphere while providing an environment that harbors much other biota leading to richness.

Biogeochemical cycles which release nutrients and build soils are enhanced by a rich biota that contribute to the process. Decomposing plant matter release substance which help build soil which contribute to more and more diverse biota.

The hydrologic cycle is stabilized to large degree by the flora and fauna. The flora provide soil stability and nutrients for herbivores. Herbivores feed carnivores. Fauna such as beaver are described as a keystone species. They enhance wetland habitat, reduce downstream flooding, and reduce silt runoff. In so doing they provide an important niche for other species as diverse as predators -wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions and any number of prey organisms like fish. The fish service the environment through fertilization for more flora.

Over a third of the human diet depends on insect pollination of vegetables, legumes, and fruit. Even meat production requires pollination of important feedstock such as alfalfa. Pollination is a service for which there is NO practical alternative.

While we are on thirds, over a third of crop production is lost to pests. Literally tens of thousands of insects exist in predator prey relationships. Invariably the more diverse the biome the more stable and therefore predictable is the environment.

Finally there are untold miscellaneous services. The majority of drugs come from or are produced synthetically but patterned after substances from nature. Woodpeckers are studied to learn how to build crash helmets, squid nerves can be a thousand times as long a human nerves and their study important to neurology. Even the study of primates, related indirectly to human ancestors, can tell us much about the evolution of human behavior.

Climate stability helps maintain a richness to our lives. Rapid climate change will if we allow it, produce a warmer, flatter, less attractive human existence. Is that what you want for future generations?

flooding

Stormy Weather in the Southern Plains

The recent wave of severe storms, tornadoes and flooding plaguing the southern plains, essentially Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas have cost a over 30 lives, countless injuries and billions in property damage. And it isn’t over yet. Some of the rain and flooding from these storms are breaking all records. One Texas official described the recent rain as “of biblical proportions”

One of the effects of global warming is more severe storms of all kinds – tornadoes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, etc. Over the following decades we will see these increase in both frequency and severity. As we continue to pump ever increasing amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat will be trapped, and more heat in the atmosphere is a principle cause of severe weather.

There are a couple of factors involved. A warmer atmosphere means warmer seas, which means more evaporation. Additionally the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere will hold is a function of temperature, the warmer it is, the greater the greater the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. Conditions such as wild fires will also increase, due to “dry thunderstorms.” Lightning and high winds accompany these events where the rain evaporates before it gets to the ground.

And it’s not just the current storms in the southern plains nor the blizzards on the east coast last winter, it is global. Although the Atlantic was rather calm during the traditional hurricane season last year, there was an unprecedented number of severe storms in the eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean nations. Again billions upon billions of dollars of damages and hundreds of lives lost.

An important point to make is that all this accelerated activity correlates with a warmer atmosphere. Can any one storm (or it’s intensity) be blamed on global warming? No, of course not. No more than any one home run by Mark McGwire could be attributed to steroid use.

The type of societal damage from severe storms varies. Flooding causes the most economic injury. Damage to infrastructure, homes and vehicles dominate the costs. Most human deaths in the US are caused by heat waves. Tornadoes cause the most human injuries.

So what can be done? In the long term the solution is obvious – quit burning stuff for energy production. Burning coal, oil and natural gas returns Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere over a few decades that took many millions years to remove from the atmosphere. The problem is one of recognizing the true costs of energy sources. What we see on our electric bill or at the gas pump only includes the direct costs. The costs of externalities due to severe weather is not included.

How about a weather tax assessed to energy sources driven by fossil fuels? The money from this assessment could be used to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure, subsidize construction of more storm resistant residences, improve drainage, and expand reservoir capacity in drought prone areas just to mention a few. Basically we should use the funds to provide for the general welfare as is called for in our constitution.

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consensus

Attitudes on Global Warming

Yale University has for a number of years operated a climate change research project. The project studies not only the cause and implications of global warming but also the attitudes of Americans towards related issues. They have “attitude maps” with a resolution down to the county level.

Not surprisingly, it appears that attitudes break out on liberal/conservative lines. In locales that voted for conservative candidates, acceptance of the reality of anthropogenic global warming was lower than in those locales where votes tilted toward liberals.

Although most Americans,63% [55% for Pope County] believe global warming is happening, only 48% [42%] believe it is man-made. In Arkansas Pulaski, Bradley, and Chicot are the only counties where a majority believe human activities are causing the warming.

Among residents of Pope County, 52% believe that global warming will harm future generations. Nationally 61% share the opinion. A super majority of the citizens of the United States, 74% believe we should regulate CO2 . In Pope county the figure is 68%. The majority opinion disappears when the public is asked about a particularly effective regulatory mechanism – a revenue neutral, refunded to the public, carbon tax. Only 44% [42%] would support a carbon tax.

Interestingly even though a majority of the citizens of Arkansas favor regulating carbon emissions, we enacted legislation last month to frustrate implementation of regulations on CO2, and our attorney general has joined with 11 other attorneys general to sue the Environmental Protection Agency’s over the regulations. The people of Arkansas believe one way but our elected officials act another.

There is a dramatic difference when the attitudes of the general public and the scientific community are compared. As noted earlier only 48% of average Americans believe global warming is man-made. Among scientists that number is 87 % (from a recent poll by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS). This is a clear consensus yet the public believes otherwise. Only 44% answered yes to the question, “do most scientists believe global warming is man-made?”

The discrepancy is likely due to efforts by fossil fuel industries to spread confusion. It is an effective yet scurrilous method championed most prominently by the tobacco industry. For decades the tobacco industry was able to put off any regulation by stating that the risks of smoking were unsure, or that there wasn’t a consensus among scientists about the connection between smoking and lung cancer.

A common technique is to covertly fund “independent” scientists who do biased work. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist who published research intended to downplay human influence on global warming was funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars by fossil fuel industries. His source of funding was not disclosed. This conflict of interest is at a minimum a violation of ethical standards.

“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect… “ Johnathan Swift

Thawing Permafrost Feedback Loop

Within the scientific community there is no argument about global warming. It is real, and it is caused by human activities. Those activities include burning fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide (CO₂.) The carbon dioxide acts as a climatic blanket to retain heat in the atmosphere which would otherwise be radiated out to space.

Other activities which release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are deforestation. Cutting trees causes the release of CO₂, if the biota is simply burned to clear land as is practiced in the rain forests of the Amazon and southeast Asia. Even if the timber is harvested for construction, there is still a significant portion of the biomass in the form of twigs, branches, roots, and shoots which degrade rapidly to release CO₂.

Carbon dioxide is only one of the so called greenhouse gasses, the major one, but only one just the same. Methane, CH4, is another greenhouse gas. On a per weight basis methane is much more effective at global warming than CO₂, but its contribution is lower as there is a lot less of it. That may be changing – read on.

As stated earlier, global warming is real, the planet is getting warmer and it is to a very large degree caused by humans. A question yet answered is how fast will the planetary temperature rise? That depends on how fast the concentrations of the gasses increase.

If there is one condition that keeps climate scientists up at night, it is a risk of a “runaway” feedback mechanism. If warming itself can cause the release of greenhouse gasses, then a feedback loop causes more heating which causes more gas release which causes more rapid heating which causes more rapid gas release…

Image from thepolicylass.org

Image from thepolicylass.org

Feedback loops exist, but how sensitive are they to what is happening now? A disturbing result was recently published in Nature Climate Change. One of the vagaries of climate change is that it is happening faster at the higher latitudes (nearer the poles) than near the equator. Not only are glaciers melting but areas of exposed permafrost are thawing rapidly. The permafrost is composed of a thick layer of accumulated biomass from the slow growth of moss, lichens, and sedge. There is estimated to be twice as much carbon sequestered in the permafrost as exists in the atmosphere.

The carbon in the permafrost can degrade in two ways depending on environmental conditions. Microbial action can convert the carbon to either CO₂ or methane. If more methane is produced the feedback loop is accelerated even faster than if CO₂ were produced.

This all starts with burning fossil fuels which enrich the atmosphere in carbon dioxide. This causes the climate to warm, which causes the permafrost to thaw which causes the production of even more carbon dioxide or even worse methane.

The only way to stem this cycle is to stop extracting and stop burning coal, oil, and methane. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken some early steps to limit burning coal, the worst of the fossil fuels.

There is no Scientific Controversy

There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the denial of science as it relates to anthropogenic (man made) global warming and the resultant effects of climate change. The media bear considerable blame in the shallow attempt to be “balanced” when it comes to reporting on global warming issues.

Reports from prestigious international scientific agencies will report on the risks, then the media will try to provide balance by citing the denial of risks touted by a very small number of flacks for the fossil fuel industries. The perception then of the public is that there is a real controversy.

To make matters worse, various state and federal agencies are in the business of active denial. In North Carolina, state agencies have been banned from using current scientific studies when discussing sea level rise resulting from global warming. In Florida, state agencies have been banned from the use of the words “global warming” and “climate change.” Tennessee and Louisiana have both have laws which relate to the teaching of climate change denial.

At the federal level, congress is attempting to pack certain scientific bodies by limiting participation by real scientists. A bill would essentially pack the Science Advisory Board with “industry experts.”
This board is mandated to advise the Environmental Protection Agency on policy issues. Industry experts with their conflicts of interest will serve to dilute sound decisions guided by independent scientists.

The only real conflict about man made global warming is political, certainly not scientific. Below is a brief listing of the various agencies from the United States and around the world that have spoken forcefully about the risks and reality of climate change. Space limits a complete listing but here are just a few:

National Research Council (USA)
American Meteorological Society
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American Institute of Physics
American Physical Society
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Academy of Paediatrics
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Medical Association
American Public Health Association
European Academy of Sciences and Arts
InterAcademy Council
International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological
Network of African Science Academies
Royal Society of New Zealand
Polish Academy of Sciences
European Science Foundation
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
American Geophysical Union
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
Geological Society of America
Geological Society of Australia
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
National Association of Geoscience Teachers
Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological
Society of London
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Royal Meteorological Society (UK)
World Meteorological Organization
American Quaternary Association
International Union for Quaternary Research
American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians
American Society for Microbiology
Australian Coral Reef Society
Institute of Biology (UK)
Society of American Foresters
The Wildlife Society (international)
American Academy of Paediatrics
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Medical Association
American Public Health Association
Australian Medical Association
World Federation of Public Health Associations
World Health Organization
American Statistical Association
Engineers Australia (The Institution of Engineers Australia)
International Association for Great Lakes Research
et al.

At the expense of being repetitious, there is no scientific controversy.
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graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard

“Whistling past the graveyard” is an old expression used to exemplify willful ignorance; more specifically, trying to remain cheerful in the presence of a known threat. It’s use here applies to those in denial about the risks of global warming and the concomitant changes in climate.

a natural whistler

a natural whistler

Denial ranges from simple willful ignorance up to and including malicious lying about both the current reality and future risks. The simplest denial is to not participate in society by not being informed about important issues which affect us all. Another level is those who try their best to find a justification for their denial. Websites abound for those folks. There are numerous sites designed to appear to be promoting free enterprise or unfettered capitalism but are actually front groups.

Those promoting active denial are essentially all guided by the fossil fuel industry. The Heartland Institute has created a school curriculum that employs numerous half truths to promote the notion that there is a real scientific controversy.

Frank Luntz has advised members of the Republican Party that denial should take the form of
pointing repeatedly to a lack of scientific certainty. In reality there is very little uncertainty and essentially no controversy. Denial ranges from sublime to the ridiculous, for example witness Senator Inhofe’s snowball show on the senate floor recently. He brought a snowball into the senate chamber to make that point that it was cold outside, hence global warming is a hoax.

The absolutely worst form of denial is that which comes through taxpayer funding. The Miami Herald recently reported that the Florida State “ DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports. This is according to “former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.”

Of course Governor Scott of Florida denies any such order. He was noncommittal when asked if the DEP plans for or even believes in global warming. He also refused to say whether he personally believes global warming is a problem.

In 2012, the Republican dominated legislature in North Carolina passed a law to the effect that state scientists could only use data from the year 1900 forward to project sea level rise and then only extrapolate out linearly. The scientists have been denied the use of the best data and computer modeling.

At the national level, the republican led House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a Defense Department funding bill: None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order…

“Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored” Aldous Huxley