Monday, August 28, 2006

China, the US and the typhoons

The devastating impact of the typhoons in China – 15 million, yes, million, people may be homeless – is a reminder that the majority of Chinese population is still quite poor.

Opponents of the Kyoto Protocol love to point out that the rapid economic growth of Kyoto-exempt China. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from China are expected to surpass that of the United States sometime in the next 20-30 years.

As well they should. There are 1.3 billion people in China. Even if China caught up to the US in total emissions, the average Chinese would still be responsible for less than one quarter of the emissions of the average American (currently ~21 tons CO2 eq./year*).

So let’s ease off on the rhetoric. No doubt, China will need to be a part of long-term international effort to reduce GHG emissions. That will mean China shifting away from coal burning and from the increasing reliance on imported oil. Sound familiar? The best thing North Americans can do right now is set a good precedent.

And yell and scream about how to help the victims of the typhoons.

* All GHG emissions reported in units of CO2 ‘equivalent’. The gases are summed by factoring in their global warming potential relative to CO2. There’s an even bigger gap between the US and China in CO2 emissions alone.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Over 15 million Chinese left homeless from typhoons

I've started watching Spike Lee's film "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts", about Hurricane Katrina, last night. This morning, I found the only wire story in the today's western Press about the recent typhoons in China:

SHANGHAI, China (AP) -- Communities in southeastern China are straining to resettle more than 15 million people left homeless by four devastating typhoons in recent months, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

The storms caused $3.6 billion in direct damage, Xinhua said, citing provincial officials in Fujian, the province worst hit by the disasters. The most costly damage was to businesses, farms, communications networks and water conservation projects. It said the central government had allocated only $7.5 million in relief funds for Fujian and neighboring Zhejiang province.

The most recent storm, Saomai, hit Fujian in mid-August, killing 441 people. It was the worst storm since record-keeping began in 1949, according to the government. Each summer brings catastrophic weather to China, usually in the form of torrential rains and tropical storms. But this year, while coastal regions are rebuilding from floods and typhoons, many inland areas are enduring their worst drought in decades.

That's about 100 000 people a word. You’d hope, with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming next week, the devastating impact of the recent typhoons in China would garner more attention here.

Where's the outrage over this? $7.5 million in relief funds from the Chinese government? 50 cents per person made homeless? That makes the federal response to Hurricane Katrina look generous.

If you want to help, the Hong Kong Red Cross is accepting donations for typhoon relief.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

60%? I'll see that, and raise you 5%

A number, dare I say a plethora, of long-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions plans have been proposed lately by politicians in the US, the UK and Canada.

Tony Blair got the ball rolling a couple years ago when he called for the UK to reduce GHG emissions by 60% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. This year, California Gov. Schwarzenegger (I’ll always get a kick out of writing that, seriously, who thought that two of the stars of Predator would become governors?) proposed GHG targets for California of 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The CA legislature is set to debate a very similar proposal by a rival Democrat. The vote should happen for the Legislature breaks on Aug. 31st.

The proposals just keep coming:
- Oregon and New Mexico: 75% below 1990 levels by 2050.
- John Kerry (US Senate): 65% below 2000 levels by 2050.
- The Safe Climate Act (US House of Representatives): 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

The Pew Center even put together a map.

The trend of tossing out big numbers has spread across the border into Canada. Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian MP and candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party, has called to reduce GHG emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. The other leadership contenders, especially former Environment Minister St├ęphane Dion and Bob Rae, are also expected to release similar plans in the coming days. It can be comical to hear Canadian politicians propose substantial long-term emissions reductions, when the more modest Kyoto goals have been ignored. Although, one could argue that the mistake by many on both sides of the aisle in Canada was viewing Kyoto as an endpoint, rather than the first step on a longer path to stabilization.

I imagine you’ll see a similar climatic chest-bumping when the battle for the Democratic nomination begins in earnest next year.

There is some real logic behind the various targets. The goal in designing a long-term policy should be an optimal path of emissions – the rate of flow into the bathtub each year – that ensures the level of GHG in the atmosphere – the amount of water in the tub – stays within a limit deemed acceptable. To use the lingo, the goal is to stabilize GHG concentrations at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference (DAI) in the climate system.

Now there has been plenty of discussion in the climate science and policy community as to what should constitute DAI. The most commonly proposals are (enough residual warming in the climate system to cause) the collapse of an ice sheet, a shift in ocean circulation, extreme or recurrent drought threatening food production, or widespread damage to the world’s coral reefs. The definition of what is ‘dangerous’ allows some back-calculating or modeling of the ‘allowable’ emissions (e.g. to 2050).

Often ignored in the discussion is the fact that, since GHGs like carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for a long time, the path of emissions over time, not just the end result, also matters. Most of the well-conceived policy proposals include a series of targets chosen with the aid of simple climate models.

It appears that the different proposals are aimed at stabilizing CO2 at 500-550 ppm in the atmosphere, roughly a doubling of the pre-industrial level. My guess is the scientific advisors in each case argued that further increases would cause the climate to warm past thresholds for the ice sheets and the slowdown of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation (I doubt corals got much play). An optimist could claim the difference between the endpoints of the various plans – 65%, 80%, 50%, 75%, 60% -- was simply the choice of model in each case.

It is crucial to set the right targets. But, in the end, designing the policy is the easy part. Voters in the Liberal party, in California, and in the 2008 primaries, should not be seduced by the candidate offers to jump the highest, but the candidate that offers the best implementation plan.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

A monday morning read

If you need a break this morning, read this short article from Hindustan Times (thanks Vaishali!) about the irony of some recommended energy-saving measures.

And if you want a longer break, I've got a game for you. Grab some provisions, maybe a headlamp, and descend down into the Byzantine network of Canadian government web pages in search of the few pages that still mention climate change. There are a few good pages about climate science left. It just takes a lot of backtracking, redirecting and illogical linking to get there. Don't fall for those plentiful links to the "climate change web site". Way too obvious.

Bonus marks if you can get to the BC / Yukon climate change page with a pile of links at the bottom. Go one by one through the federal government links. That reminded me of the experience of trying to find something to eat in Princeton after 9:30 pm.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Where Canadians can't learn about climate change

A Reuters piece circulating the regular media features a short list of "links to Web sites of governments, climate experts, environmental groups and companies with tips for lifestyle changes to cut individuals' use of oil, coal and natural gas."

Most of the links - the US EPA, the European Community, WWF, etc - contain the usual list of recommended personal actions like cycling rather than driving, etc.

You'll notice that for Canada, there is only a link to the government's GHG emissions calculator. Why no tips for personal action from Canada?

The Conservative government dismantled the climate change site. People hoping to visit what was a highly regarded site explaining the science of climate change are now told their interest in "the important issue" is appreciated, and directed to Environment Canada's Green Lane site, where the climate change page contains an Orwellian message that, as previously reported, does not actually mention climate change.

By contrast, the UK Conservative party is pushing for action on climate change through a new transportation policy.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

What we don't know

David Suzuki's latest column talks about how most of the public still knows very little about climate change:

"Recently, my foundation conducted a focus group about global warming to see where people are at in their understanding of this complex and challenging problem. The results? Let's just say they were disconcerting, to say the least... Apparently, according to the average Joe, global warming is happening because we've created a hole in the ozone layer, allowing the sun's rays to enter the atmosphere and heat up the earth -- or something like that. The cause of the problem is cars, or airplanes, or aerosol cans. No one really knows for sure."

The tone is a bit flippant, but the point is important. Those of us in the scientific community should not assume that all the headlines and all the films means people understand the very basics of climate change.

There's a segment of people working to communicate of the urgency of climate change who argue that educating the public any more about the science won't make a difference. The problem is, they are assuming most of the public has some basic level of knowledge. Unless you're under 30 or a scientist, it's unlikely you learned the basic concepts in any organized fashion (i.e., in school). The information is coming in small snippets in newspapers, on television, etc. It is not surprising that people still get the ozone hole and climate change confused. That's why we need things like the beginning of Gore's movie (that explaining the basics of the greenhouse effect).

Now, if only we can do something about the pop-up ads in the ENN page with Suzuki's column. Drag your mouse over the word "ozone", as in hole in the ozone layer, and up pops an ad for a home air purifier called an "ozone generator". Brilliant. The power of search engines I guess. They might want to point out the device won't help repair the ozone layer.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

More on hurricanes

There is another new paper positing a link between climate change and Atlantic hurricanes. The study, to be published in Geophysical Research Letters next week (available on his website), uses a statistical test called Granger causality to evaluate whether an increase in global temperatures are forcing the increase Atlantic Ocean temperatures (and, in turn, hurricane intensity) or vice versa.

The analysis is on its own not conclusive proof. But it is an interesting addition to the growing literature on the subject. For a news summary, check here.

While the evidence for a climate change and hurricanes link has grown, the good news is that the Atlantic hurricane season has been relatively quiet thus far. Most of the forecasts have been downgraded. For example, William Gray’s forecast now calls for 15 named storms (three so far) and seven hurricanes. The next two months are the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Lest we self-obsessed North Americans forget, hurricanes do happen elsewhere, they just go by other names (typhoons in the N Pacific, cyclones in the S Pacific). The strongest typhoon in 50 years killed over 100 people in China last week. The Asian media has been mentioning a possible link between climate change and an in the strength of typhoons, but like here, the coverage tends to depend on the news source (a pro, a con).

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Monday, August 14, 2006

"Mr. Cool"

The weekend edition of the Globe and Mail featured a terrific feature by Charles Montgomery on the shadowy world of Canadian climate "skeptics" like Tim Ball. A must read.

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Spreading the wor(l)d

The Climate Project, a program initiated by Al Gore, is looking to train people to deliver a version of his now famous presentation that formed the basis of “An Inconvenient Truth” to community groups. Just fill out an application online.

It is a fine idea. I’ll be curious whether it works well. There’s always the danger that presenters will be seen as propagandists. Or that, with just the one week’s training, some the presenters will not be equipped to answer questions about the science behind climate change or the strengths and pitfalls of different energy solutions. Even after doing a PhD and working in the field for several years, I still get questions I’m not certain how to answer.

The Greenhouse Network, a grassroots organization based at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, has been sponsoring a similar training program for years now. They hold informative and fun volunteer training sessions each year. The participants are expected to return home afterwards and organize presentations to local students, community groups, etc. I’ve always liked the GHN approach. It is more or less based on a training program for civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s run by the Highlander Education and Research Center.

This all brings to mind the state of climate “activism”. When I went to GHN workshop a few years ago, the goal was mostly to educate college and university students about some of the basic facts of climate science and climate change. The thought was that, like in the past, campuses are the place to start a grassroots movement. And, no doubt, there has in the years since been a push for energy efficiency and emissions reductions on many college campuses and some lobbying by student groups for a national emissions reduction policy (see here).

Still, I don’t sense nearly the “energy” on college campuses over climate change that there was over issues, whether civil rights, war or even other environmental issues, in the decades past. To be blunt, where are the protests? Whether you think protests are an effective way to effect change, or you think the issue is worthy of such energy, or not, isn’t it surprising that with all the supposed interest in climate change there are not more students are marching in the streets?

Maybe the issue is too different, too complex, too nuanced (it can be said that there is no one “bad guy”, though many on college campuses would be happy to paste a smirking Bush photo on the poster)? Maybe the people most likely to organize such activities are focused on the war in Iraq? Maybe blogs are the sit-ins of the 21st century?

Or maybe the times have just changed, and students are now encouraged to work within the system rather than to challenge the system. Just a thought, feel free to write in and tell me I’m wrong.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

A couple things you can do

Here are a couple web-based energy efficiency campaigns that are easy to join.

Environmental Defense is hoping to get one million light bulbs switched to compact fluorescents. There are already over 110,000 pledges.

Campaign Earth out of Colorado runs a CO2 'challenge of the month' campaign. This month's challenge is an easy sell: reduce the junk mail and catalogs coming to your home. It provides some tips on what to do with all those catalogs and how to stop junk mail at the source.

If you come across other "action" campaigns, let me know.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Who killed the electric car?

Last night, I went to a showing of the surprisingly good documentary “Who killed the electric car?”. I encourage other to go; it is more of a fascinating whodunit than an Michael Moore-esque attack on car and oil companies.

I was not fond of electric car movement in the1990s because, at the time, too many uninformed organizations were overstating the climate benefits of electric vehicles. You’ve probably heard this argument before: if your electricity comes from a coal-burning power station, as is the case across much of the US, charging the car will emit more carbon dioxide than driving a normal car with efficient internal combustion engine. As such, any push for electric vehicles would have more to do with switching from oil, a fuel the US imports, to coal, a fuel the US has in abundance, than addressing climate change.

Nonetheless, I have always found it curious that although some electric cars were produced by GM, Ford and others, I never ever encounter one on the road.

I actually saw a Delorean a few weeks ago. But a GM EV1? Not once.

Where did they go? The movie answers that question, and gives some insight into why Toyota and Honda are passing GM and Ford.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Tradable emissions quotas

To Manchester? That’ll be 10 pounds for the ticket, and 15 kilos of carbon credits.

As I mentioned in passing last week, the British environment secretary David Miliband floated the idea of implementing a personal carbon trading system. The idea is that each person gets an annual carbon allowance. Whenever you buy gas, pay an electrical bill, etc., you would hand over some carbon credits. If you run out of credits, you would have to buy more from the government. The price of the credits would be determined by trading on the government-run market.

The concept itself is not new. Tradable energy quotas (TEQs), also known as domestic trading quotas, were first proposed several years ago by academics in the UK; a bill aimed at raising awareness for the idea was even proposed in the House of Commons.

Most people assume TEQs would work like a progressive carbon tax. The wealthy who consume more energy could buy credits, from a government-run market, in turn, essentially subsidizing people with less-carbon intensive lifestyles. From Miliband’s speech in the House:

“Imagine your neighbourhood. Each neighbour receives the same free entitlement to a certain number of carbon points. The family next door has an SUV and realise they are going to have to buy more carbon points. So instead they decide to trade in the SUV for a hybrid car. They save 2.2 tonnes of carbon each year. They then sell their carbon points back to the bank and share the dividends of environmental growth.

The granny next door doesn’t drive and doesn’t do much air travel. So she has spare carbon points that she can sell. But she doesn’t want to be handling two currencies so she cashes in all her carbon permits as soon as she receives them. When she pays her electricity bill, her energy company builds in the price of carbon to her total bill. She simply pays carbon as she uses it. At the end of the year she finds herself better off.”

For the moment, it is only a proposal. I don’t envision the UK actually enacting a TEQ system in the near future. And I can’t imagine the US or Canada agreeing to issue necessary ID / carbon credit cards to every citizen, let alone agree to further tax personal energy use.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about the idea, even here in Hummer-land. Almost all the N. American environmental organizations promote the importance of both individual action and the market-based mechanisms change, like carbon trading between businesses, states or countries. So where are the environmental organizations on TEQs?

I’m surprised that, at least as a publicity stunt, no group has set up a pilot individual carbon trading program. Issue credits to volunteers, and get them to keep track of their energy bills, fuel use, maybe food purchases, etc. Maybe Chicago Climate Exchange, the home game?

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

More on the Dead Zone

I just returned from a mostly power-less trip to Canada (no computer, no lights, no posting on the blog), and see this news from a colleague in my inbox:

Scientists Eugene Turner and Nancy Rabalais in Lousiana report that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico has reached a mid-summer size of 17,255 sq. km (6662 sq. mi). This is within 1% of the prediction based on the level of nitrogen in the Mississippi River during the spring.

The Washington Post and other news outlets are reporting, the accuracy of this year's prediction is further evidence that the growth of the Dead Zone is fuelled by nitrogen from the Mississippi River, much of which originates as fertilizer applied to crops in the middle of the U.S. It's goof to see this publicized in the press. I hope readers of the article understand that proof of the Mississippi nitrogen / Gulf hypoxia link lies not in this one accurate forecast, but in the years of study by Turner, Rabalais and many others.

Newspaper editors love to compare the size of the Dead Zone to that of US states. Usually it is New Jersey or Delaware, or a combination of Connecticut and Rhode Island. In a nod to current events, and the power of Google, "almost the size of Israel" now seems to be cropping up.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Climate for July tests positive

The latest data shows last month may have been the warmest July on record in the conterminous U.S. Don't pop open the champagne quite yet, the verdict is not official until after a bit more data crunching, and the results of Floyd Landis' B sample.

The popular media seems almost as giddy to report temperature records as it is to report positive drug tests by popular athletes. On Wednesday, the NY Times had a detailed explanation of the how carbon isotope, or isotope fractionation, is used to determined whether the testosterone in an athlete's blood was synthetic. If such effort went into explaining things like the reconstruction of past climates from ice cores, using similar logic but with oxygen isotopes, maybe the public would have a better appreciation for climate science.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Common sense wilts in the heat

The thermostat is expected to reach 39 C today in Princeton, with a heat index in the mid 40s C.
You can convert that to Fahrenheit here. I’ve decided from now on to report only in Celsius, not out of stubborn Canadian-ness, but because it is absolutely ridiculous this country refuses to adopt the more sensible temperature scale used by the rest of the planet. Er, excuse me, sir, how many furlongs is it to New York?

There are three other aspects of the response to the current heatwave that grate at me:

1. Last week, a group of top hurricane experts on both sides of the global warming debate released statement reminding people that global warming is not the only problem:

“While the debate on this issue is of considerable scientific and societal interest and concern, it should in no event detract from the main hurricane problem facing the United States: the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions…. We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention.”

A similar argument needs to made about the heatwave in eastern North America. With near-record temperatures and many record nighttime temperatures - the second being a staple of climate change predictions - a lot of people want to lay all the blame for what happens as a consequence of the heatwave solely on global warming.

Over a hundred people died in the recent California heat wave, more deaths have been reported as this week's heat swept across the the central US, the northeastern US and southern Canada. And people will probably die as a result of today’s heat, but the coroner will not write global warming on the death certificate. Not because it is impossible to definitely attribute a particular heat wave to a long-term warming trend, but because even if you could, the deaths are still preventable.

The lack of public attention to the danger of heatwaves is the subject of a smart, short article on Slate by Eric Klinenberg, author of the book "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago" about the 1995 heatwave that claimed 739 lives in Chicago:

“…dangerous heat always comes announced, and it's fairly easy to prevent human damage. Victims of heat tend to wilt gradually, alone and at home, out of touch with family, friends, and social-service providers who could save their lives simply by treating them with water or bringing them to an air-conditioned place.”

The good news is we can learn from past mistakes. Almost 15, 000 people died in France during the 2003 heat wave, mostly elderly without air conditioning and family support. When another (slightly cooler) heat wave struck last month, the French government was ready with a heat awareness plan that included cooling stations, media campaigns and more staff in hospitals. There were still more than 60 deaths across France: hardly forgivable, but a vast improvement over the 2003 disaster.

So we’re in the middle of a heat wave. Is it global warming? Maybe, but right now, even I think that’s wrong question.

2. The radio announcer this morning suggested turning the thermostat up to roughly 25.56 C (again, look it up if you have to) in order to ease pressure on the power grid. The recommendation, coming directly from the local and state government, reflect a complete misunderstanding of the concept of conservation. If you can do that today, why not every day (hello Princeton?)? If you are releasing such a statement, why not mention the energy and cost savings of always keeping you’re a/c set at the higher, but still very comfortable, temperature?

Given the lack of conservation, the one program that makes a bit of sense is the “Peak Saver” started by some city power grids like Toronto Hydro. Basically, they install a switch on your central a/c that the power system flips on and off to help manage electricity demand. You'll barely notice any difference in the household temperature. The Toronto program probably saved the city, which has been hopeless at curbing energy use, from setting a energy use record yesterday.

3. Finally, during heat waves, the public information campaigns need to urge people to cut down on unnecessary car trips. These hot, humid days are naturally susceptible to high smog levels, people should be reminded to not make it any worse.

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