Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Obama and Chu on piecemeal climate policy

This is from US President Obama's interview in Rolling Stone:

When I ask him [Stephen Chu] how we are going to solve this problem internationally, what he'll tell you is that we can get about a third of this done through efficiencies and existing technologies, we can get an additional chunk through some sort of pricing in carbon, but ultimately we're going to need some technological breakthroughs

It is an interesting and rather pragmatic characterization of the solution. The pricing could, of course, drive efficiencies, use of efficient technologies and the development of new breakthrough technologies. But we're seeing how a comprehensive pricing scheme is a practical and political nightmare. Implementing a national or international pricing scheme that touches on a limited set of carbon-generating activities, let one alone taxes carbon across the board, has been hard enough (in the case of Waxman-Markey, you end up with a complicated bill that alienates even the supporters of action). 

Maybe people are finally coming to the realization that a piecemeal solution might actually work the best.   If we can use adopt "wedges" thinking, rather than one grand solution, to reducing emissions, why not do the same for the policy that encourages the emissions reductions?

In Obama's words:

We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation. But we're going to stay on this because it is good for our economy, it's good for our national security, and, ultimately, it's good for our environment.



Monday, September 27, 2010

Glacier melt and water supply in North America

We often here about glacier melt in Asia threatening the water supply for the downstream population. Faux controversies about a single line in the IPCC reports aside, the potential decline in South Asian water flows is certainly a critical concern given the hundreds of millions of people dependent on those rivers.

It is easy to forget that many North American communities, particularly in the Canadian prairies, also depend on water that originates in mountain glaciers. Case in point, the stunning figure at right.
The shows the model-calculated river discharge of the North Saskatchewan River (at Whirlpool Point), which flows across Alberta and Saskatchewan, with (light blue) and without (dark) blue the contribution from glaciers in the Rockies. The figure was reproduced by Natural Resources Canada from an article by Comeau et al. in Hydrological Processes.

The key change, obvious from the figure, is that without the glacial water source, there will be a huge decrease in summer water flows. The result is a more typical snowmelt-dominated hydrograph (chart of seasonal river discharge), similar to something you'd see in another part of the continent.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Response to Monkton's blustering about coral reefs

A group of scientists submitted a response to Christopher Monckton's testimony before the U.S. Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The report, available here, responds to nine of Monckton's most egregious claims about climate change. This includes the oft-quoted and incorrect assertion that "Corals came into being during eras of high CO2, therefore high CO2 is not damaging."

This claim appears every now and then. It is a good example of the problems with all of Monckton's arguments about climate change: i) it is based on an analogy, rather than an actual physical mechanism, ii) it ignores time scales, and iii) some of the "data" used to advance his argument is simply made up.

I've included the full responses from the three experts on the coral question (Jeffrey Kiehl, Charlie Veron and Nancy Knowlton) below. Their incredulity says enough.

Response from Dr. Jeffrey Kiehl

It is ironic that Monckton will accept that the geologic record clearly indicates that high CO2 leads to warm climates (thus CO2 is a driver for climate), but then uses the existence of life at these times to conclude that we need not worry. The point is that past warm periods developed over millions of years of time and lasted for millions of years. Thus, species could adapt to these changes. However, we also know that some species did not adapt. The concern about the future is that the rate of warming that is occurring and will continue to occur over the next century is unprecedented in the deep past. It took over 30 million years for CO2 levels to drop from 900 ppmv to their present levels, we are returning Earth back to this level in a mere 90 years. The accompanying rate of warming will also be unprecedented, certainly over the lifetime of our species. The issue is that our species and others will experience a rapid and large change that will have significant impacts on survivability. So both of Monckton’s arguments are flawed.

Response from Dr. John Veron

It is not possible for me to make any sense of Mr. Monckton’s assertions as they are not based on any scientific data or views that have ever been published. The levels quoted are higher than any spikes known to have existed. The time intervals quoted bear no relevance to the history of life.


Cambrian Era: Calcium carbonate (limestone) of the Cambrian, which abounds, has nothing to do with atmospheric carbon dioxide. Estimates of carbon dioxide levels at this time are not known with great certainty. There were no corals in the Cambrian, symbiotic or otherwise: they had not evolved then.

The Jurassic: There were high levels of carbon dioxide possibly reaching 2000 ppm for unknown time intervals with unknown effects on marine life. The spike immediately before the Jurassic caused the third great mass extinction. This extinction, which defines the Triassic/Jurassic boundary, was so drastic that it has been known
since the early 18th century.

Response from Dr. Nancy Knowlton

This paragraph completely ignores the fact that the seawater chemistry and the buffering capacity of seawater were very different during the times described from what they are today… The problem with CO2 emissions today is that the effects of burning fossil fuels on ocean pH first operate on the scales of decades to centuries, thus causing the acidification that has been observed. Eventually the pH of the ocean will be buffered again, but for hundreds of years ocean organisms will be affected by abnormally high acidity (low pH), and it is the damages associated with acidification over the “short” term (the next hundreds of years) that concern biologists. (see also Assertion 4)

Response from Dr. Lee Kump

One must carefully distinguish between conditions that were acquired and sustained over millions of years such as these, and abrupt events such as fossil-fuel burning that disturb these longer-term equilibria. Over long time scales the carbon cycle is balanced, and the oceans (and the life in them) can form limestone at essentially any atmospheric CO2 level. On these long time scales, rivers bring the building blocks for the calcium carbonate skeleton to the ocean; when CO2 levels are high, these compounds must accumulate to higher concentrations to overcome the increased acidity generated by the CO2, but this adjustment takes only millennia.


Monday, September 20, 2010

The second "global" coral bleaching event

The NY Times has an article on the observations of coral bleaching across the planet over the past 12 months, an subject I've raised here in the past few months.

The NY Times article calls the concurrence of events "only the second known global bleaching of coral reefs". Though the characterization is awkward and not terribly accurate, as the bleaching is not really "global", it does point to the right comparison. The spatial extent of coral bleaching in 2010 is likely to be second to that observed in 1998, which people have taken to calling the first "global bleaching event". It is no coincidence that these "global" events occurred during two of the warmest, if not the two warmest, years in observed history.

It is also no coincidence that both 1998 and 2010 began with strong El Nino conditions, which later flipped to La Nina conditions. In a simplistic sense, that "maximizes" the area of ocean which experiences anomalous warmth that tends trigger mass coral bleaching events. This year, the El Nino event causes anomalous warmth in the eastern and central Equatorial Pacific. The migration of the West Pacific Warm Pool back westwards, as El Nino subsided, helped cause the high temperatures and bleaching in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Atmospheric teleconnections may be responsible for some of the anomalous warmth in the Caribbean, as has been suggested in past studies. And as the article indicates, the recent switch to La Nina conditions is increasing concern about bleaching in the southwest Pacific, including the Great Barrier Reef, over the southern hemisphere summer.

One area of uncertainty in the science community is to what extent can coral reefs which have experienced bleaching in the recent past, whether 1998 or more recently, can become more resilient to future temperature stress. The year 2010 may serve as a great biophysical experiment.

[UPDATE: The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment is inviting divers in the Caribbean to join them in "monitoring simple, ecosystem-
level pigmentation changes in live corals and any associated changes
in live coral cover using the newly updated BLAGGRA Line Transects
protocol (www.agrra.org/BLAGRRA). Sites can be very quickly and
repeatedly surveyed by small teams of 1-2 experienced divers. A
representative assessment can be made of reefs in the area affected by
bleaching, and/or sampling can be focused on special-interest sites
(such as within and outside of MPAs)"]


Friday, September 17, 2010

Another example of the Canadian government "muzzling" scientists

From the Montreal Gazette:

The Harper government has tightened the muzzle on federal scientists, going so far as to control when and what they can say about floods at the end of the last ice age.

Natural Resources Canada scientists were told this spring they need "pre-approval" from Minister Christian Paradis's office to speak with national and international journalists. Their "media lines" also need ministerial approval, say documents obtained through access-to-information legislation.

The documents say the "new" rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

I'm always surprised by Canadian or American government efforts to limit or control public statements by scientists. Forget the logic of the communication policy itself. It goes without saying that controlling public appearances by scientists is bad policy in a democratic society. But it is even worse politics. Tales of muzzling always make it into the media. It's futile to attempt to hide such a policy in a world of Twitter, WikiLeaks and Youtube. And the eventual tale of "muzzling scientists" always makes the government look bad in the end. So why bother? Political masochism if you ask me.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Really, what does the Republicans "climate zombies" accomplish?

A colleague mentioned this list (also see Joe Romm) of statements about climate change by Republican candidates for Senate. With one exception, they all doubt that human activity is responsible for climate change.

Sure I agree with all the commentators that the stance of all these candidates is depressing. The similarity of their statements suggests that it has less to do with what the individual's actually think about climate change, than the fact that climate change has become so politicized in the U.S. that Republicans need to express doubt in order to win their party's nomination. From their vantage point, denial and doubt is the only viable option.

As such, what's far more depressing to me than the statements themselves is what those statements imply about the utter failure to communicate the science of climate change and the rationale for climate change solutions in a non-partisan way. Maybe this should serve as a lesson that years of doing things like calling people who question climate change "brain-dead zombies" hasn't accomplished anything but maybe "fire up the base" (which in itself, didn't accomplish much in the past two years!)

You can be right without being arrogant. I've said it before: rather than demonize people who question climate change, it's worth thinking about their motivation and their reasoning, faulty as though it may be. Otherwise, the water will be flooding the front steps here in Vancouver, and we'll still be having the same inane arguments.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

Drinking to save the climate

This paper in Food and Nutrition research is nicely timed with the beginning of the academic year, when new students are being warned about the dangers of too much partying and excessive alcohol consumption (by their professors and administrators, people who most likely partied too much and consumed excess amounts of alcohol when they were students).

A group of Swedish scientists calculated the GHG emissions generated from the production of a number of different common beverages and the nutritional benefit of those beverages per unit emissions (left).

The verdict? If you want to minimize emissions, pas up on the wine and go for water, soy drinks and oat drinks (mmm?). Beer and milk are almost a dead heat in terms of emissions, though the authors caution against adding beer to your cereal in the morning [update: er, that's a joke. the paper doesn't venture into breakfast habits!].

If you want to maximize the nutritional value for each unit of climate damage (the "NDCI index"), it is milk all the way. The reason is that beer and wine offer basically zero nutritional value. Soft drinks too. Alas, it's true, there's no nutritional value to high fructose corn syrup!

With UBC being a sustainable university, milk and oat drinks will now certainly be a popular choice at all the undergrad parties and faculty functions.

The exact numbers should vary by city, region and country, based on transportation of the beverages ("drink miles"?) and production practices. I'd guess the general breakdown should be roughly similar in most locations, given that the nutrient densities are more or less constant from place to place and lower limits to the production emissions.