Worrying about the near term

Much is being made of a new paper in Nature Geoscience in which the authors recalculate “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 °C.” Whether the authors are justified in their marginally optimistic conclusions — and there’s plenty of debate about that — there really isn’t much in the way of policy guidance here. Just look at this money quote in Nature:

“The Paris goal of 1.5 °C is not impossible — it’s just very, very difficult,” says lead author Richard Millar, a climate researcher at the University of Oxford, UK.

Or as Millar and his colleagues put in in their abstract:

Hence, limiting warming to 1.5°C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation.

Yes, well. Ahem. “Challengingly deep” isn’t exactly cause for breaking out the champagne, now, is it? But there is a policy lesson hiding elsewhere in this paper, regardless of just how mind-bendingly difficult it will be to keep temperatures and sea-level rise to manageable levels.  What Millar et al. did was delve into the tricky world of short-term climate projections, which rely a heck of a lot on economic and technology factors.

The Nature story addresses the problem at the end.

Uncertainty about the details of humanity’s carbon budget don’t matter so much when scientists are modelling the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases over the course of centuries. But fine details matter a great deal when researchers are looking at what level of greenhouse-gas emissions would bump warming to 1.5 °C, because, in that case, scientists’ goal is to tease out the precise effects of heat-trapping gases over a few decades.

“When we start thinking about really ambitious mitigation goals in the really near term, everything starts to matter,” Millar says.

Consider that last line for a second. “Everything starts to matter.” That would include factors like short-lived radiative forcing elements such as fugitive methane emissions. Plenty of climatologists who focus on long-term modeling tend to pooh-pooh the influence of the methane that escapes into the atmosphere before it’s turned into CO2 in gas-fired power plants. And that makes sense because methane turns into CO2 in a matter of a few decades, so why worry about it? It’s how countries like the US and the UK can claim to have reduced carbon footprints by converting from coal to natural gas.

But in the near-term, say 20 years, methane is 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2, so it has a massive potential impact, if only briefly, and even if only a small fraction of the natural gas leaks out from the wells and pipes. Indeed, those lower emission rates from switching to natural gas, while reducing CO2 levels, may actually increase total carbon emissions, in the near-term.

So if what you care about is what happens in the near-term, then natural gas and everything else really does matter. And what happens if the climate forcing resulting from briefly elevated methane emissions is enough to trigger positive feedback loop of carbon release from the permafrost or ocean depths? What are the implications for the expected need for carbon-drawdown technologies once we’ve peaked emissions, but end up with atmospheric carbon levels that are way too high? These are not esoteric questions.

Besides, from a political point of view, near-term effects are far more powerful motivators of policy-making than is the specter of a miserable world 100 years from now. Why not take advantage of this new understanding that “everything matters” and run with it?




The data gap problem

“The monitoring of the atmosphere, of the surface of the Earth, of what’s going on in the ocean and under the ice — all of that is overwhelmingly funded by the federal government.”

— Former Obama science adviser John Holdren

The other day a friend of mine who works in Beijing as a foreign correspondent suggested that of all the acts of stupidity committed by Donald Trump since assuming office, the thing that bothers him the least is the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. Haven’t we actually moved beyond relying on government to reduce carbon emissions? he asked. Isn’t the private sector basically doing that for us?

This is a common observation. And he wasn’t just speaking from the position of someone who’s paid to pay attention to what China is doing. A few months ago, you could read all sorts of exhortations about the apparent, or at least impending, decoupling of carbon emissions and economic growth rates. Such predictions are practically a growth industry themselves. And it’s true so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Yes, wind and solar power are rapidly becoming economic options. But we haven’t been able to record a significant global decoupling, and nothing like that for any meaningful length of time. Even if it does come about, we still have to worry about the climate madness that’s already been baked into the system by the last 200 years of emissions.

The more troubling part of this idea is that it leads to complacency about the public sector’s role in dealing with climate disruption. To do that we need data. Lots of it. And this is why we should be worried about Trump and his allies, Paris or not.

The New York Times‘ Jon Gertner explores what might happen if and when some of the current crop of Earth-0bservation satellites fall out of the sky and aren’t replaced. His magazine piece, “What Could We Lose if a NASA Climate Mission Goes Dark?,” focuses on a pair of aging satellites that are the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE. At the beginning of this month, they were falling 250 feet a day. And when they burn up, as they will within months, there goes a massive amount of important data that climate analysts — including the people who are building Climate City here in Asheville, N.C. — need to be able to tell their clients how to anticipate the ecological changes that warming the world is already bringing.

… if Grace goes dark or perishes before then, there will be a break in NASA’s continuous observation of Earth’s gravity field and water dynamics. Climate researchers will be confronted with what’s known as a “data gap,” which can leave them at a loss for drawing scientific conclusions about environmental trends.

Replacements are getting ready, but they won’t be launched until sometime next year. Hence the data gap. And if the Trumpistas get their way, this sort of thing is going to become a new normal. As Gertner points out, “the recent Trump budget proposal … made the unusual request of turning off the Earth sensors on an orbiting spacecraft, Dscovr, to save $1.2 million.”

This kind of data-gathering is exactly what the private sector can’t do, nor should it. Elon Musk, for all his accomplishments and his desire to save the planet, isn’t interested in doing science experiments. He just wants to help governments carrying out that part of the plan. For one thing, scientists are terrible at predicting how useful their data will turn out to be, and how it will be applied. Corporations are loathe to take stabs in the dark. And then there’s the cost. Satellites are expensive and by their very nature, operate in a global context. Only governments — and international collaborations of governments — can afford to engage in these types of ventures. And there are other incompatibilities, as Gertner describes:

Private-sector satellite companies have in recent years been expanding the business of collecting and selling Earth observational data, but it’s very unlikely that such firms (or a group of tech philanthropists) could adequately replace NASA’s work. “These are projects that are too expensive or require a large and diverse group of collaborators that can only be assembled as an international project,” said Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman who is now the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Or this is work that has to be sustained for a longer period of time than any board of directors from a private company would consider, because it’s not clear enough that it would produce a return on investment in anyone’s lifetime.”

Another problem that occurs to me is the potential conflict between private and public interests. What happens if a firm that gathered some very useful datasets decides, for whatever reason, not to share them with the scientific community? Some things should never be kept secret.

So the next time you hear the claim that the free market will take care of climate change, the best response might be: Yeah, it’s great that business is finally getting on board. But business can’t do it alone, and in fact, without the active and aggressive participation of government, we’re not going to be able to handle existing climate trends, let alone what’s coming down the pipeline if we don’t get those same businesses to stop burning fossil fuels.

A surprisingly subversive look at what the coming energy transformation will look like

The Conference Board of Canada, usually described as a business-friendly think tank, has come out with a report that is refreshingly honest, and even a bit subversive — especially if you pay extra attention to some sidebars, consider what the authors deliberately left out, and are at least a little familiar with the science of power consumption and generation.

The full report, which is behind a freewall — it is downloadable for the cost of supplying your contact information — concludes that converting Canada’s economy to a carbon-free energy mix won’t actually cost all that much. But what I find more interesting is that much of the report’s details support the notion that even optimistic predictions are unnecessarily (small-c) conservative. This suggests the authors (Len Coad, Robyn Gibbard, Alicia Macdonald, and Matthew Stewart) are trying to serve two audiences: the captains of industry who are their patrons on the one hand, and the folks who will do the real heavy-lifting during the coming transition period on the other.

The report’s main thrust is calculating the economic impact of impending carbon taxes, which are scheduled to come into effect next year. You don’t need to worry about the precise numbers, which are all really not much more than barely educated guesses. The important part is even the more aggressive scenarios (like taxes rising to $200/tonne,  several times even the highest of the carbon taxes now in effect) show that the country won’t fall apart.

Overall, the economic impact of eliminating most fossil fuels from the power generation mix is significant—but not overwhelming. The total impact on GDP, at $7.2 billion, is comparable to the output of a relatively small Canadian industry.

So that’s good news.

The even-better news is how much the authors of The Cost of a Cleaner Future: Examining the Economic Impacts of Reducing GHG Emission have managed to misrepresent about the likely future, either deliberately or disingenuously.

First, there is scant mention of the role of either energy efficiency or electrification on future power demand, even though both of these factors are critical to any useful understanding of what’s to come. First, Moore’s Law is pretty much still in effect and something similar continues to hold sway over how much energy we need to do most of what passes for work these days. Not to take into account expected declines in demand thanks to more efficient technology is bizarre to say the least.

Even more puzzling is the failure to address what happens when you switch from running your economy on fossil fuels to running on electricity. The bottom line is you lose a lot less energy to waste heat. Much effort has been made by others to anticipate this effect and the outcome of those calculations. As Mark Jacobson  and Mark Delucci have demonstrated repeatedly, switching to an economy based on wind, water and solar will actually mean demand will fall, not rise, even when you take into account population and economic growth. The difference is actually about 30%. Some have taken issue with Jacobson’s numbers, but even if he’s missed something (which I doubt) and his estimates are off by a bit, the idea deserves at least some mention in a document that pretends to be running sophisticated model of future energy needs.

Instead we get lines like “To eliminate fossil fuels from the grid, over 20 gigawatts of installed generating capacity will need to be replaced.” If Jacobson is right, we’ll actually only need 14 GW. That’s significant, and if you’re a jurisdiction like Alberta or Saskatchewan, now relying on coal, oil and gas for  70-78% of your electricity, every gigawatt is going to count.

Coad et al. also seem to be stuck in old-school thinking when it comes to what generating electricity means from an industrial point of view. They write:

Acceptance of large-scale projects: Substantial investment in large-scale hydro, nuclear, wind, and transmission projects will be required in all parts of the country. Large-scale projects typically attract their share of controversy, and acceptance of these projects among environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and the public is necessary.

Yes, some large-scale projects will be built. Cities are hungry beasts. The controversial Site C hydro dam in northern B.C. will almost certainly overcome the opposition it now faces because there’s just to much potential energy sitting there for it not to be used — mostly by Alberta, which will need something to replace all the coal it’s now burning.  But nuclear? Doubtful, unless we can come up with economical options for fancy  new thorium reactors. The more problematic aspect of this vision is the idea that centralized electricity generation has a major role to play in the future. It probably does, but only to an extent. Decentralized, small-scale generation in the form of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and geothermal are widely understood to be more likely candidates.

All of this means things will probably be even less disruptive, create even more jobs, and cost even less to the economy, than the report foresees. And what they foresee isn’t that dark to begin with. There are hints that the authors know this. Sprinkled throughout are references and asides that cast doubt on the conventional thinking they ostensibly embrace. For example, there’s a sidebar devoted to debunking (politely) the idea that closing the coal-fired power plants in Ontario is responsible for the recent hikes in electricity bills in the province. In reality, the causes are many and the situation is much more complicated than that. For one thing, “the province has ended up with far more generation capacity than it needs.”

There’s also a fair bit of speculation about the bigger picture, especially when the more dramatic scenarios are explored:

The fact that the GDP hit is so small relative to the lost investment in this pathway provides an interesting insight. It suggests that the investments being given up in this pathway were contributing relatively little to GDP in Canada, as most of the forgone investment would have been spent on imported goods and services.

…if we broaden the scope beyond just looking at the required investments and assess how behavioural and policy changes can impact the results, it is evident that deep emissions reductions are possible at a much smaller cost.

Indeed. Even the Conference Board of Canada is telling you to stop worrying so much about giving up fossil fuels. How about that?

The grid is smarter than you think

The most charitable comment I can come up with for the just-released Department of Energy Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability is the refusal of the authors to use what is surely a candidate for Most Overused Term of the Year: resilience. Not that resilience isn’t important, but it’s to their credit that the staffers responsible for telling Secretary Rick Perry sort-of what he wanted to hear understand that reliability is really what it’s all about.

After all, if there’s one thing that defenders of fossil fuels and nuclear power like to remind us more than anything else, it’s that the sun only shines during the day and the wind only blows some of the time. It’s a mantra meant to sear into our brains the idea that renewable electricity isn’t reliable. And as much as the Staff Report tries to skirt the issue by eliminating the findings contained in a leaked earlier draft, it still manages to conclude that the nation’s grid is more reliable now than ever:

Overall, at the end of 2016, the system had more dispatchable capacity capable of operating at high utilization rates than it did in 2002.

The New York Times put it this way:

The Energy Department report concedes that the nation’s electricity system remains reliable today, even with a sharp rise in intermittent wind and solar power, in part because natural gas generators and existing hydropower can easily fill any gaps in renewable generation.

Joe Romm has a good summary of how the authors “botched” their task of spinning the report in favor of fossil fuels, and how Perry manages to misrepresent the findings by recommending subsidies for coal and nuclear plants.

But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of grid management. The fact is that computational capacity to anticipate minute-by-minute power-load shifts has increased dramatically in recent years. Add to that relatively modest growth in demand and the move away from large, centralized sources of electricity in favor of smaller, distributed, local sources, and you have a grid that can easily handle whatever nature and humankind can throw at it. And this is all going to continue to be the case in the case in the future, only more so. Even during this week’s total eclipse, the grid was easily able to accommodate the large drops in solar’s contribution to the network by drawing on gas and hydro.

Technology has a way of creeping up on you if you’re not paying attention. One day you’re trying to unfold a road map, the next the car is driving itself across the state.

Rob Ford and the planet

Apologies for the blatant exploitation of an ostensibly tangential news story to drive traffic to this blog. But I think there is a connection, and it’s high time I resurrected Class M.

The spark is, of course, the revelations about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s contempt for the people who elected him. Toronto doesn’t deserve to be embarrassed, at least not in this manner. The latest affront to decency comes in the form of a drunken rant during which the mayor threatens to kill someone. Sooner or later, the city will be relieved of Ford, but in the meantime, we can contemplate how it is that a man with so little common sense and respect for society norms could continue to enjoy as much support as he does.

I would hope that most of us can agree that Ford’s behaviour  should disqualify him from serious consideration for political office. Why then isn’t the public en masse — not just politicians and newspaper editorialists — demanding his resignation? It evokes the contempt so many Americans have for the “liberal elite.” At some point in the past 35 years or so, intelligence, embrace of diversity and compassion became liabilities in the minds of a significant portion of the population. And progress on a long list of issues will be difficult to achieve until we remedy this problem, of which Ford is just a symptom.

Climate is such an issue. Tuesday’s victory of Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race or climate change denier Ken Cuccinelli, a win that owes perhaps a small degree of its success to the campaigning of climatologist Michael Mann, suggests that, at least in one state, rejection of reality may no longer be as popular a position as the Tea Party once made it. But support for fossil fuel projects remains high, even among Democrats, including the U.S. President. Indeed, more oil and gas is now flowing from American wells and fracking operations than ever before thanks to support from the Obama administration. Despite reductions in domestic consumption, coal production and export continues at a furious pace. And the latest greenhouse-gas emissions projections do not paint an optimistic picture.

The UN Environment Program said that even if nations meet their current emissions reduction pledges, carbon emissions in 2020 will be eight to 12 gigatonnes above the level required to avoid a costly nosedive in greenhouse gas output.

The Emissions Gap Report 2013, which was compiled by 44 scientific groups in 17 countries, warns that if the greenhouse “gap” isn’t “closed or significantly narrowed” by 2020, the pathway to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C will be closed.

At UN talks in 2010, the international community agreed to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 2C by 2100, based on pre-industrial levels.

Scientists at the recent IPCC gathering warned that the world could emit enough carbon to surpass the 2C limit within 30 years, and this latest UN analysis heightens concerns that the world could be heading for a temperature rise of 4C or even 6C, triggering damaging sea level rises, extreme weather events and food insecurity. (The Guardian, Nov. 5, 2013)

We all understand why the powers that be are reluctant to stop burning fossil fuels. They make a lot of money and they know that switching to decentralized, more efficient,  clean renewable alternative source of energy and fuels is not compatible with maintaining their profit margins. Fair enough. Everyone has a right to be greedy. But too many of us consumer-citizens continue to support governments that are content to allow the status quo to continue. Too many of us have nothing but contempt for the scientists who are telling us what has to be done to prevent widescale disruption to life as we know it.

Just as too many suburban Torontonians continue to resent the liberal elite who, not too surprisingly, have determined the city’s fate for so long. It’s way past time to restore respect for education and the power to make a reasonable argument. It’s all connected, folks.

Guns, climate and growing up

Every now and then someone who ordinarily makes a fair amount of sense writes something that serves only to remind us that even the extraordinarily smart can be extraordinarily wrong. So it was with Sam Harris‘s defense of gun rights, The Riddle of the Gun.

First, Harris insists that “the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward.” He doesn’t really attempt to bolster that argument with relevant facts, though, and there there’s little point in an all-too-easy exercise in debunking. In fact, that’s not even his central thesis. No, that would be good old-fashioned defeatism, which seems to me to be more and more a defining characteristic of American culture.

For Harris, because there are so many guns in the United States (300 million is the most widely quoted figure), it just doesn’t make sense to try to do much beyond making sure everyone who has one knows how to use it responsibly.

Guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

No, it’s wrong because it doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Sean Faircloth, a former assistant state attorney general, offers one of a near infinite number of possible counterarguments here and Greg Laden offers some valuable historical context here.

Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, admits to a penchant for target shooting, and he suffers from the same stubborn, child-like refusal to accept the fact that life is sometimes hard. And just because something is hard is no reason for not trying. I am reminded of my six-year-old son, whose response to challenging tasks is often “But I can’t!” As his father, I often know he can, but convincing him not to give up is among the most challenging tasks either of us face these days.

Yes, a handgun buyback program isn’t likely to be effective in the short term. But such programs have worked elsewhere (Australia being the most recent example), so it’s just not rational to give up without even trying. And yes, doing something about the hopelessly ambiguous and atavistic Second Amendment won’t be easy, but the Constitution has been amended before, against comparable opposition. So again, don’t try telling us there’s no point in organizing what may be a decades long-campaign.

The whole affairs brings to mind one of the common arguments against doing something about global warming. The world is hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. True. There’s enough easily accessible volumes of the stuff in the ground to tip the climate into some new equilibrium much less hospitable to civilization as we know it for the next 100,000 years. Also true. And all of the alternatives are more expensive. Yes, and yes and yes. But does any of that mean we shouldn’t even try to make the switch to clean renewables?

“It’s too hard, Daddy!”

When did America come to embrace defeatism? Somewhere between the last moon shot and Ronald Reagan’s first term, is my guess. Of course, it’s no coincidence that defeatism in the face of an overwhelming need for change always seems to bolster the profit margins of the secure and wealthy. Still, I suspect there’s something else at work here.

Chris Mooney has written about the evidence for a physiological basis for conservatism, which is now intimately associated with defeatism. Dan Kaheman makes the case of two types of thinking, one adapted for surviving on the Paleolithic plains of Africa, and one for civilization (although he doesn’t put it that way). But all of this dances around the essential fact that civilization is all about overcoming our ancient programming. We may not be designed to take the long view, and walk the hard path, and set aside our gut instincts in the face of carefully reasoned argument, but that’s what mature and responsible people – and societies – do.

Nothing give fills me with more pride than seeing my son try again, even when he isn’t sure he’s going to succeed. Even when he’s almost sure he won’t. It’s called growing up.

Tea Party shenanigans

As if you needed another reason to lament the state of American politics:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities. (New York Times, Feb 3, 2012)

The story ends on what would be a humorous note:

“The Tea Party people say they want nonpolluted air and clean water and everything we promote and support, but they also say it’s a communist movement,” said Charlotte Moore, a supervisor who voted yes. “I really don’t understand what they want.”

A hint that things may not be as bad as we thought

I would be remiss if I didn’t direct your attention to a new paper in Science that concludes, however tentatively, that the global climate may not be as sensitive to rising atmosheric CO2 levels as everyone has assumed. It is, after all, a rare dose of optimism in a field that has been characterized by “it’s worse than expected” findings for pretty much its entire history.

Continue reading “A hint that things may not be as bad as we thought”

Big news from Down Under

Australia’s Senate has approved a controversial law on pollution, after years of bitter political wrangling. The Clean Energy Act will force the country’s 500 worst-polluting companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions from 1 July next year.