Sunday, November 25, 2007

Feeling lonely yet, George?

Australian prime minister Howard was a stalwart supporter of the Bush policies on Iraq and non-policies on global warming. In recent national elections, the opposition party, led by Kevin Rudd, ran on a platform of combatting global warming and bringing the Aussie troops home - and won overwhelmingly. The US is now the only major industrial nation to support the war and hide its head on global warming. It’s lonely at the top. Or is it the bottom?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been getting Google Alerts on “Global Warming” and “Climate Change”, and the country with by far the highest level of media coverage on this issue has been Australia (and it all started with a visit by Al Gore a year ago September). The coverage has been uniformly against the government’s policy, and was notable for its apparent lack of need to appear balanced by printing the nonsensical perorations of the nay-sayers...kudos to them, I say.

The U.S. continues to become more and more isolated (despite the new French president’s somewhat wierd friendliness) under the Bush regime. And, closer to home, Bush’s inner circle has all but completely left the house. Meaning that Bush, who relies almost exclusively on trusted confidants for what little input he will suffer, is becoming more and more isolated domestically as well.

Scary thought.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


The Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) website was launched yesterday, and provides best-available information on carbon emissions from your local power plant all the way up to a planetary overview. The site is easy to navigate, results are graphically presented and tied to Google Maps, and the whole thing works pretty well (I did find a few minor glitches, but it was just launched yesterday....).

Power plants are rated both by total carbon emissions and by “Intensity” - a measure of carbon produced for a given level of energy production (lower intensity is better). In addition to plant-related statistics, you can investigate carbon emission production by company and by geography.

Not sure where you get your energy from? No problem - just type your zip code into the “Start Here!” search box, and the web site will tell you who your provider is, with a hot link to more detailed information.

For example, my energy provider is Northern States Power Company (MN), and I discovered that it has 16 power plants, 10 of which operate “in the red” (meaning, in this case, high intensity ratings), and 3 of which are coded “green” (I’m betting, based on their location, that they’re hydroelectric plants - the site currently doesn’t tell you how the plant you’re looking at generates its power). As an added perk, it will tell you which Senators and House member represent the district that power plant is in, should, for example, you want to call their attention to that plant’s performance.

I’m a big believer that if good information gets in the hands of the people, good things will start to happen. In the end, we’re pretty bright, and always way ahead of the curve compared to our fearful leaders.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sun spots and climate change

The first-ever study to find a statistically significant linkage between sunspot activity and global temperature oscillations has important implications for climate change.
First, the effect of the sunspot cycle on global temperatures was greater than previously assumed, but still maxes out at 0.2 degrees C. Sorry, nay-sayers, the sun isn’t doing it.
And we’re at the minimum of the 11-year cycle – so while global temps have been seriously rising the last half-decade, the sun’s contribution has actually been diminishing (I know, its hard to talk about climate change over such small intervals, but hey, its been really, really hot!). Forecast – global warming ratchets up a notch the next six years as increasing solar energy adds to the problem.

Second, the study provides tangible backing to one major prediction of climate models: higher temperature variability at the poles. Since solar energy is much more variable at the equator, the polar variability must be due to something else – like melting ice feedback loops.

Finally the study gives us the first direct measure of the key climate model parameter “climate sensitivity”. This parameter drives climate model predictions because it is the estimate of the connection between climate change and the actual warming of the planet. The bad news: the measured value is higher than model-derived estimates being currently used. This means that the low-end of global warming predictions are “unlikely.”

Bearing in mind that the most quoted/published estimates of the future perils of climate changes are from the IPCC’s “consensus” (read: conservative) documents, I expect that this is one in a string of past and future studies showing that we should have been much, much more afraid….

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Can we think, please?

In a column in the on-line London Times, Magnus Linklater bemoans our collective unwillingness to face up to climate change.

His case in point: the Swiss willingness for their ski resorts to continue to mobilize fleets of snow-making machines to extend their ski-tourism season for a few weeks. One resort worth of machines uses as much power “as a small village,” and enough water in a year to supply a city of 1.5 million people. Water that has to be helicoptered in. He concludes “It would be hard to conjure up a more potent symbol of environmental perversity than the use of carbon-spewing fossil fuels to help to dispose of millions of gallons of carefully extracted water in order that a few thousand tourists can slide down a slope for an extra week.”

Other examples he cites are the unwillingness of people to accept wind farms because they might “spoil the view” or kill an “occasional absent-minded hawk” and a well-thought-out hydroelectric proposal in England that was declined because “the river is used by a few dozen canoeists every year.”

His point is well taken. We can’t adopt the Bush-at-war philosophy that hard gains can be had without sacrifice. But this is only one-half of the coin.

Equally scary is our willingness to jump on various save-the-planet schemes without thinking them through, leaving ourselves open to the law of unintended consequences. Case in point here is our headlong rush to ethanol – we’ve committed billions of dollars, farmers are betting their livelihoods, and the unintended consequences are coming home.

What’s needed is between “hurry” and “indecision”. What’s needed is to think things through. There are reasonable solutions to the climate change problem out there. Trouble is, they are nuanced and multi-faceted, they require thought and planning, they require sacrifice, and they are therefore seemingly beyond the reach of our politicians.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

IPCC: Global Warming "very likely" caused by humans

The recently released IPCC report on climate change, which reiterated the 2001 report conclusion that global warming was a real threat but upped the ante on human causation (from “likely (60% sure) to “very likely” (90% sure) was remarkable in many ways. Most usefully, it was unanimously accepted by the member countries, including the U.S., which for all practical purposes moves the debate forward from agreeing that there’s a problem to what’s the solution. And the report dragged the naysayers along with it, shifting their tactics from “it’s not happening” to “we can’t fix it.”

The downside is the price the IPCC paid to get that unanimity. Don’t get me wrong, I think the unanimity was hugely important to shift the debate focus. But now we have to deal with the scale and urgency of the issue, both of which were downplayed in the report. How? To get unanimity, they excluded any recent evidence that hadn’t formerly been incorporated into the climate models (i.e. had any degree of uncertainty about it). Two worrisome exclusions: feedback loops and extremes.

Feedback loops: we’ve known for years now that the farther you move from the equator, the more severe the warming. Evidence shows that the poles are warming up to five times faster than the global average. One reason is certainly this feedback loop: warming temps cause more ice to melt. Since ice reflects 90% of the sunlight (and heat) and whatever’s under the ice reflects a lot less, a net loss of ice means the earth’s surface warms more that it otherwise would. Warmer surface means the ice melts even faster, which uncovers even more of the heat-absorbing land/water, and so on. With a feedback loop, the changes aren’t linear, they accelerate. Unfortunately, our climate models are mostly still linear, so they are no doubt underestimating the scale of the problem. What’s true is that scientists still can’t precisely say how much they’re underestimating the problem, so they can’t come up with an equation for the climate model that could get general agreement.

Another loop: the rapidly warming northern tundra is causing the permafrost to melt. Trapped in the permafrost are huge amounts of methane, a gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As this gas is released, and its being released at an alarming rate, it causes accelerated warming, which in turn melts the permafrost faster, etc. etc.

Extremes: The other great omission is the extremes. The IPCC report mainly limited itself to global averages. It’s not the averages that will kill us first, it’s the extremes. An ‘average’ rise in sea level means a lot more to an inhabitant of Bangladesh than to a Midwest farmer. A small “average” global rise in temperatures masks the fact that in the Arctic and Antarctic, temperatures are rising much more dramatically, balanced by much smaller increases at the equator. The effects of climate change aren’t going to be uniformly felt: the higher latitudes will experience much higher rainfalls (warmer atmosphere holds more water), but in the subtropics they will be experiencing much lower amounts, exacerbating endemic drought conditions.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Global warming winners and losers

In a well-written piece for the April, 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Gregg Easterbrook looks at possible changes in the global distribution of money and power that Global Warming might bring.
For example, general warming will tend to make currently the currently frigid high latitudes (think Siberia and northern Canada) more temperate. Unfreezing the Siberian tundra might make available the largest chunk of pristine soil since the “discovery” of North America (an analogy that might make Canada’s northern native peoples think…). Russia wins big on this one.
A major impact would be that the rich (the industrial west owns most of the high-latitude land on the globe) get richer, reversing a trend toward more global economic equity. A second impact would be the mass migration of economic refugees northward.
Water impacts are harder to predict, but significant changes to the Gulf Stream in the north Atlantic might plunge Europe into a prolonged depression that could have disastrous effects on the global economy at large. Melting of the Arctic Ice Cap could finally make the fabled “Northwest Passage” a reality, shifting the locus of shipping centers from south to north.
Easterbrook’s conclusions are that we need to enact laws/regulations that incent the private markets to find and implement solutions, that the cost of preventing some of these potential problems is much, much less that the cost of fixing them later, and finally, for us Americans, the current world order has us at the top of the heap; therefore, any significant changes to that order are bound to be bad for us.